chinese painting of a cat

Cats in Chinese Painting

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?

3 cats paintings chinese style

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 [1], 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.

chinese painting of a cat

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:

Zhu Da painting of a cat

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”.

wu wei

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[2]. 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. [3] [4]

Liang Kai painting of second patriarch
Nanchuan's Cat Zen Painting

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 😊

cat, sumi-e by friedrich Zettl

[1] 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.

[2] 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”.

[3] 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. 

[4] 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.

More: ART THEORY | student prank with Wang Ziwu 王子武




35 responses to “Cats in Chinese Painting”

  1. bekitschig avatar

    That was fascinating! I would not have picked #3 …

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Yes, hardly anyone in the west would. Unless someone has dealt with it very much or is close to the Buddhist or Taoist world of thought.

  2. swabby429 avatar

    The first cat gets my vote. It appears as both a portrait and as a sort of calligraphy.

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Yes, most would. That was a little tricky by me….


    Having a limited and purely western view, I picked the first cat, of course. Thank you for giving me a glimpse into the complexities of Asian art and culture. 🙂

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      You are welcome! You can imagine how difficult it is often, e.g. in lectures, to convey this difference in perception.

  4. Nancy Richy avatar

    No doubt .. cat #1 for me. Looks like a nice kitty!

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Thank you for your vote! Kitty #1 will be delighted 🙂

      1. Nancy Richy avatar
  5. babsje avatar

    What an absolutely fascinating post! Thank you for this informative “tutorial” on cats in Eastern vs Western ways of seeing. I am not choosing amongst your four examples out of deference to my Calico Phoebe! 🐱

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Thank you! I learned from You! Calico Phoebe is a new term for me.

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Cool cat – category. With a Taoist touch.

      1. Martha Kennedy avatar

        “Teacher, do not fool me with your pantomime. You and I both know that the cat is already dead. You and I are already dead. All disputes are already settled. All things are beyond coming and going, vast and wide, at peace.” This is exactly what has struck me in my physical therapy sessions. The link you shared is wonderful.

        Your discussion reminds me of Zhuang Zu’s discussion of useful vs. useless.

        Here’s Klingon. Painting/drawing cats is fun. 🙂

      2. Zettl Friedrich avatar

        Yes, the cat is dead. And yet we try to be as undead as this cat for once.
        Lao Zi on useful vs. useless is epic too.
        “We join spokes together in a wheel, but it is the center hole that makes the wagon move. We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want. We hammer wood for a house, but it is the inner space that makes it livable. We work with being, but non-being is what we use.”

        Another cool cat by you!

      3. Martha Kennedy avatar

        Long ago I had cats. They were beautiful and fun to draw. These are conte crayon on newsprint.

  6. florentboucharel avatar

    Very interesting, as always. According to Schopenhauer, the very nature of art is that it works as solace for the will, in the final analysis it opposes negation of the will that you seem to be describing under the word wu wei and in any case is a tenet of Buddhism–even when art leads to a greater understanding of the will by itself, it stops short of leading the will to its own negation and in fact it works in the opposite direction.

    What is a little offputting with Zhu Da’s cat, I find, is that there’s no bright line for telling if it’s a cat or something else, a racoon, a panda… Had you not told us to begin with, I think I may have waved. There’s something about the mouth…

  7. Zettl Friedrich avatar

    Thanks for your feedback! I’ve been very happy about it! Yes, there are some things that differentiate Western and Chinese art, especially in the philosophical aspect. The representation as such is another topic. One must also never forget that in Chinese painting it is hardly possible to correct. As soon as the brush touches the rapidly sucking paper you create an irreversible fact 🙂

  8. les2olibrius avatar

    Selon ma vision de l’oeuvre, le chat numéro 3, celui de Zhu Da, ne fait pas rien… Il est en état de repos alerte. Ses oreilles ne sont pas parallèles et ses prunelles ont été représentées car il nous voit, nous surveille tout en profitant de sa tranquillité, tout ensemble écrasé ( tête à plat posée) et ramassé ( corps en poire) sur le sol , dans la limite rassurante de sa queue, de son territoire. C’est la présence fondamentale de sa nature animale qui s’impose au regard du spectateur. Je l’aurais finalement choisi… Car ma nature féminine me pousse aussi vers le caractère soyeux de la robe du premier chat alors même que je le perçois effrayé, en observation d’un possible danger, prêt à nous échapper. Enfin le vôtre retient aussi mon attention puisqu’il est tranquille, bien droit dans sa certitude d’être aimé… Ou du moins regardé… Et il se moque un peu de celui qui le regarde.

