There exists another version of China’s famous new year folk story; a darker tale of the Great Race that often goes untold. In this telling, the Jade Emperor summoned thirteen animals to cross a river and determine the order of the Chinese zodiac rather than twelve.
The extra invitee was a cat, who, along with the rat, climbed aboard the ox, a strategy that would see the rodent claim first spot in the calendrical cycle, ahead of his bovine steed. The cat was less fortunate. Partway across the river, her deceitful companion pushed her into the swirling waters where she drowned. This, so it goes, is why cats hate water, why they hunt rats and why there is no cat in the Chinese zodiac.
Except, of course, there is a cat in the Chinese zodiac. Throughout history, the tiger has played an important role in Chinese culture, representing human ideas of power, achievement and auspiciousness. As enemies of evil, tiger motifs often appear at grave sites and monuments, while those born in tiger years are said to be benevolent and brave, albeit stubborn and unpredictable.
The tiger, pushed slightly off course by the river’s current, came a respectable third in the great race, meaning that as the Ox Year comes to an end, the Year of the Tiger draws near. So in celebration of the Chinese zodiac’s feline representatives, allow us to introduce some of China’s most curious cats.
Chinese Mountain Cat (felis bieti)
Save for its piercing blue eyes the Chinese mountain cat isn’t much of a looker – imagine your house cat angry and disheveled after a week away from home – but this is one of the most elusive felids on the planet.
It is so elusive, in fact, that it wasn’t photographed in the wild until 2007, and the scientific world remains unsure to this day whether it is a subspecies of wild cat or a separate species in its own right. If the latter proves to be true, then it is the only cat species endemic to China.
The mountain cat – sometimes also called the Chinese desert cat – inhabits the rocky, high-altitude grasslands of the Tibetan plateau in western China, where its short legs and mottled coat are perfectly adapted to hunting small mammals like pika.
The illegal fur trade, habitat loss and the poisoning of its prey have all impacted the cat’s population in recent years, which now stands at less than 10,000 individuals. Nonetheless, in 2018 the Shan Shui Conservation Center was able to capture extraordinary footage from western Sichuan of a mother and her two kittens, the first of its kind.
Snow Leopard (panthera uncia)
There are few creatures that inspire as much reverence, that prompt the same hushed intake of breath, as the snow leopard. These ghostly cats are found across the cold, mountainous regions of Central Asia, but it is thought that most – possibly more than 60% – live in China.
Their thick coat and large paws help them navigate the steep, snowy terrain of China’s western regions, most notably Sanjiangyuan, an area the size of England in Qinghai province. Sanjiangyuan became a national park under China’s pilot park project in 2017, with the aim of protecting the region’s indigenous wildlife. This includes snow leopards, which rely on up to 1,000 square kilometers of territory each to hunt mountain goats and sheep, making them particularly vulnerable to habitat destruction.
Although renowned for their rarity, there is now a place in Sanjiangyuan where visitors can safely and sustainably see snow leopards in the wild. The Valley of the Cats in the village of Angsai is a community-led ecotourism project that hosts guests in local Tibetan homes. Leopard sightings are relatively frequent, while all proceeds support the community and leopard conservation in the area.
Leopard Cat (prionailurus bengalensis)
Beijing is largely known for its ancient buildings and prodigious population, but thanks to Professor Luo Shu-Jin and her Peking University team it is now known to be the home of a rare species of wild cat as well.
The leopard cat – which inhabits jungles, deserts and mountains across Asia and varies in appearance from place to place – does not live in the city proper, but it is widespread in the outer parts of Beijing Municipality beyond the city’s Sixth Ring Road.
Named for its distinctive spotted markings, the Beijing leopard cat was photographed for the first time in 2010 near the Badaling Great Wall. According to Luo’s ongoing research, which tracks a population near the alpine ski slopes for the 2022 Winter Olympics with infrared camera traps, leopard cats are nocturnal and swim regularly.
Remarkably, the little leopard cat has only been the area’s apex predator since the 1990s: until then, the northern Chinese leopard inhabited the same mountains around Beijing.
Siberian Tiger (panthera tigris tigris)
In China the tiger is king, the black markings on their forehead said to resemble the Chinese character 王 which is itself derived from the ancient pictogram for a crown.
If the tiger is the king of beasts, then the Siberian – or Amur – tiger is the king of its species. Adult males weigh up to 300 kilograms, making them the world’s largest living cats, and with their white winter coats and thick insulating manes they are also some of the most regal.
Sadly, there are less than 400 Siberian tigers left in the wild, most living in the vast forests of the Russian Far East, with a small population of around 30 individuals living in China near the Russian border.
In 2017, the Northeast Tiger and Leopard National Park was set up to protect an area of Siberian tiger habitat 60% larger than Yellowstone in the provinces of Jilin and Heilongjiang. The early signs are promising, with the tiger population having already rebounded by around 30%.
The name of the park refers to another of its resident felines – the even rarer Amur leopard – of which there are less than 60 individuals left in the wild.
Are you a fan of Wildlife?
Awareness of the China’s rich biodiversity has increased in recent years, and so to have sustainable opportunities to experience China’s charismatic native creatures in the wild. We have collected five of the best and most responsible places to witness the Middle Kingdom’s remarkable array of wildlife.