Robert Hunter mailed the lyrics for "China Cat Sunflower" to the Dead in the middle of 1967. This helped establish him as the band's lyricist.
In his book of collected lyrics, Box of Rain, Robert Hunter states, "Nobody ever asked me the meaning of this song. People seem to know exactly what I'm talking about. It's good that a few things in this world are clear to all of us."
Hunter was indeed asked about the song some time later. In David Gans' Conversations With the Dead: The Grateful Dead Interview Book, he said that he first got the "germ" of the song while sitting with a cat on his belly on Mexico's Lake Chapala. Hunter never comes out and says he was on any particular drug (other than saying he was in a "rather hypersensitive state"), but his story of following the cat into Neptune and seeing cats marching across rainbows leaves little doubt.
The song was first recorded in studio on June, 1969, for the album Aoxomoxoa. The first live performance was on January 17, 1968, at the Carousel Ballroom in San Francisco. The first live recording appeared on Europe '72.
In live performance, "China Cat Sunflower" was nearly always paired with "I Know You Rider." The one popularly known exception occurred on March 9, 1985, when the band paired it with "Cumberland Blues."
"China Cat Sunflower" is the fifth most-played song by the Dead, having been performed at least 552 times. It's the song most-sung by Jerry Garcia. The final performance came on Chicago's Soldier Field on July 8, 1995.