China: When the Cats Rule1 min read
Ian Johnson’s Introduction to Cat Country by Lao She, published in a translation by William A. Lyell, by Penguin Books (China) in association with Penguin Group (Australia) (NYRB).
Lao She’s best-known works are the novel Rickshaw Boy and the play Teahouse, both of which describe the challenges faced by ordinary people in China’s turbulent twentieth century. A champion of vernacular Chinese, he was one of the first to capture how people really spoke, especially the dialect of his beloved Beijing. But it’s in Cat Country that Lao She stretches himself the furthest, producing one of the most remarkable, perplexing, and prophetic novels of modern China. On one level it is a work of science fiction—a visit to a country of cat-like people on Mars—that lampoons 1930s China. On a deeper level, the work predicts the terror and violence of the early Communist era and the chaos and brutality that led to Lao She’s death at the Lake of Great Peace. Cat Country is often called a dystopian novel, but when Lao She took his own life, it was an uncannily accurate portrait of the reality around him.
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