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

Filed under: — C. W. Hayford @ 12:55 am

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.



Luoyang shovel

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 10:11 am

This is the famous 洛阳铲, or luoyang shovel, one of the most important tools in Chinese archeology. The basic idea is that you take it and shove it in the ground and then pull it up and look to see if you have found something. It is particularly handy for finding the rammed earth walls that mean you have found a settlement of some sort. The thing I find interesting about it is that the shovel was originally invented by grave-robbers i.e. bad people who wanted to find ancient relics and sell them for money rather than use them in the name of science and preserving the national past and tenure. It was borrowed by real scholars and they started to use it.

Louyang shovel



Classes started today

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:53 pm

And, as is something of a tradition here at the Frog, I am posting links to my syllabi for comments and suggestions. Actually we usually do this early enough to change things based on your advice. This time it is a little too late to order new books, but any advice about things I should keep in mind while working with any of this, or suggestions for future versions of the classes are quite welcome.

HIST 206 History of East Asia

HIST 332 Early China


Bo Yibo 1908-2007

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 2:02 pm

Bo Yibo has died


He is probably best known today for being the father of one of the leading members of the so-called Prince’s faction and current Minister of Commerce Bo Xilai, and having been the hardliner most in favor of a crackdown after Tiananmen.

I find his passing at least somewhat interesing since he seems to be the last remaining major figure of the Communist revoltution. He worked with Yan Xishan, warlord and sometime Frog commentator in setting up the Sacrifice League during the war with Japan and was instrumental in the relationship between Yan and the Communists. After the war he was mostly in financial and economic posts and was big on the development of heavy industry. He seems to have opposed the Great Leap about as much as you could without loosing his job, but his liberal ideas and connections to Liu Shaoqi got him in trouble during the CR. I really have nothing of interest to say about him, but I remember the shock I felt when I was an undergrad in a Russian history class and found out the Molotov was still alive.


Bad History: Mongols good, US bad?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 3:35 pm

Jack Weatherford’s piece reprinted in the latest edition of (the increasingly inaptly named) Japan Focus argues that the US occupation of Iraq is a failure, while the Mongol occupation of Persia was a success, and that — and here’s where I have start to have problems — it must mean that the US can and should learn something from the differences. It’s kind of odd, actually, to see a Japan Focus piece which argues that the US should have been killing more people, more efficiently — “the Mongols perfected the list of who to kill in a conquered land,” says Weatherford — to produce a “better” result.

Let’s face it: if the US had followed a Mongol policy, as described by Weatherford — proxy armies, mass population displacement, “selective” massacres, blanket execution of leadership, etc. — Japan Focus and every other left or “progressive” venue would be seething with justified righteous rage. Moreover, a good deal of what Weatherford describes as the redeeming qualities of Mongol rule — secular government, low taxation, redistribution of government assets, harsh enforcement of law-n-order — are entirely in line with what the US has been trying to accomplish.

Ultimately, the difference seems to come down to the Mongols ability to monopolize force, not to some kind of superiority in their post-occupation planning, and the modern revolution in small arms and explosives and transportation has made that considerably less tenable. Additionally, the Mongols were not trying to be leaders on a world stage in which moral capital mattered; they were conquerers who cultivated an aura of death, and there were no neighbors with competing interests fomenting instability in their borders. It’s true that the US has used some restraint in responding to insurgent provocations, but then the US is not trying to create a colony with a figurehead scholar-governor, nor is it content to leave in place the kind of government which existed before, with its secret police, limited religious freedoms, etc.

It has been argued, I’ve argued it myself, that the US should have gone in with considerably greater forces than they did, in order to have a better chance at social stability and political reconstruction. But that’s hardly an endorsement of the slash-and-burn methods of 750 years ago.


Who cares what the Americans think?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:58 am

Joshua Kurlantzick has an article in American Prospect that is both interesting and frustrating. It’s about Cambodia, and the Chinese language press there. Loh Swee Ping is a Malyasian-born Chinese who runs a Chinese paper in Cambodia. (The paper seems to be 柬埔寨星洲日報, although this is never made clear) The journalistic world of Cambodia seems rather free-wheeling, giving considerable scope to people like Loh, who takes journalism seriously, while also being full of all sorts of semi-corrupt types who like good coverage and are willing to get it either through payola or violence.

