Pigs, Shit, and Chinese History, Or Happy Year of the Pig

The intriguing pig map in Alan Baumler’s post, “Pigs” (January 11) reminds us that 2007 is the Year of the Pig. Wikipedia informs us that a person born in the year of the Pig (or Boar) is “usually an honest, straightforward and patient person,” someone who is a “modest, shy character who prefers to work quietly behind the scenes.” The article’s list of famous people born in the Year of the Pig includes Chiang Kaishek, Jerry Lee Lewis, Lee Kuan Yew, Ronald Reagan, and Woody Allen. Does this increase your respect for astrology?

I have known some pigs. Well, maybe not exactly “known” – I’m a city kid – but at least had feelings for them. We won’t count Charlotte’s Web or the Three Little Pigs, and I probably shouldn’t even mention the pig jokes (“I haven’t had so much fun since the day the pig ate my little brother”).

If you deal with China, pigs are part of the deal, but they play a different role from elsewhere. Anthropologists duel over why peoples in the ancient Middle East (not just the Jewish pastoralists) avoided the “abominable pig.” This is a puzzle. Pigs are supremely efficient at converting their feed to meat, sows farrow quickly, and the meat is quite tasty. So what’s not to like? Mary Douglas argued that pigs were impure because they defied proper categories (Douglas 1966). Marvin Harris, in his classic Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches, makes an ecological argument: pigs were not suited to the hot, arid climate (they don’t sweat, so they wallow in mud); goats and sheep eat grass, but pigs don’t; pigs were a cultural marker of difference from the settled agriculturalists; in short, they were too expensive. Richard Lobban, Jr. followed up with a comparative study which found a correlation between pig ecology and prohibition; cool, moist conditions, such as those in Europe and China, correlated with eating pork. (Lobban, 1994; p. 71).

In China no supreme being commanded “eat not this flesh,” whether of pig, dog, or cow; still, from early on the main role of the pig was not at dinner. Economically, pigs were a great deal for farmers. They recycled waste which nobody else would touch, produced fertilizer, and at the end of the year this “piggy bank” could be carted to market to realize a cash profit. One scholar counted the fluctuation in pig skulls in neolithic tombs and concluded that pigs were important not only to eat and in religious ceremonies but to build political power (Kim 1994). Han Dynasty funerary models found in tombs included combination pig sty-latrines – when we say pigs “recycle waste” we’re not fooling! Ch’u T’ung-tsu and Hsu Cho-yun describe Han dynasty herders whose pigs rummaged through the swamps and forests.

By early modern times, the forests which fed herds were gone. The human population was so intensive that it didn’t make sense to feed animals on grain since a given piece of land could support many more people if they ate what they grew rather than feeding it to animals. But pigs fit into a niche where cows or other grain eaters could not; the disgusting eating habits of the pig came from the power of its gut to get nutrition from what had already passed through an inefficient human’s. (The fascinating subject of nightsoil will have to wait for another day). The value of this pig fertilizer was low, but the cost was almost nothing.

A knowledgeable American who lived in China in the 1930s related the “biography of a Shantung pig.” It was a “rare thing,” he observed, “for a hog to be raised from piglet to pork chop by a single farmer, and equally rare for a Chinese farmer to raise more than a single hog at a time.” The piglet was sold at market by a breeder (after being castrated to prevent competitive breeding); raised in a private pig pen-latrine; fattened by still a third owner for the meat market; then “betrayed to the butcher.” None of these farmers could afford to eat the meat, which the butcher sold by the ounce. (Winfield, 1948 pp. 64-66)

The cultural overtones of pigs in Chinese society were quite different from the Middle Eastern ones. Who could forget “Pigsie ,” Arthur Waley’s name for Zhu Bajie, the half pig, half human character in Journey to the West? Farmers are not sentimental about what they raise to be butchered, but one of my first Chinese teachers in Taiwan explained that the Chinese character jia (often translated as “home” or “family”) shows a pig under a roof. I had long wondered if this was reliable or just a folk etymology, and am thankful to Alan Baumler for sending me a solid reference which clears up the question:

Mark Lewis, in his Construction of Space in Early China, p. 92, says (following Xu Shen) that the character , home, is not a pig under a roof, but a child under a roof, as the seal-script hai looked a lot like shi . In his notes he has a quote from Lu shi chun qiu that illustrates the possible confusion:

