China’s neverending pigstory

The pig has long been a cornerstone of Chinese communities, playing a crucial role in the economies and the spiritual life of villages for the past 8,000 years. Recently however, Sino-porcine relations have become more distant.

Performer dresses as a pig to commemorate the Year of the Pig on Chinese New Year, 2007
Performer dresses as a pig to commemorate the Year of the Pig on Chinese New Year, 2007. Credit: Guang Niu via Getty Images.

16 June 2021 was a day of mourning in China. A pig died. Three quarters of a billion pigs do the same, every year. The maths should not surprise; China is home to over half of the world’s 1.3 billion pig population after all. But this one was special. He had been given the name Zhu Jianqiang ‘Pig Strongwill’. Rescued after thirty-six days from beneath the rubble of the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Strongwill had been kept pampered in a local museum to live out a long life of fourteen years. He became a tourist attraction. In 2011 Chinese scientists cloned the heroic (castrated) boar who had survived the quake feeding on a bag of charcoal and drinking rainwater. Six piglets with DNA identical to Strongwill’s were born. A livestock legend by now, the pig became an icon for hope and survival, a symbol for the collective memory of a tragedy overcome. Business folk turned the swine into a brand name. Rumour travelled during its final days. Was this porcine survivor ill or dying from old age? A video posted online showed one enthusiast using I Ching divination to predict the exact hour Strongwill would draw his final breath… The hashtag with the announcement of the death of China’s most famous and long-lived pig was visited over four hundred million times. Condolences were posted on social media. For a moment, millions of pork lovers became pig devotees.

Humans and pigs are the only two large mammals from the original heartland of Chinese civilisation in the Yellow River Valley that survive today. A constant companion ever since humans started domesticating wild pigs over 8000 years ago, no other creature has occupied such a trusted and focal place in Chinese communities throughout history. Pigs displayed status and were a much-prized sacrificial offering and gift. The pig hovered over the ritual structures of Chinese household society like a drone. She was a key component in rituals, including funerals and feasts such as the New Year celebrations, when pork was distributed, from trotter to entrails, in a cascading order to mark bonds within family and lineage and forge relationships with ancestors and the spirit world.

In ancient China, the pig already had a reputation for being a champion recycler. When things went wrong on the pastures or grasslands receded, the pig remained standing. Changes in its wallowing and bathing behaviour were thought to be a sign for impending rain. The pig thrived, feeding on whatever was available. It converted what seemed useless into something useful: scraps into fertiliser. Pigs were kept for food and manure. Tombs dating back to the Han dynasty (2nd century BCE-2nd century CE) contain terracotta models of privies that were annexed to a pigsty. Some show a pig pen and privy linked-up at ground level, others are designed over two floors with the lavatory upstairs and the pig pen underneath. The function of these interlinked pig-pen privies has invited speculation among scholars. One explanation is that they were designed to produce, gather up and accumulate pig manure. Another hypothesis holds that pigpen-privies were designed to have pigs feed on human night soil. The link between the pig and the toilet survives in later Chinese lore. The privy is thought to be haunted by ghosts—as the body opened itself up while excreting, it becomes susceptible to demonic forces. This latrine spirit sometimes showed itself in the shape of a pig. Exposure to it was usually interpreted as a bad omen.

Chinese pigs were interbred with European pigs from the eighteenth century onwards. Reaching puberty faster they produced larger litters and transformed domestic European stock. Unknown to bacon lovers today, quintessentially ‘English’ breeds (the Yorkshire, Suffolk, Berkshire, Hampshire) carry Chinese genes. Our sausages may have been Chinese before most of us knew to locate China on a map. Up until a few decades ago, pigs formed one of the most routine domestic partnerships with humans throughout Chinese history. But today wild hog and village pig have been shoved aside by a capitalist and globalized pig industry. From unsuspecting village hog, the pig has entered the stage of international relations. In the 1930s reformers in China controversially proposed crossbreeding pigs with American pigs using Western methods. The most radical transformation in the relationship between humans and pigs occurred in the last four decades. Factories replaced households, and smallholders were pushed aside by industrial scale pig production. Mao Zedong’s much praised manure became industrial waste, and genetically transnational modern hogs replaced indigenous Chinese breeds. China has become the world’s largest importer of soybeans to feed its livestock. Pigs and pork have become trade warriors, their manure no longer fertilizing the fields but polluting China’s waters. Yet when Pig Strongwill passed away earlier this year, a small glimpse of that lost and long-attested human-piggish intimacy shone through again.


Roel Sterckx