On pigs in China; why China remains the world’s leader in pig consumption
Peppa pig cupcakes and tattoos, whole pig heads glaring at you from shop window fronts, chubby cut-outs of cartoon piglets in every corner of local hole-in-the-wall foodies … pigs are everywhere in China. As the world’s leader in pork consumption, China has a long and illustrious history not only with eating pigs, but respecting, commercializing even politicizing them.
Respect the pig
2019 marks another year of the pig as stated by the Chinese zodiac, the Chinese calendar and system of horology. For anyone born in the year 1959, 1971, 1983, 1995 or 2007, this year is our ben ming nian (本命年) and brings either good luck, or bad fortune depending on which legend you follow. The pig is last of all the 12 zodiac animals which are as follows: first the rat, then ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and finally the pig. The tale goes that the Jade Emperor affirmed the order of the zodiac animals would be decided by the order in which they arrived at his party … the pig came last because he overslept.
In Chinese culture, pigs represent symbol of wealth as their chubby faces and big ears are signs of fortune – hence this year more than others, shops, supermarkets and restaurants tend to display cheeky little piggy posters. A Chinese friend recently told me “Pigs represent honesty, loyalty and fortune. It’s no doubt a positive animal sign, and many Chinese parents try to plan to have a child during the year of the pig”. When those born in the year of the pig are described as “symbolizing a hardworking, peace-loving person (as well as) truthful, generous, indulgent, patient, reliable, trusting, sincere, giving and sociable with a large sense of humour and understanding”, it’s no wonder Chinese tiger parents look extend their luck to the zodiacs for superior offspring.
Eat the pig
Trying to avoid eating pork in China is difficult, unless you stick to halal restaurants, have a means to cook for yourself, or can speak fluent Chinese … but even then chefs are likely to ignore your request and go right ahead by sprinkling some of that juicy pork fat, crackling, or meat shreds over your food anyway. For many Chinese however, eating pork symbolizes wealth. In many restaurants across the mainland, dishes such as Braised pork belly or are commonly ordered among the richer of Chinese society.
China’s pork consumption (per capita) reached 39.9 kg in 2018, a marked preference against chicken (8.3kg per capita) and beef (6.1kg per capita). Throughout 2018, China imported a total of 1,192,828 tonnes of pig meat. The Sino-US trade war and the proliferation of African swine fever (ASF) in China since August 2018 however, both interrupted China’s historic preference of pork.
The volume of the USA’s offal exports to China recently plummeted by 57.5%. As such, China is quite naturally getting her revenge; in light of the trade war, the CCP has raised the tariffs on USA pork imports from 12% to 62%. Pork prices are estimated to increase by 70% according to a Chinese agriculture ministry official. An article warning that “The world is running out of pork to feed China, although China has “about 200,000 metric tons of pork in its reserves”, this may no longer be enough to keep up the nation’s growing middle-class, who eat meat at least once a day, a phenomenon those living through the famine and turbulence of the Cultural Revolution a few decades ago could only have dreamed of.
The demand may, however, be overstated. Reuters recently reported China has suffered from 126 outbreaks of African swine fever on its domestic pig farms. Whilst African swine fever kills almost all pigs infected, in reality it does not harm humans. Regardless, the way in which the disease has been reported has created a “psychological effect” among the Chinese, who are now looking for meat alternatives, certainly in the short-term, but perhaps not in the long term. In a country often plagued by food safety scandals such as fake eggs and poisonous baby milk powder, the sentiment “it’s better to be safe than sorry” is apposite. For those that choose not to listen to the news on African swine fever, of those wealthy enough to eat pork from alternative sources, the disease has had little, if any effect on their love of pork.
Politicize the pig
The most impressive case of commercializing pigs in China is undoubtedly the proliferation of Peppa Pig … and her subsequent politicization. Since it’s launch in 2015 on state-owned TV channel China Central Television, Peppa Pig’s shows have tallied over 34 billion views on social media platforms such as IQIY, Youku, Tudou and Douyin etc. The BBC said “her unfeasibly English middle-class family is, arguably, doing more for Brand Britain than the Beatles, Manchester United and any of the culinary delights (put together)”. One of my students here in Shanghai told me Peppa Pig once represented “a sort of sophistication, an awareness of British culture, and new a certain relation with new money”.
Yet it wasn’t long before Peppa was selected to symbolize a counterculture known as she hui ren社会人 or “society people” who are thought of as “poorly educated individuals with no stable job and loose morals”. Memes and tattoos or Peppa (both real and fake) as a gangster went viral. The saying “Get your Peppa Pig tatt, shout out to your frat,” also became popular.
As a consequence, in Douyin deleted more than 30,000 of its Peppa clips, and the hashtag #PeppaPig was also banned. The state-backed tabloid Global Times reported Peppa’s disappearance was due to parents and experts believing her “subversive imagery could harm positive societal morale.” … Fast-forward to 2019 and Peppa Pig merchandise is still widely available, with Shanghai recently establishing the world’s first indoor Peppa Pig theme park.
For all the political turmoil Peppa Pig (inadvertently) brought to China, utilizing her popularity to commercialize her status in selling countless products to families around China seems to be preferred – a true testament to a country adhering to socialism (and capitalism) ‘with Chinese characteristics’. In other words, it seems pigs in China are here to stay.