Hidden among the tumbledown shops and temples of this canalside alley are seven stone sculptures with varying expressions, guarding the bridges that cross the water. They’re known as the “seven bluestone cats of Shantang Jie,” and their existence is due to a classic bit of Mandarin wordplay.
Shantang Jie (Shantang Street) is known for being a length of seven lǐ, the Chinese mile, which looks and sounds similar to another lí that makes part of the name of a breed of cat. Obvious really, if you can navigate the tonal complexities of Chinese pronunciation.
To honor this wordplay, seven stone cats, each standing just over 4 feet tall, were carved and placed at the Shantang-side crossing point for the canal’s ancient bridges.
The seven cats each represent a form of good fortune, and were given distinct expressions to match. The virtuosity cat can be found at Shantang Bridge, wealth at Tonggui Bridge, learning at Xing Bridge, happiness at Caiyun Bridge, healthy life at Puji Bridge, blessed fate at Wangshan Bridge, and fortuitous opportunity at Xishanmiao Temple Bridge.
Finding all of these cats is a challenge in itself nowadays, as many are tucked in behind stalls, overgrown with plants, or used to prop shopfront shutters on while street hawkers sell their wares on this quaint little street in the ancient city.