“The Rats Marrying Off Their Daughter” (老鼠嫁女) was a popular theme for Chinese woodblock prints during the nineteenth century, and different designs were produced by studios all over the country. The title of this one, from Yangjiabu in Shandong province, translates freely as “A misfortunate rat got married in town; The groom was a cat, who swallowed her down”.
The prints illustrate a cautionary folktale about having ideas above your station. The hidden message is “it’s dangerous for ordinary folk (rats) to get involved with officials (cats)”. Here’s one version of the story:
The rat wanted to find a powerful husband for his daughter. He asked the sun, but the sun said: “I’m afraid of clouds”. So the rat asked a cloud. But the cloud said: “I’m afraid of the wind”. So the rat asked the wind. But the wind said: “I’m afraid of walls”. So the rat asked the wall. But the wall said: “I’m afraid of rats making holes in me.” The rat thought, “This wall is afraid of me, and I am afraid of cats, so cats must be the most powerful. I will marry my daughter to a cat!”
At the “Warehouse Filling” Festival on the 25th of January, the rat carried his little blushing daughter to the cat. But the cat swallowed the little rat down in his belly!
When her father saw this, he was horrified, and rushed to the Jade Emperor to make his complaint. The Jade Emperor condemned the cat, but the cat said: “Because my love for her was so deep, I swallowed my bride down to my stomach, to keep her safe.”
The Jade Emperor considered his defence, and said to the cat: “Fair enough; since you love rats so much, whenever you see a rat, just eat them right up!” The father rat was paralysed in fright. And when the cat saw that, he ate him up too.
Here’s another print on the same theme, based on a Chinese design but actually from Dong Ho in Vietnam:
The meaning here is a little more blatant. The bottom half shows a scholar rat riding ahead of his bride in a wedding procession. Watching over everything is the cat, who instead of eating the bride is allowing the festivities to proceed because has been bought off with fish, birds and music by the rat’s servants. Having to bribe rapacious officials was often just part of daily life in China.
By the late nineteenth century, China was being torn apart by factions. On the one hand were conservatives, who rejected the many foreign innovations being forced on China by Western powers; and on the other were reformists, who wanted to use these same innovations to create a modern, powerful China which would be able to compete with foreign powers on their own terms. Old folktales – and woodblock designs – were adapted to the cause.
This print from the 1890s mixes the “Rats Marrying Off Their Daughter” with the Chinese classic “Journey to the West”, a popular account of the seventh-century Buddhist monk Xuanzang’s journey to India to collect sacred scriptures. He’s helped out by four acolytes: the river demon Sandy; the gluttonous Pigsy; the dragon horse; and the brilliant and mercurial Monkey immortal, Sun Wukong.
In chapters 80–83 of “Journey to the West”, Xuanzang is carried off to Bottomless Cave on Pitfall Mountain by the Golden-Haired White-Nosed rat spirit, who wants to marry him and so steal his pure vital essence. The above print shows Xuanzang (just riding into view at the back) watching the rats getting married, while the cat is again bribed with food as he looks on.
The anti-reform message here would be pretty obscure, if it wasn’t for this version of the same thing:
Here, Xuanzang and his acolytes are coming into view at the lower left, while the rat wedding, cat and so on fill the rest of the print. But it’s the title, “Xuanzang Learns from the Western Rat Marrying Off His Daughter” (唐僧取经 西洋老鼠嫁女) which reveals the real meaning in terms of late nineteenth-century politics: don’t get in bed with foreigners, because though they are powerful, they’ll just rob you and leave you with nothing.