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Herding Cats:
Individualism & Dystopia in Lao She’s Cat Country

[1]2,498 words

“When I was little, this was a large village. And that was not too many years ago; now, there’s not so much as a single shadow. The destruction of an entire people can come about very easily!”[1]

Lao She’s Cat Country is one of the finest pieces of literature I’ve read. Written in 1932 in the long shadow of the Bolshevik Revolution and foreshadowing the Maoist terror that would wrack China, Cat Country describes a nation at war with itself; beset by lawlessness, cruelty, ignorance, abject selfishness, and apathy. It easily rivals Western touchstones like Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World. It precedes the latter in being part of a trend in science fiction to critique the mass intoxication of society by pacifying drugs, something natural to a Chinaman who likely bore witness to the effects of imported opiates and ideologies. (Lao She was the son of a soldier who defended the Forbidden City in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion.)

However, where Huxley, Orwell, Zamyatin (the author of “We,” the book that Nineteen Eighty-Four is loosely based on) were preoccupied with drugs and psychological manipulation as tools of the “World Controllers” [2] and increasing “rationalisation,” mechanisation, and managerialism pressing man into a greater uniformity, Lao She’s dystopia describes the disintegration of society by rampant individualism. Having experienced a torturous mechanization and two World Wars, the West has arrived at neoliberalism, which privileges consumer materialism and rewards sociopathic behavior. As such, Cat Country is of great relevance today.

Lao She’s concern is rooted in Confucian precepts about social harmony being the result of individual virtue (Confucius is indirectly referenced multiple times). It reflects the relative genetic similarity of Asians, whose civilization emerges “bottom-up” from shoal-like consensus. The numberless uniformity of the Chinese informs Cat Country, where individual Cat People are like grains of sand. It contrasts the radically differing levels of ability and specialization between European men that lead to an optimally hierarchical society, with the national direction being set by an aristocratic cadre of military or statesmen. This difference between the Chinese and European experience can explain the radical difference in emphasis between the competing visions of dystopia. Where Western nightmares center on an elite, detached group imposing its will on the many, in Cat Country, society disintegrates because of the selfish many, regardless of the efforts of its gifted few.

Cat Country describes the natives’ short-sightedness and simple inability to cooperate in their own interests. It is a cautionary tale about man’s ability to debase himself, and the inability of society to self-correct once its members have become unmoored from the collective enterprise that brought it about. Cat Country in this regard was intended as a criticism of the Chinese tendency towards the petty corruption of personal connections that continues to hobble them. However, it is sufficiently distant from its origins that its critique is easily universalized. Merchants, peasants, soldiers, petty officials, museum curators, statesmen, Communists (“Everybody Shareski!”[2]), and even hipsters get a sound thrashing by Lao She’s scathing satire. The book begs to be read all the way to its final damning indictment of the Cat-Men’s crooked ways. In its own bittersweet and melancholy way, the bleak fate of Cat Country and the book as a whole is a love letter to nationalist sentiment. With its primary concern being relapse into over-educated barbarism, Cat Country is of interest to anyone who feels that Western civilization has run its course and is now just “making a commotion.”[3]

An unassuming Chinese traveler, named rather uncreatively by the Cat-men he encounters as “Mr. Earth,” crash lands on Mars and is immediately kidnapped by the Felinese people. He escapes and in a desperate bid for survival chases down and forms a temporary alliance with “Scorpion,” a local official who exploits Mr. Earth as a mercenary to defend his plot of “reverie” trees. Reverie leaves are prized as the main source of food in Cat Country; their effect, when one has a “leisurely chew,”[4] is a detached and lethargic high. Consuming large amounts makes one alert and keen on work; excessive consumption results in death. Scorpion, trying to herd cats in order to secure a bountiful harvest of reverie leaves, has to walk a tightrope between not consuming enough leaves to work and committing accidental suicide. Later, we learn that due to the collapse of agriculture and manufacturing, reverie trees have completely usurped real food and have become the only source of nourishment. The only purpose of currency is to purchase reverie leaves. The Emperor lives in seclusion, and through a vast officialdom (everyone is either unemployed or employed as an official), is auctioning off Cat Country’s land and history to provide the only source of income.

Our protagonist, in a temporary safe reprieve, learns Felinese and how to function within Cat Country. He soon learns that in a culture of pervasive selfishness, lying and vindictiveness are the norm. Nearly every encounter with or between Cat People is either confrontational or underhanded. Soldiers employed to protect the reverie trees must be stationed a sufficient distance from them to prevent them stealing what they are meant to guard. Landlords are expected to murder a soldier at random as a warning that theft is not to be tolerated. If a servant is surly or insubordinate, he must be violently reprimanded without hesitation, or he will lose respect for his masters.