Zi Xia was going to Jin and passed through Wei. Someone reading a historical chronicle said “The Jin army, three pigs, forded the Yellow River.” Zi Xia said, “That is wrong. This says ji hai”[己亥, one of the sexagenary cycle used to indicate the day] The character “ji ”is close to three [san ] and the character pig [shi ] resembles child [hai ]

But the folk etymology reflects a truth. Pigs often lived under the same roof with the family (I have seen this myself in the Sichuan countryside). This human/ livestock cohabitation is the reason viruses pass back and forth between humans and animals more easily in China than in places with the luxury of grain fed meat. One hypothesis is that the virus pandemic of 1918 started in Chinese pigs, while the transmission of SARS from domestic fowls to humans is well established.

What can pigs tell us about China’s modernity? Sigrid Schmalzer shows us in an eye-opening article, “Breeding a Better China: Pigs, Practices, and Place,” (Schmalzer, 2002), about agrarian reform and modernization in Ding Xian in the 1930s. I had thought I knew something about this. After all, I had written a book (Hayford, 1990) which told the story of the Ding Xian [Ting Hsien] Experiment. James Yen [Yan Yangchu] and his colleagues set out to demonstrate that Maoist revolution was not needed in order to transform the Chinese village; they also rejected the wholesale, uncritical adoption of Western models. They aimed to produce Sinified scientific techniques which fit Chinese realities. Including pigs.

So Sigrid’s article took me by surprise. By looking at what “science” actually meant to these agrarian reformers, not just their intentions, she dissects what goes astray when social experiences are not taken into account in defining “science.” The article challenges the universality of modernity based only on Western practice.

A little background: In the late 19th and early 20th century, Chinese farmers actually did pretty well. Imperialist depredations damaged China politically but many farmers benefitted from new technology, expanded transportation, growing urban markets, and even exports. Alan’s map suggests to me that the number of pigs in North China grew because farmers, long skilled at responding to the market, used these old friends on a new scale. The Rural Reconstruction reformers correctly saw that the key to improving village life was not to destroy some unchanging “feudal” system but to take advantage of the long standing commercial mentality of the small farmer. Among other things, they introduced better breeds of pigs.

Schmalzer argues that the reformers nonetheless made several mistakes. One was to assume that Chinese pigs served the same function as American ones. American farmers wanted pigs to convert their abundant corn into bacon, not scraps into fertilizer. American pigs were “scientifically” bred to produce more meat and therefore less fertilizer. Second, the reformers left out gender: Chinese pigs were domestic partners, raised mostly by women. What’s more, the Chinese system prized sows, and over the years bred selectively for sows which produced large, frequent, litters of admittedly smaller piglets; American breeders valued boars and bred for size and fashionable looks to compete at the county fair. The reformers introduced American boars so huge that they had to build special support platforms for mating.

When the Japanese invasion of 1937 ended the Ding Xian experiment, the imported pigs disappeared into the chaos of war. James Yen and agricultural scientists had no time to produce modern, scientific techniques based in Chinese practice. So in the end the difference was not between “scientific” (i.e. Western) pig breeding and Chinese folkways but between American and Chinese needs and situations.

An afterword. When my wife and I visited Yen’s Philippines Rural Reconstruction Movement in the late 1960s, local workers showed us the air conditioned pens housing the pigs introduced from the States; the new pigs, they explained, couldn’t stand the heat, were sensitive to sun burn, and demanded special treatment – not unlike, the local workers slyly added, most of the other Americans they knew.

And you thought pigs were pigs! If so, you should read Richard P. Horwitz, Hog Ties: What Pigs Tell Us About America (1998). Rich, a friend who teaches American Studies at University of Iowa, worked on a pig farm and knows his… fertilizer. Pigs are more like people than most animals, so Rich demonstrates that the way we treat them says a lot about our values and practices.

Works Cited:

T’ung-tsu Ch’u, ed. by Jack L. Dull, Han Social Structure (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1972).

Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge, 1966).

Charles W. Hayford, To the People: James Yen and Village China (NY: Columbia University Press, 1990)

Richard P. Horwitz, Hog Ties: What Pigs Tell Us About America (Orig. Hog Ties: Pigs, Manure, and Mortality in American Culture (1998) rpr. University of Minnesota Press, 2002).

Cho-yün Hsü, ed. Jack L. Dull, Han Agriculture: The Formation of Early Chinese Agrarian Economy, 206 B.C.-A.D. 220 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1980).

