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2021-03-11 12:08:40 Voices

It’s 2021, and China is on the verge of being conquered by a race of seemingly innocuous, but actually hyper-intelligent, imperious overlords.

That’s not the plot of some B-movie thriller. It’s barely an exaggeration. According to the 2020 Chinese Pet Industry White Paper, China’s pet cat population rose by a staggering 10.2% last year to almost 49 million. If current trends continue, cats will overtake dogs to become the country’s most popular pet in the next year or two.

If anything, those numbers undersell cats’ cultural hegemony. For starters, cats have long been the top dog of the online pet world, where they bask in the adulation of self-proclaimed “cat slaves” and “cat sniffers.” Even many non-cat owners have embraced the practice of raising cats “in the cloud” — where those without cats obsessively follow cat owners on social media, as if the animal being posted about really belonged to them.

Especially curious is how obsequious these cat lovers are toward their feline overlords. They refer to their cats as “Your Majesty” and to themselves as mere “poop-scooping attendants.” One cat-crazy friend of mine likes to joke about creating a “Church of the Virtuous Scooper” based on two fundamental tenets: 1) It is an irrefutable truth that cats are perfect; and 2) The proper relationship between cats and their poop scoopers is that since cats can do no wrong, any errors must lie with you.

Needless to say, any suggestion that China’s cult of the cat has gone overboard brings the claws out.

How did cats win all this love and adoration? I may be biased toward an academic explanation, but as an anthropologist, I would argue that cats have three layers of appeal, each with the ability to encourage high levels of self-involvement and anthropomorphic identification among humans.

The first of these layers directly relates to how cats look. With their large foreheads, round heads, wide eyes, low nasal bridges, and soft bodies, cats fit what anthropologists term the “baby schema” — an idea that certain infantile features spark people’s innate emotional and caretaking desires. In what some researchers call the “cute response,” these features trigger a dopamine release in the brain, producing a warm, happy feeling. It’s worth mentioning that while the vast majority of mammals, including humans, have these baby schema features in infancy, cats are among the minority of animals whose features stay constant through the years, heightening their visual appeal to humans.

The owner of a Taobao shop selling “hanfu” gowns for cats pets one of her models in Changsha, Hunan province, Aug. 13, 2020. Noel Celis/People Visual

The owner of a Taobao shop selling “hanfu” gowns for cats pets one of her models in Changsha, Hunan province, Aug. 13, 2020. Noel Celis/People Visual

The second layer has to do with the fact that humans have never fully domesticated cats, something distinguishing them from another popular pet choice, dogs. You can own a dog, but you’ll only ever be a companion to a cat. Dogs are fervent but frail, their puppy eyes attesting to their longing for love and affection. Cats, meanwhile, remain mercurial and unreadable.

It’s precisely because of this inscrutable quality, however, that cats offer a perfect canvas for human emotion. The unreadability of their expressions and body language leaves more room for us to project our interpretations onto them. We read cats through the lens of our own subjective emotions, project our own feelings onto them, and as a result, come to think of cats as kindred spirits.

Indeed, many Chinese cat lovers emphasize how cats are like people, though I would say it’s the opposite: Modern people are like cats in the way they pursue individuality and reject control from above.

If we take this thinking one step further, we come to the third main appeal of cats: their “heroic” side.

Cats seem to lead a far more self-actualized life than their supposed masters.

One of the more interesting aspects of contemporary cat fandom is that, when many modern cat lovers compare themselves to cats, they get the worst of the exchange. That’s because cats seem to lead a far more self-actualized life than their supposed masters. They can go from purring at your touch one second to swatting you away the next. Dangerous and affectionate in equal measure, they keep us company but remain indecipherable. Likewise, visual depictions of cats online always highlight their mysteriousness, haughtiness, and sheer unfathomability.

Underlying all this is the deeper reason for the adoration cats enjoy today: the emotional struggles of contemporary life, especially those of young city dwellers. Increasingly jaded in the face of the harsh realities of their existence, like declining social mobility, a solidifying social class structure, and ineffective traditional social networks, young Chinese are under ubiquitous and relentless pressure, whether in housing, education, social security, health insurance, or employment.

From an anthropological perspective, even when times aren’t tough, people need heroes in their everyday lives to serve as role models and provide meaning to their lives. People worship their cats as “masters” and deride themselves as “poop butlers,” in large part because cats embody an ideal self that cat lovers want to be. As one young woman told me during an interview I conducted for a study about raising cats on the cloud, “I want to be like a cat, to go where I want to go. I wouldn’t have to accommodate other people. I’ll just give out kisses when I want to and cold-shoulder them when I don’t.”

In other words, having a cat — whether in real life or online — is a way for people to present and resolve their emotional turmoil. Most people will never have the courage to treat their bosses the way a cat treats its owner, but they find comfort in the prospect. In essence, cats aren’t our masters; they’re our shields. They protect us, aiding us as we separate, mediate, and resist the anxieties and oppressiveness of everyday life.

Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.

(Header image: Shijue Select/People Visual)