The hook for the article is that the Chinese government is encouraging the growth of a Sino-sphere, with Chinese language newspapers, schools, and a growing Chinese presense. So far so good, and there is some interesting stuff in here. He ends, however, with a lament on how the Americans are not doing enough to counteract Beijing’s fairly authoritarian advice on how to handle things like the press. While I as an American would also like to see the U.S. government stand up for things like freedom of the press (standing up is free, furcrissakes) I am always a bit amused at articles like Kurlantzick’s, or like this that assume that the Americans, their model, and their actions are what really matter here. I agree that the Americans could matter more, and the -very rapid- decline of American soft power is partly attributable to stupid things we have done of late and could and should stop doing. On the other hand, some decline is probably built in. You don’t need an American-style press to be an economic success, China proves it. If you are the Cambodian government and you are going to look ideologically acceptable by jumping every time someone says frog you are probably better off listening to China anyway. I just don’t think the old Cold War model of understanding Asia as either more or less like the U.S. works at all, and it is a bit frustrating to see a journalist who actually went to Cambodia and found some good stuff shoving things into that pattern.



Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:59 am

How many pigs were there in China during the warlord era?

I came across the wonderful site Strange Maps, and one of their offerings was a 1922 map of world hog production

World O' Pigs

The text says that this is a map of industrial-scale pig breeding. China seems a bit over-represented here. Yes, every farm in China should have a couple pigs. So should every farm in Ohio and Korea, but the densities there seem much lower, and it can’t just be population. Were Chinese really eating all that much ? Or was there a big export industry? Either would be interesting as the first would be a sign of a surprising prosperity, and the later a sign of China getting an export industry right in the 1920s. Does anyone know if there is anything out there on Late Imperial/Republican pigs?


The uses of the past

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 10:36 am

I have been thinking about public history and the uses of the past a bit lately, and reading Craig Clunas’ Superfluous Things: Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China. Like all of his work it is very good, but I was interested in his discussion of the uses of the antique in Ming culture. He quotes Matteo Ricci, who was impressed with the level of interest in the antique, but pointed out that the Chinese were not interested in “statues nor medals” but rather in bronzes, jades, and paintings. Ricci was of course an Italian, and was aware of the role of antiquities in the Renaissance relationship with the past, but that relationship was centered on marble statues and coins (nuministics was an important field of study in a way it never was in China.) The difference is in part because the past society produced different things, but more importantly because the uses of past things have as much more to do with the present society than with the past. The Ming connoisseurs were pretty knowledgeable, and had been generating knowledge about old items for a long time at this point. They had managed to connect existing bronzes to the bronze types mentioned in the (unillustrated) classics, and they were aware that these vessels were windows to the past. Many of them were inscribed, and some scholars, like Zhao Mingcheng understood their value

When archeological materials are used to examine these things, thirty to fourty per cent of the data is in conflict. That is because historical writings are produced by latter-day writers and cannot fail to contain errors. But the inscriptions on stone and bronze are made at the time the events take place and can be trusted without reservation Clunas p.95-6



Alan Baumler: Best History Blog Writer, 2006

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 2:22 am

It’s official:

Best Writer: Alan Baumler at Frog in a Well

Of all the nominations, the judges felt that Alan Baumler’s writing for Frog in a Well is the finest example of how blogs can make history accessible. He stands in the middle ground between scholar and non-scholar, adeptly demystifying historical and academic issues, bringing clarity to debates with his own arguments, and enlightening the unfamiliar of Asian history and culture.

Alan Baumler is an Assistant Professor of History at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Cliopatria Award 2006: Best Writer

I was at the Cliopatria Lunch at which the awards were announced. Well, “announced” sounds so official; Ralph passed the list around and I found out about Alan when the person about two seats ahead of me let it slip. Anyway, it was fun to see everyone “in the flesh.”

More blogging about Day 2 — I was at two interesting panels, and got lots of schmoozing in — sometime on Day 3. Congratulations, Alan!

Charles W. Hayford Member Introduction

Filed under: — C. W. Hayford @ 12:41 am

First, thanks for allowing me into the Frog in a Well project. You’ve set a high standard. I promise not to call it “Frog Blog” or “Frog in the Throat.”

