Cats were considered domesticated animals during the Song dynasty. The cat in this painting is a Chinese breed called Lihua, sometimes translated as “Dragon Li,” though more literally li (狸) is Chinese for fox, and hua (花) for flower or pattern. Therefore, the cat is a fox-patterned cat. The name was due to the cat’s broken mackerel tabby patterns that recalls a fox’s appearance.
The artist of this painting is unknown. There are no inscriptions or artist seals to identify its painter as the seals on the work were added by later collectors. This anonymity is not accidental; Song dynasty court painters were very careful about not leaving their own trace in their paintings and believed that doing so would ruin the overall composition. Some scholars suggest that this might have to do with Neo-Confucian ideology at the time, with saw everything as having a natural order that should not be disturbed by human activities. Additionally, the artists believed that whatever they injected into their paintings was in some way a true representation of themselves.
As one can see in this cat, intricate details reveal how the animal moves, sees, and feels. The fur was painted carefully, and every stroke of its composition can be seen. The eyes of the cat are fixed in motion, its ears are pricked and its tail is raised. In some ways, the cat looks a bit alarmed, “tip-toeing” and not wanting to be disturbed. Key to point out this painting is the “mustache” or the two patches of darker fur, on the cat’s face, giving it human-like characteristics. Considering that most court painters were male, the mustache might allude to the painter of this work. Can the mustache can be taken as a gesture that identifies the artist himself? By inserting some sort of subjective presence in the work, can this work still maintain an anonymity?
Shirly Huilian Zhang