Penguin re-issues "Cat Country"

As part of Penguin's efforts to promote Chinese literature, it has re-released several of the great 20th century novelist Lao She's works. One is the dystopian satire Cat Country, for which I wrote the introduction.


This was a fascinating project, in fact, one of the most interesting I've worked on in years. To be frank, I had probably underestimated the work: it's not a "great" novel in the sense of having rich characters or a riveting plot. But it is an eerily prescient work, one that foresaw the totalitarian abyss of the Mao years. Reading the novel's descriptions of students and how warped they had become, I couldn't help but think: "these are Red Guards!" It was disturbing to think that his depiction of them dissecting their own teachers is essentially what happened to Lao She, who was driven to suicide in 1966.

After reading and thinking about this perplexing work, I began to see why this really is a modern classic and why it deserves to be read now. As the Wall Street Journal notes in an article by Debbie Bruno, it is a description of the 1930s, one of China's darkest periods. This is why Cat Country is often mentioned in historical works of that period, for example, in Jonathan Spence's Gate of Heavenly Peace. It really captures the flavor of that time.

But it's a classic because it is a prophesy of China later in that troubled century. And when you look at the issues against which the book rails--corruption, nepotism, a lack of moral values that leads to a rough, rude everyday life--it's also a book that resonates today.

Category: New York Review of Books, 
Posted by: Ian Johnson
Aug 8, 2013