The unofficial feline guards of the Palace Museum

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Since 2009, certain furry occupants in the Forbidden City, or the Palace Museum, have been receiving global social media attention: the palace's small army of stray cats. Some descendants of imperial pets, others wandering in from other parts of the city, these diligent feline guards are allowed inside the museum walls for the primary purpose of defending its wooden structures and priceless relics against mice and rats.

Today they number between 180 and 200, according to a census taken in 2016. The cats receive healthcare, housing and cat food as well as lots of free love from tourists.

When I visited the Forbidden City in the summer of 2018, however, my itinerary was a bit different from that of the average American tourist: I stayed in one of Beijing's ever declining hutong areas, living by myself in a small hotel for a whole month to research the history of Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) palace maids, whose lives were immortalized in the wildly popular 2018 TV series The Story of Yanxi Palace, especially in the plucky character of Wei Yingluo.

The grueling 20-minute walk to the museum every morning through Beijing's stifling heat involved picking up a breakfast of rice chips at a nearby convenience store, buying freshly squeezed orange juice from a street vendor no more than 10 feet away from the Eastern Prosperity Gate, and trekking through the crowds along the palace moat and past the front Meridian Gate for tourists. I would check in at the small staff entrance and, once signed in, would scoot along the wall of the road passing under the ancient Western Prosperity Gate; once the entryway for entertainers to enter the palace to perform. Nowadays, it is a slightly intimidating checkpoint for museum officials' cars, staff and visiting researchers—such as myself.

As soon as I got through the gate, I would make my way over to the First Historical Archives of China, located alongside the outer wall of the palace and containing almost all the historical records of the Imperial Household Department of the Qing emperors. Before setting out to the capital, I had already conducted some background research on the history of the Palace Museum itself and to my delight managed to retrieve a BBC article about the famous palace cats. I was determined to spot at least one of them during my stay there.

I was two weeks into my journey when I passed under the Western Prosperity Gate, decidedly disappointed that I had failed to catch a glimpse of these slippery felines. I began to fight self-doubt that I would ever so much as see a tuft of fur. In the third week, however, as I was walking through the western gate yet another time, I was surprised to spot not one, not two, but three slightly disheveled cats reclining majestically on the corner of a porch in front of an office. Like any mature young historian, I let out a squeal of excitement and in a high-pitched voice cooed to the furry guards in Chinese, "Hi kitties!" Needless to say, these pampered royals ignored me, preferring the shade of a window ledge or a resting on tarp right next to their white painted cat houses lined up neatly on the porch.

Eventually spotting three more cats outside the front gate to the archives, and even inside the bamboo garden of the employees' exercise grounds, it wasn't until my second to last week in Beijing, that I finally got to pet one. The slightly plump, fluffy cat looked like the real "boss" of the palace as he made his way over to me in imperious fashion, staring with his sharp yellow and blue eyes and letting out short, loud meows demanding attention. Despite his intimidating appearance, he was very friendly and content to be scratched behind the ear and even given a belly rub. Nevertheless, like a petulant little prince he got mad and indignantly objected when eventually I got up and left him to walk back out of the Palace Museum.

For those cat enthusiasts planning on taking a trip to China's capital, these slightly unkempt, but absolutely adorable security guards are definitely worth spending a day in the palace looking for. 

The author is a Yenching Academy scholar at Peking University from the United States

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