kinda clickbait topic 🙂
Let’s play a little game again: Let’s imagine there is a competition with 3 cats at the start. The “best” cat should be chosen. Which would get your vote: 1, 2, or 3?
In times of Instagram, Facebook & Co., cats have become a popular topic. But of course, it’s not about that for us. Rather, the different perspectives of Asians and Westerners should once again be explored.
If we look at the 3 contenders for the cat Olympics we have a problem: 2 pictures #1 and #2 (and I could show you dozens of similar ones) that will never go down in history but soon be in the graveyard of the stuffed animals will land, paintings by no-name artists are generally perceived by westerners as “better” than #3, a cat by Zu Da , one of China’s greatest painters. (This painting is a treasure of the Palace Museum Taibei)
Let’s look at this cat #1 closer: it can do something and it has something to show.
She can curl up into a ball, she can perk up her little ears cheekily, she can look sweet, and if you don’t have a cat hair allergy and generally like cats, you want to lift her onto your lap and stroke her velvety fur.
Let’s look at Zhu Da’s cat, #3, again:
she has nothing and doesn’t do anything.
How do we solve this dilemma? What am I doing wrong?
Like in Asian concepts in the West too, especially in poetry, there is the concept of original innocence or poetry in being itself.
This original innocence, i.e. an unbiased, direct approach, is repeatedly discussed and emphasized by Chinese critics. It is stated that: “This directness lets things be themselves in the poem. Being itself becomes poetic. Poetry is the only expression of such a being. The Chinese poets and painters penetrate into the origin of things and reveal their true essence“.
If we come across a “difficult picture” like this, it is of course helpful to find out: the background of the picture (such as year, early-late work, and further information…). Then an analysis of the content, painterly expression, and meaning (i.e. philosophical background – statement of the picture….). But that wouldn’t help much in this case. Zhu Da’s cat basically has nothing and can’t do anything.
Looking at the phenomenon again from a Western philosophical point of view: With Zhu Da’s cat we see the abstraction of a cat, “the very cat”. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger once coined the term “chairness“. [roughly: What makes a chair this after we have left out everything that is superfluous?].
Zhu Da’s cat gives little away. She is surrounded by emptiness, nothing makes her particularly likable or dislikeable. From a technical point of view, too, Zhu Da completely dispenses with the superfluous. These are not calligraphically “beautiful strokes”, they even appear clumsy, unaffected. We only see a cat.
So what did I do wrong when viewing: I focused on what was presented and not on what was left out and more importantly why it was left out.
Zhu Da gives us no possibility of clinging (Upādāna, Sanskrit उपादान,). It doesn’t create desire, nothing like fine fur, playful ears, etc. We don’t know whether the cat is lying on a sofa or enjoying the late rays of the sun lying on a stone. We do not know whether it is a cat or a tomcat, what color the animal is, or what abnormalities such as the texture of the fur, or spots of color it has…. We find nothing of the “1000 colors of ink” and little in the way of contrasts. As I said, it is not a cat that triggers emotions such as sympathy in us, so we want to pet it (like the others). But we don’t dislike her either, she’s “just a cat”.
But one thing distinguishes them and that brings us to the meaning, to the message: What is the cat doing? She practices wu wei 無為. And by watching the cat practice inaction, we participate in this practice, we practice wu-wei, and with it, we enter the Taoist field.
As always, however, there are of course references to cats in Buddhism or in art on this topic. Probably the best known are these two, which are closely related to Zen Buddhism.  
BTW An explanation for this unusual picture can be found HERE
And finally, I would like to show a cat that I painted many years ago. She would definitely end up in 4th place 😊
 Bada Shanren (Chinese: 八大山人 c. 1626–1705), born Zhu Da (Chinese: 朱耷), was a Han Chinese painter of ink wash painting and a calligrapher. He was of royal descent, being a direct offspring of the Ming dynasty prince Zhu Quan who had a feudal establishment in Nanchang. Art historians have named him a brilliant painter of the period.
 Wu wei (Chinese: 無為) is a concept literally meaning “inexertion”, “inaction”, or “effortless action”. Wu wei emerged in the Spring and Autumn period, and from Confucianism, to become an important concept in Chinese statecraft and Taoism, and was most commonly used to refer to an ideal form of government, including the behavior of the emperor.
Describing a state of unconflicted personal harmony, free-flowing spontaneity, and savoir-faire, it generally also more properly denotes a state of spirit or mind, and in Confucianism accords with conventional morality. Sinologist Jean François Billeter describes it as a “state of perfect knowledge of the reality of the situation, perfect efficaciousness, and the realization of a perfect economy of energy”.
 Dazu Huike in Contemplation – The Second Patriarch of Chinese Ch’an. Painted by Liang Kai (Chinese: 梁楷) was a Chinese painter of the Southern Song Dynasty. Ca. 1140 – 1210. He was also known as Madman Liang.
 Depiction of “Mumonkan Case 14: Nanchuan’s Cat” by Sengai Gibon.
This article is based on the lecture Taoism in Chinese Painting that the author gave in 2019 for the ö.g.c.f.