The twelfth and final year in the Chinese zodiac, the Year of the Pig, is fast approaching. While pigs tend to have gluttonous, negative connotations in Europe and America, they’re considered symbols of wealth and generosity in China. And people born in the Year of the Pig (1983, 1995, 2007) are considered to be reliable, energetic, fun-loving but moderate individuals blessed with good fortune.
The myth of the Chinese Zodiac states the Jade Emperor (or in some versions, Gautama Buddha) summoned the animals to a meeting or party, for which they would need to cross a river, and that the years would be named in order of their arrival. Stories vary as to whether the pig was late because he’d stopped for a snack and a nap or because he was a slow swimmer, but regardless he snuffled up after the other eleven animals. In addition to overseeing a year, Chinese culture traditionally assigned a month and an hour to pigs. The Hour of the Pig is 21:00 to 22:59, as legend has it that this is the time when the pig is doing what it does best: settling in for a good snooze.
Pigs and boars have long played a role in Asian cultures and societies. Countries with a heavy Chinese influence treat pork as a delicacy while countries with a large Muslim population avoid eating pork entirely as the Quran prohibits it in no less than five instances. Historians believe that wild boars originated in Southeast Asia millions of years ago, during the Early Pleistocene era, but that it was people in southern China who were the first to domesticate them about 10,000 years ago. Thanks to humans, boars and pigs are now some of the widest-ranging mammals in the world.
In 2014, The Economist published a lengthy piece on the role of pigs and pork in China, noting that: “Pigs have been at the centre of Chinese culture, cuisine and family life for thousands of years. Pork is the country’s essential meat. In Mandarin the word for ‘meat’ and ‘pork’ are the same. The character for ‘family’ is a pig under a roof. ”
For much of history, however, even as recent as thirty years ago, pork was a luxury for most Chinese. No surprise then that as the economy boomed and pork became more readily available, the pig has become more firmly a symbol of the nation’s wealth and success.
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An Irish-American residing in Singapore, Laura Jane O’Gorman Schwartz is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. Her work has been featured in publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The Shanghai Literary Review.