The country is seized by perpetual revolution as the class consciousness of the peasantry leads it to bloodlust for anyone who seeks to differentiate himself and presume to lead, including the aristocratic, learned, and pessimistic Young Scorpion. Mr. Earth laments in a comment that could be pointed at America, the “revolutionary country”: “To carry on a revolution without the knowledge necessary for its success — what a terribly dangerous thing that is! Nothing would save the Cat People unless they themselves realized that revolution is nothing but a noose around their necks.”[5]

Hawk, the one Cat-Man with courage, integrity, and the Spenglerian defiance to hold his post to the last, appears for a mere 9 pages. Mr. Earth’s unusual encounter with him allows Lao She to set a definitive tone for Cat Country — personal resoluteness in the blackest of circumstances set against a delicate prose and poetic sensibility:

“I looked up at the darkening sky and saw that now there was only a single puff of cloud left; it was tinged with red and hung like a lonely flower over Hawk’s head. I went blank for a moment and couldn’t think of anything to ask him. My mind was still pre-occupied with the glorious image of a Martian sunset.”[6]

Hawk’s death, a Mishima-like suicide intended to awaken a national consciousness, results only in his head being gawped at by indifferent crowds. She uses Hawk’s good nature to critique the Lumpenproletariat and their bitter cynicism, their desperate urge to condemn the individual who differentiates himself as a “hypocrite.” The futility of Hawk’s death recalls Young Scorpion’s comment that “no matter how you look at it, your own scalp is more worth looking after than someone else’s.”[7]

As Mr. Earth travels further into the interior of Cat Country to the dirt “buildings” of Cat City, the satire becomes wilder yet disturbingly plausible — masses of purely self-interested Cat-Men and Women routinely crush each other to death as they bully their way to their destination on a crowded street. In fact, Cat City is a singular line of structures to prevent crushing between two sets of buildings facing each other. Having abandoned the rural land as agriculture was turned over to reverie trees, starving Cat People flock to the city in search of “muddling through.”

Each and every hope Mr. Earth entertains for the future of the country is dashed; the peasantry is stupid, the soldiers are cowardly, the scholars are obsessed with claiming the title of the “Foremost Scholar,” the children — in one disturbing scene — are acutely aware they have no future and set upon and cannibalize their teachers. Their teachers, of course, are only in the business as a means of gaining a place in Officialdom; they have stripped the schools of assets to benefit themselves (after their salaries were set to zero to save the state money, of course).

Children are made university graduates on their first day of school, thus ensuring that Cat Country has the highest number of university graduates of any nation on Mars. Everywhere, there is personal grandiosity that is oblivious to or even celebrates the hollowing out of society for personal enrichment. The museum curator simply “curates” a set of empty rooms and eagerly describes missing ancient pottery and relics to the befuddled Mr. Earth. Mr. Earth is once again nearly reduced to tears of hatred when he learns that the main thing upsetting the curator is that he is running out of Cat Country’s historical relics to sell to maintain his lavish lifestyle.

The reader, aghast, has to keep turning the pages to see just how bad things will get. In a way refreshing for a 21st-century reader (no doubt saturated daily with humanist propaganda trumpeting the virtues of tolerance and apathy), Lao She pointedly remarks that “the greatest disgrace to which creatures can be subjected” is not international disgrace, a failure to be perceived as humane, but simply: “annihilation.”[9] Short shrift is given to platitudes of universal compassion. Foreigners chiefly enter Cat Country to work as mercenaries, leaving little room for sanctimonious displays of charity towards them.

Because the Cat People are so overtaken with personal greed for petty self-enrichment, they are unable to raise any kind of meaningful resistance to foreign powers. They are duplicitous to a man, allowing foreigners — largely able to cooperate and strike bargains between themselves (“Us Foreigners Had Better Stick Together”) — to abuse the Cat People with impunity. As the saying goes, “If a foreigner so much as coughs, five hundred cat-troops will fall prostrate from fear.”[10]

Lao She perceptively fingers the language of humanism and freedom as being a guise for a weakening of the body politic, social permissiveness, and the eternal Leftist creed of losing oneself to transient enjoyment at the cost of society as a whole. Scorpion glowingly reports on the enshrining of reverie leaves as the national dish as the most “honorable and humane act in the entire history of the Cat People.”[11] Theft of reverie leaves is legalized as “freedom,” something later elaborated upon in a merciless send-up of Bolshevism as “Everybody Shareski”[12] (“share” with a mock-Russian suffix).