  9. les2olibrius avatar

    J’avais écrit le nom habituel de l’appendice caudal… Et le terme a été remplacé par “file d’attente” !!! À vous de rectifier mentalement ou dans le texte!

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Merci pour votre interprétation que je trouve excellente. Si cela ne vous dérange pas, je vous citerai la prochaine fois que j’utiliserai l’image dans une conférence. Oui, c’est vraiment très bien. Bien sûr, il n’y a pas seulement une association libre avec des peintures abstraites, mais il faut s’en tenir à ce qui intéressait l’artiste.

      1. les2olibrius avatar

        Oh pardon! Comme vous demandiez au lecteur lequel il choisissait … J’ai oublié qu’il s’agissait d’une question rhétorique pour exposer l’interprétation de ces oeuvres. C’est dire combien vos articles sont bien écrits alors même que je les découvre en traduction automatique ! Merci beaucoup.

      2. Zettl Friedrich avatar

        Oh non, c’est vrai, ce n’était pas vraiment une question rhétorique, c’était censé stimuler la réflexion. Il était déjà clair pour moi que la plupart ne préféreraient pas le chat #3. J’ai donc eu l’occasion d’illustrer plus clairement les différentes perceptions des téléspectateurs occidentaux et asiatiques.

    2. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Je pense que ça n’a pas d’importance. Les lecteurs savent de quoi il s’agit.

  10. peter robinson avatar

    They’re all beautiful works of art but number 3 stood out for me! I have a book, ‘Toehold on Zen’, by Jeffrey Swann with illustrations by Ekon, and one specifically which is about the cat-ness of the cat, which is on the cover and also on page 21 of the book, a very calligraphic piece of work! I don’t know anything about this artist except his name, Ekon. As for Zen, I was always interested in this curious philosophy / way. For me the only Western philosophy comparable to it is that of the ancient Cynics, the non-school of Diogenes and others.

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Since you are a great artist it is no wonder that you choose #3. As for Zen: as many others of my generation I read Suzuki and was attracted by paintings of Zen masters before I even knew the basics. Now I am sticking with it since almost 50 years. I would not dare to say I “understand” it. Who does? But it is an important resource for so many aspects of thinking, reflecting, seeing things from a different angle… And of course it has a big Impact on my painting. When I read the first koans I didn’t understand a single word but by now many are not only no riddles any longer but have become part of my personality – and that’s a lot.

      1. peter robinson avatar

        Ah, you flatter me! Lol! Yes, Suzuki! Even Jack Kerouac… there’s been a lot of interaction between the East and the West over the years, over the centuries, (the Silk Road!)… I remember reading Blyth’s three volumes on Haiku, many moons ago, and that led me to discover Wordsworth amongst other Western writers / poets… you know the phrase, ‘taking coals to Newcastle’! My first real reading on the subject of Zen was ‘Let Go!’ by Hubert Benoit. I think I still have a copy somewhere in this mess! Non-attachment, and all that! Keep up the good work!

    2. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Cat-ness of the cat sounds phantastic. I do not know books by Jeffrey Swann yet. Thanks for the hint!

      1. peter robinson avatar

        Y’welcome! I could photograph the illustrations, there’s only a handful, and post them on my WordPress page, but you can probably find them Online somewhere.

      2. Zettl Friedrich avatar

        Thank you, I will surely check and if possible get me the book. Whenever I open a book on Zen it’s like an elevator taking me to the upper regions…..

      3. peter robinson avatar

        I think I know the feeling!

      4. Zettl Friedrich avatar

        We are probably almost same age and background telling from your paintings and book list…..

      5. peter robinson avatar

        I’ll soon be 74 Friedrich… old and weary… an English arts background… but long since turned my back on the whole scene! Now live as a virtual hermit. Happy (and free) in my own company… still able to laugh! Best wishes to you, and good night!

  11. Karima Hoisan avatar

    Fascinating! I immediately gravitated to #1..for all the reasons you pointed out:)

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Thank you very much, Karima Hoisan! I am happy to hear you enioyed this topic. As by today cat #1 is far ahead 🙂 Have a great day agead!

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