Seung-og Kim, “Burials, Pigs, and Political Prestige in Neolithic China,” Current Anthropology 35.2 (1994): 119-141.

Mark Edward Lewis, The Construction of Space in Early China (State University of New York Press, 2006).

Richard A. Lobban Jr, “Pigs and Their Prohibition,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 26.1 (1994): 57-75.

Sigrid Schmalzer, “Breeding a Better China: Pigs, Practices, and Place in a Chinese County, 1929-1937,” The Geographical Review 92.1 (January 2002): 1-22.

Wikipedia, “Pig (Zodiac),” (accessed January 27, 2007)

Gerald F. Winfield, China: The Land and the People (New York: Sloane, 1948).


  1. Nice read.

    I’m curious about Prof. Lewis’s citation of Xu Shen in his argument about the etymology of the character 家. At least in the Shuowen, while Xu certainly notes the resemblance of 亥 to 豕 in the old script, his gloss on 家 interprets the 豕 as a reduced 豭, a sound element (rather than a reduced 孩 – was 亥 ever a common substitute for 孩?). And the presence of some fairly suggestive bronze inscriptions seem to put the origin of any folk etymology pretty far back in the past.

  2. Thanks for the comments, zhw, and for the reference to the impressive and useful website. When it comes to character etymology, I’m over my head and will defer to others more knowledgable. Still, Lewis does give his sources, which the website does not, so for the moment I’m inclined to stick with him.

    Anyone else?

  3. Reminds me of my own attempts to breed a superior pig in Dien Khanh district of Khanh Hoa province, Vietnam, in early 1968. THe local farmers had these small pot-bellied pigs whose spines were often severely deformed. Somebody decided that if we could import some Yorkshire boars, be could cross-breed them with the local pigs and produce a larger, meatier pig. So we brought in 16 fine boars and passed them around to local farmers. Within months, they had all died of Hog cholera due to their being penned in with the pot-bellied pigs.

    SO we brought in more, and on the advice of specialists, tried to limit passing these on to any but those farmers who would agree to keep the boar in a separate enclosure. We kept a few in reserve, but the ones we gave to selected farmers also soon died. THe problem appeared to be that the sows, enjoying a high immunity from Hoc cholera, remained in the pen for some time with the Yorkshires, and succeeded in passing on the disease. So, with four board left, we called for a meeting with several of the farmers to explain the situation. Unfortunately the interpreter, a Saigon college kid, was not up to the task. To translate “hog cholera”, he told the farmers that the Vietnamese pigs had bad spirits, and that the “American pigs” didn’t have this bad spirit, so that when the Vietnamese pig was left with the American pig, the bad spirits came out and entered the American pig, threby killing him.

    We had been hoping to convince a few farmers to build an entirely new pen for the Yorkshires into which he would bring the sow when she was in heat, removing her after copulation so whe would have less chance to soil the pen as pass on the disease. What we got was an agitated group of farmers, one of whom had learned enough English to stand up and sputter: “Vietnamese pig not have bad spirit. Vietnamese pig have strong spirit. Problem is American pig have weak spirit. No can boom boom without getting sick and die. American pig look good, but weak.” They viewed our pigs as racist. As wanting to enjoy superior quarters into which the sows would only be brought for pleasure, and then booted out.

    Unstated was that perhaps they viewed our pigs as they viewed ourselves. In any event, we ended up donating the remaining boars to a school in an adjacent district which had two experienced agricultural arts teachers who wanted the pigs for a project. The irony is that the Vietnamese pig later arrived in the U.S. to become an exotic pet. While back in Vietnam, the Yorkshire, or an off-breed, has taken over much of the countryside, displacing the black, potbellied pigs of yore. I assume that a vaccine has been developed to prevent hog cholera. (We did see some of the pot-bellied pigs up in Sapa last month, so some survive.)

  4. in the context of this article proving unique and important Chinese cultural ties to pigs, it seems even more interesting that they are banning any pig imagery in correlation with the spring festival so as to “not offend their muslim friends.”

    (mind you, thats not a real quote, merely a summary of various reports)

  5. Quite interesting, and revealing, about how insulated one’s ideas and suppositions can be when it comes to culture. And I thought pigs are pigs are pigs!

  6. so funny to read ur words!i like pig so much they r so cute thought sometimes seems stupid~~~i’ve never known much
    about the importance of pig in chinese life until now~~

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.