Taiwanese art historian: A stray cat, a farmhouse in Taiwan and a quiet afternoon

In our periods of isolation, even desolation through the pandemic, one can become cautious about forming bonds. A stray cat Chiang Hsun befriends reminds him that humans can’t help but care about one another, even when they pretend not to care. Yet they’re also guilty of caring too much, cocooning themselves to protect what they have. Will we ever learn to let go and have a good rest, defenceless?
Art historian Chiang Hsun learns some life lessons from a stray cat at a farmhouse. (Facebook/蔣勳)
Art historian Chiang Hsun learns some life lessons from a stray cat at a farmhouse. (Facebook/蔣勳)

Our farmhouse suddenly welcomed a stray cat. At first, it was shy and only stayed around the courtyard area. When a stray dog barked, it would scamper up a tree.

The previous artist-in-residence must have fed it, going by the can of cat food left behind. When I placed a bite of it under the eaves of our farmhouse, the cat readily helped itself to it. Soon this became our routine. The cat would meow at the same spot at dawn and dusk, reminding me that it was mealtime.  

Two or three weeks later, I was still calling it “the cat”. It had no name anyway and doing so meant that it was still a stray and could come and go as it pleased.  

These days, it has been wandering into the house and staying the night. Whenever I read a book or practised calligraphy, the cat would take a nap near my feet.

I was a little hesitant. I knew that once I began to care about the cat, it would be difficult to let go. 

Amid the pandemic, as I witness the suffering of Covid-19 patients and chant prayers for people I do not know, I comfort myself with the phrase “the whole realm of sentient life is ephemeral and illusory”* from the Diamond Sutra.

It is not so easy to practise compassion… 

A cat rests inside the Colosseum, which dungeons' restoration have been sponsored by fashion group Tod's, in Rome, Italy, on 25 June 2021. (Filippo Monteforte/AFP)
A cat rests inside the Colosseum, where dungeon restoration has been sponsored by fashion group Tod's, in Rome, Italy, on 25 June 2021. (Filippo Monteforte/AFP)

During my mealtime today, the cat jumped onto the dining table and looked at my porridge and fresh bamboo shoots. It gave each dish a sniff but seemed uninterested. It then retreated to a corner of the table and fell asleep, lying on its back with its legs spread out and belly exposed. It appeared completely off-guard and trusting.

Having grown up in the fields, it must have encountered countless poisonous snakes, stray dogs, and creepy crawlies. How alert it must have been in order to stay away from danger and survive.   

I guess life must have been tough and scary for the cat… Have we ever gone into such a deep slumber without the need to stay alert?  

By instinct, we are reserved, defensive, and on guard towards other people. We are used to protecting ourselves with layers of armour, and have unknowingly imprisoned ourselves in an impenetrable protective shell.

I looked closely at the cat sleeping soundly on the dining table. It looked so calm and peaceful. What a blessing it is to fall asleep like this! I wonder if it’s time to give this cat a name… 

* * * * * * * * * *

I like the ash grey stripes on her body. They look like brush strokes painted with the finest pine soot ink.  

There is a soothing calm in the shades of grey of calligraphy and paintings from the Song and Yuan dynasty. In modern times, calligraphy ink is often a lifeless daub of black. Bereft of flowing light, pitch-black and soulless, the significance of ink wash paintings is lost.    

The stray cat enjoys lounging on the crude cement floor. (Facebook/蔣勳)

She lies there quietly — the grey ink splotches and white liubai of her outstretched body creating the best ink wash album in the style of Bada Shanren. A red vermilion seal is all that is needed to complete the painting and let it be passed down the generations. It would henceforth be known that a cat had come to Qingyunpu (Bada Shanren's former residence) following the fall of the Ming dynasty.   

My doting friends gave her a litter pan lined with pine sawdust. But she enjoys lounging on the floor more. Her colours contrast beautifully with the greys of the crude cement that are blotchy and uneven like a piece of well-worn and well-travelled Xuan paper. 

Summertime in a remote village. A gentle wind blows. A quiet afternoon passes by at the farmhouse. 

*Translated by William Gemmell from Chinese to English at vincentpoon.com.

Related: Taiwanese art historian: What flowers and swallows taught me about life amid the pandemic | Taiwanese art historian: 'Lord of the banyan tree' and his grand wisdom | Taiwanese art historian: Searching for peace and strength on the island of Taiwan