My training — before I got into teaching and discovered what I was really interested in — was in modern Chinese history. I started back in the 1960s when the People’s Republic was “Red China” and Americans couldn’t go there (legally). I was sucked in by a course distribution requirement. The course was pretty good, so I took another, then another, graduated and went to Taiwan for a year, and then … well, here I am.

My first teaching job was at Oberlin College, where I taught pretty much everything Asian. Then in 1978 I went to Chinese University of Hong Kong to be the Representative of the Yale-China Association and Associate Director of the International Asian Studies Programme. The late ’70s and early 1980s was a great time to be there. The PRC was opening up to Americans and we quickly confirmed that Mao was not who we had read about in Red Star Over China and saw a China which was not in Peking Review.
Then it was my wife’s turn to get the first job, which turned out to be in Chicago. Since then I’ve been an Independent Scholar (a euphemism for unemployed), a Visiting Professor at numbers of places, and a Visiting Scholar at Northwestern.

My first book was To the People: James Yen and Village China (Columbia University Press, 1990), which told the story of Yan Yangchu (1890-1990) and the Rural Reconstruction Movement. Yen founded the Mass Education Movement which first conducted nationwide literacy campaigns, then set up the Ting Hsien [Ding Xian, in Hebei] Experiment from 1926 until 1937. Before the Japanese invasion forced them out, Yen’s group developed a four fold community development model which started from education and then moved to health, economics (agricultural improvement, coops, etc. etc.), and local government reform. The book argued that perhaps Yen’s non-violent approach — call it “liberal” — fit the needs of the villages better than did leftist attack on “feudalism,” but Yen did not match Mao’s grasp of politics.

In China today there is New Rural Reconstruction Movement which is explicitly based in the thought of James Yen and has headquarters in Ding Xian, Hebei. A few years ago there was also an interest in the role of Public Intellectuals which was quietly suppressed, and a widespread growth of NGO’s. I’d like to write and compare these movements with the situation in the 1920s and 1930s.

My book project now is America’s Chinas: From The Opium Wars to Tiananmen. This compares the various Chinas construed in books written in China by Americans for the folks back home. This looks at how relatively well-informed men and women presented China, both the ideas behind their arguments but also their rhetoric — words, metaphors, tropes, and stories. S.W. Williams The Middle Kingdom (1st ed. 1848) leads off, then Arthur Smith’s Chinese Characteristics (1894), then to, among others, Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth (1931), Alice Tisdale Hobart’s Oil for the Lamps of China (1934), and the wartime reporters’ books such as Snow’s Red Star Over China (1937), White and Jacoby’s Thunder Out of China (1946), and Jack Belden’s China Shakes the World (1949). An excerpt is at Asia Media in “Snow, White, and the Seven China Reporters’ Books,” based on a paper at the 2006 Association for Asian Studies.

The books in America’s Chinas were written in plain language, with no footnotes, and for a general audience, that is, by “amateurs,” people who may have spent decades in China, but lacked PhD’s. Pearl Buck, for instance, may well be the single most influential person in the history of relations between the United States and China, but she does not appear in John Fairbank’s book by that name. Not that I want to go down in history as the guy who studied Buck, but I did write a piece “What’s So Bad About the Good Earth?”

To figure out this anomaly, I’ve also looked at the professionalization of China study in the years before 1949. Professionalization meant enclosure within universities, regularization of study, and raising standards, but also American domination, withdrawal from political controversy, cutting off from business and religious elites, an initial decrease in the number of women, and difficulty in reaching the public. One result is the supposed conflict between “academic” and “popular” history, a further interest which I would like to explore on our blog.

I also edit D’Asia Vue, a series for Doug Merwin’s new EastBridge Press. We reprint classics of Western writing on Asia and commission scholarly Introductions. I also am the incoming editor of the Journal of American-East Asian Relations.

Over the last few years I have also developed a course about film in post-Mao China and postwar Japan — or rather, it has developed me. The experience of teaching this course combined with my long term interest in food history to suggest a useful hypothesis: mainstream Hollywood films tend to ignore food or to code it as ethnic – “leave the guns, take the cannoli” – while “Confucian” films see food and eating as reflecting moral character, social landscape, and even politics — Ang Lee’s “Eat, Drink, Man, Women” is only one, rather self conscious example. Stay tuned for further thoughts.

Oh, and I’m also working on the history of Chop Suey.

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