Marx, in one of the novel’s few laugh-out-loud moments, is deified as “THE GREAT IMMORTAL UNCLE KARL.” The culture of Everybody Shareski, another imported ideology that the Cat People make an imitation of without ever grasping its orthodox principles, is legitimization in their own minds of complete selfishness.

The Student Movement of Everybody Shareski disintegrates (like everything else in Cat Country) as the members purity spiral into multiple factions, the “Kill-the-Emperor” faction and the “Kill-our-Fathers”[13] faction, and then into bickering individuals who schizophrenically cannot agree with themselves. Communism, like many other Jewish-led, complex-but-wrong isms that “explain” reality with abstract, self-referential theory, only serves to get the Cat People “mixed up.”

“What would you say the greatest weakness of the Cat People is?”

That was really a hard one, and I began to ponder it.

“Mixed up!” I knew he didn’t mean me.

“Our fatal weakness is always being mixed up. Among all of our people you cannot find a single one who fully understands anything . . . This is the reason we are certain to perish; Economics, education, military affairs — none is really enough to extinguish a nation — but when every last person is muddle-headed and confused — that is enough to destroy a race. This time our defeat is a foregone conclusion, and after our defeat, wait and see if the enemy doesn’t slaughter every last one of us precisely because they don’t regard us as people to begin with . . . Generally, people don’t respect other people who are hopelessly confused. They will often exterminate such creatures without a second thought. You wait and see if my words aren’t borne out.”[14]

Thankfully, white people aren’t quite as mixed up as all that. There are quite a few in our number who fully understand our situation, who can offer a meaningful resistance and take actions that have the dynamite potential to be decisive.  The muddle-headedness whites experience is not a self-inflicted injury, nor is it likely to prove fatal. Yet there are none so hopelessly confused as to believe that gender is both biological yet infinitely malleable; that race is a cultural designation, yet only whites can be guilty of racism; that non-reproductive sexual liberation is the peak of personal fulfillment; that like the Cat-Men, the ideal man is deceitful, duplicitous, self-interested, weak, effete, coy, and fey (in a word, Jewish). The underlying malice and obvious inauthenticity of this fraudulent “culture” reveal it to be something imposed upon us, far more sinister than the simple self-destructive idiocy of the Cat People.

Yet we still live in a Cat Country — a farcical society under the rule of childish mantras glorifying small-minded cravings with high-flying rhetoric about free enterprise and racial justice; about equality, freedom, such-and-such entitlements and this and that values, “Precious leaves, Precious flowers, Precious cats, Precious bellies.”[15] All are free, do as you please!

“When you’ve sold everything and there are no more kickbacks to be had, what are you going to do then?”


At this point it finally dawned on me that by yaya-fuszji they meant what Young Scorpion did by “muddling through”, magnified ten thousand times! I began to hate Cat Lafuszji, and to hate this yaya-fuszji even more.”” [16]

Eventually, the Cat People are forced into mass graves by the electrified death-batons of an invading army. “In appearance they were stupid or clumsy, but when they had set their minds to do something, apparently they got right to it with no sign of hesitation or torpor.”[17] As Laibach say, “Stop wasting your time, being useless day in and day out!”[18] These invaders have “one thing over the Cat People — a sense of national consciousness . . . an enlargement of individual selfishness, but an enlargement all the same.”

Lao She in Cat Country clearly, carefully, and urgently demonstrates that — sans a fantastical monotheistic belief in divine punishment or reward — national consciousness is the foundation for individual virtue. In a way incomprehensible to the Scorpion obsessed with his stack of reverie leaves, group endeavor enlarges the soul.


[1] p. 198

[2] p. ?

[3] p. 157

“If you spank your child because he is naughty and, having found out about it, I gave mine a good hiding — not because he is naughty, but because you have spanked yours and I feel that I must do likewise — then with regard to family affairs that would be ‘making a commotion.’ The same applies to politics.”

[4] p. 136

[5] p. 199

[6] p. 175

[7] p. 88

[8] p. 53

[9] p. 208

[10] p. 53

[11] p. 32

[12] p. 162

[13] p. 190

[14] p. 198

[15] p. 31, “Scorpion’s ‘Feelings I Had Upon Reading Our History.’”

[16] p. 150

[17] p. 216

[18] Laibach, Spectre, “Walk With Me.”