The symbol of the beckoning cat (招財貓 zhāocái māo in Mandarin, 招き猫 maneki neko in Japanese, 고양이 장식물 goyang-i jangsigmul in Korean) is an excellent example of how Asian cultures have informed, influenced, and enriched each other over time.

Cats were valued in early Asian civilizations as defenders of rice stores and for keeping temples and ships free of rodents. These kinds of places of course are prone to experiencing long stretches of time with nothing for people to do, so the cats who lived there were observed closely. This led to all sorts of folk wisdom, such as:

  • A winking cat meant rain would be coming soon.

  • When a cat takes a bath, a storm is coming. How thoroughly the cat bathes predicts how strong the storm will be.

  • In Hindu legend, when a monk dies, his soul is given to a cat for safekeeping until summoned by Vishnu.

The spread of trade and religion, from India into ancient China, out to Japan, and south to the tropical island nations, reinforced local legends and created even more folk tales:

An old an indigent woman had to sell her cat, her only companion, for money to eat. The cat appeared to her in a dream and instructed her to make a copy of it in clay. She did this and quickly sold the statue; made more and found they were popular. She soon became wealthy.

Near the temple of Gotoku-ji near modern Tokyo, a traveling noble and his entourage were taking shelter under a tree from a storm. They were welcomed by a cat with a raised paw, who beckoned the party into the temple. Shortly after, the spot where the travelers had stood was struck by lightning. The wealthy lord befriended the priest of the temple and brought it prosperity. When the cat died, a statue was made in its honor. Today, the temple is a shrine and cemetery for cats!

The symbol of a cat with a raised paw of course resembles the historic depiction of the Taoist goddess of mercy, Guanyin:

Photo by  shankar s.  via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Photo by shankar s. via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

So the transfer of the goddess’ powers to cats was a natural progression, kind of a “team mascot” for Taoism if you will. This may have been the start of “cute culture” in Asian society. (You could keep a statue of Guanyin in your store for luck, but a kitty cat is so cuddly and means the same thing!)

Photo by  Sarah Joy  via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Photo by Sarah Joy via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Let’s make the explicit link to money:

In Mandarin, the word for cat,  māo also sounds like the word for small change,  máo (literally, ten cents.) So, just like the example of lucky fish, here’s another method for a merchant to wish for good fortune. (And of course, cats like to be near fish.)

The meanings are so intertwined that you’ll even see Hello Kitty advertising for lottery tickets on the streets of Tokyo:

More symbolism:

  • How high the cat’s paw is raised is supposed to tie to how strong the luck is, and how far away it comes from.

  • The left paw attracts good friends and customers; the right paw attracts good luck and wealth.

  • Tortoiseshell cats are relatively rare, so they’re considered especially lucky. No surprise then that they’re the most popular color scheme for cat statues.

  • Gold cats represent wealth.

  • White cats represent purity.

  • Black cats are said to promote good health and dispel evil spirits.

  • As do red cats. Red is a protective color, and that’s why you see it especially on houses, doors, and gateways.

  • Pink is cute, and a nice sweetheart gift. Lucky in love?

  • Green is associated with scholarship, used for good luck on tests.

Photo by  Antonio Tajuelo  via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Photo by Antonio Tajuelo via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Where to buy one?

These statues come in virtually any size; ceramic, metal, mineral, papier-mâché, or plastic; and every price point. Virtually every gift shop you’ll come across in East Asia will have a few, so look around for one that appeals to you. Asian grocery stores back home will also have them, as will online vendors.