There's a book I have, entitled Eerie Tales from Old Korea. It doesn't have an author, but is "compiled by" Brother Anthony of Taizé, a quite well-known Catholic monk who teaches at the main Catholic University in Seoul (called Sogang University) and who is a prolific translator and populizer of Korean poetry and literature.
These tales in this compilation, however, are not his translations, but rather translated by various early Christian missionaries in Korea. I enjoy reading these stories.
Here is a short story that makes me wonder about cats. According to Brother Anthony, it appeared in a magazine called Korea Review, published 1902-1905, probably translated by the missionary Homer B. Hulbert. The story doesn't really answer the question in my title – it merely raises it, and offers a kind of "first instance" folk-explanation.
About two centuries and a half ago, a boy, who later became the great scholar Sa Jae, went to bed one night after a hard day's work on his Chinese. He had not been asleep long when he woke with a start. The moon was shining in at the window and dimly lighting the room. Something was moving just outside the door. He lay still and listened. The door swung of its own accord and a tall black object came gliding into the room and silently took its place in the corner. The boy mastered his fear and continued gazing into the darkness at his ominous visitor. He was a very strong-minded lad and after a while, seeing that the black ghost made no movement, he turned over and went to sleep.
The moment he awoke in the morning, he turned his eyes to the corner and there stood his visitor still. It was a great black coffin standing on end with the lid nailed on and evidently containing its intended occupant. The boy gazed at it a long while and at last a look of relief came over his face. He called in his servant and said, "Go down to the village and find out who has lost a corpse."
Soon the servant came running back with the news that the whole village was in an uproar. A funeral had been in progressbut the watchers by the coffin had fallen asleep, and when they awoke coffin and corpse had disappeared. "Go and tell the chief mourner to come here." When that excited individual appeared, the boy called him into the room and, pointing to the corner, said quietly, "What is that?" The hemp-clad mourner gazed in wonder and consternation. "That? That's my father's coffin. What have you been doing? You've stolen my father's body and disgraced me forever." The boy smiled and said, "How could I bring it here? It came of its own accord. I awoke in the night and saw it enter."
The mourner was incredulous and angry. "Now I will tell you why it came here," said the boy. "You have a cat in your house and it must be that it jumped over the coffin. This was such an offense to the dead that by some occult power, coffin, corpse, and all came here to be safe from further insult. If you don't believe it, send for your cat and we will see." The challenge was too direct to refuse, and a servant was sent for the cat. Meanwhile, the mourner tried to lay the coffin down on its side, but, with all his strength, he could not budge it an inch. The boy came up to it and gave it three stroke with his hand on the left side and a gentle push. The dead recognized the master hand, and the coffin was easily laid on its side.
When the cat arrived and was placed in the room, the coffin, of its own accord, rose on its end again, a position in which it was impossible for the cat to jump over it. The wondering mourner accepted the explanation, and that day the corpse was laid safely in the ground. But to this day, the watchers beside the dead are particularly careful to see that no cat enters the mortuary chamber lest it disturb the peace of the deceased.
[daily log: walking, some certain amount of distance]