A History of Pigs in China: From Curious Omnivores to Industrial Pork

Cover of November 2020 issue of the Journal of Asian Studies

The November 2020 issue of the Journal of Asian Studies is now available online at Cambridge Core. AAS Members can access the issue by logging in at our new member portal (see here for instructions if this is your first time visiting) and selecting the “Membership” menu, then clicking on “Members-Only Benefits” and scrolling down to the link for “Read the Journal of Asian Studies.” You will be taken to the Cambridge Core website and automatically logged in.

The November 2020 issue of JAS includes a research article co-authored by Brian Lander (Brown University), Mindi Schneider (Wageningen University, the Netherlands), and Katherine Brunson (Wesleyan University), “A History of Pigs in China: From Curious Omnivores to Industrial Pork.” In this piece the three authors trace human-pig interactions in China, exploring how over centuries the place of the animals changed, “from wild pigs through their long history as village pigs to their current status as capitalist pigs.” Despite these different iterations, the relationship between humans and pigs has remained a fundamental and inseparable one in China.

In the JAS Author Interview below, historian Peter Braden (2020-21 An Wang Postdoctoral Fellow at the Harvard University Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies) speaks with Brian Lander, who is Assistant Professor of Environment and Society & History at Brown. (Lander notes that while the JAS article is a collaborative work among the three co-authors, the responses here are his own thoughts and opinions.)

Peter Braden: One of the strongest points in the paper was the recognition of porcine agency, as for instance on page 4 when you discuss how pigs came to scavenge at human encampments. The animals were not simply passive objects, in other words, but participants in their own domestication. Have you considered the possibility that pigs were not only agents who affected events, but also historical subjects who had interior, emotional responses to the events in which they took part? If not, why not? And if so, how might we explore some of these subjective responses? 

Brian Lander: Anyone who knows a dog or cat is well aware that they are conscious beings with strong preferences about how they would like to live, and the same is true of many other animals. There is no way for a historian to prove that pigs would prefer not to be penned, but farmers know that if they leave the door of the pen open then the pig will go out to explore the neighborhood. I am nonetheless a bit skeptical of the academic trend of emphasizing the agency of non-humans since it seems to project a liberal vision of individual freedom onto the natural world. Most humans in history have had a limited range of options in life, so we should not overemphasize human agency either. And as the COVID pandemic has reminded us, we are parts of complex ecological systems that we don’t understand very well and have limited control over. To write the history of animals we need to learn as much as possible about the biology of the species in question so that we can imagine what their lives are like, and then combine those insights with the information we find in written and other sources to tell a story of animal lives.
PB: An undergraduate history course on Chinese civilization might focus on a handful of significant turning points or “watersheds,” such as Qin Shihuang’s unification, the introduction of double-cropping rice, the Mongol conquest, and so on. Now that you and your co-authors have admirably demonstrated how humans, pigs, and their respective microbial communities interacted, could you design an undergraduate course for a multispecies human-pig-microbe history of China from ancient times to the present? What events or trends would make it onto your syllabus? And how might a multispecies focus change our understanding of Chinese history? 
BL: Two years ago, I taught an undergraduate seminar on “Animals and Plants in Chinese History.” Preparing for that class revealed just how little English-language scholarship there is on the histories of key species in East Asian history. There are great works on luxury plants like tea, sugar, opium, and tobacco. There is also great scholarship on animals of specific interest to elites, such as silkworms and horses. But these are not the most important species in China’s history. If you could randomly select a few hundred people in East Asia over the past few millennia and ask them which plants and animals really matter in their lives, those that would come up the most often would be more mundane ones like millets, rice, wheat, soybeans, oranges, peaches, bamboo, hemp, cotton, chickens, pigs, donkeys, dogs, and sheep. These species have been parts of people’s lives for millennia and are often mentioned in passing in historical texts, but there is little historical scholarship specifically focused on them. Our pig article is written to help address this, and perhaps also to suggest a methodology for doing this kind of work. Microbes are also very important, but until recently it was impossible to conclusively identify historical diseases. New DNA technologies are rapidly changing this, and the next few decades will bring a whole new understanding of microscopic life in human history. Katherine Brunson and David Reich published a fascinating article last year on the insights we can expect in the future from ancient DNA research (Trends in Genetics vol. 35).

Periodization is an interesting way to think about multispecies history. One way to divide China’s history would be waves of domesticates. A few species like rice, millets, dogs, and pigs, were domesticated over 7,000 years ago, making it possible for people to gradually settle down and start systematically exploiting one another’s labor. A few thousand years later, domesticated sheep, cattle, and then horses arrived from the other end of Eurasia, allowing people to exploit grasslands, and eventually leading to pastoral nomadism. And then in the sixteenth century New World crops arrived, allowing people to colonize huge areas of forested hills and mountains in the south and west, and probably allowing China’s human population to grow into the hundreds of millions. The flipside of domestication is habitat destruction. As people’s ability to build their own ecosystems improved, they transformed landscapes across the subcontinent, eventually wiping out much of the native flora and fauna. Another way to approach the historical relationships between people and their environments would be through technology, since people’s ability to exploit certain plants and animals depends entirely on their ability to process or harness them.

PB: Reading your eye-opening transnational account of selective breeding, I wondered whether you consider your work a contribution to the field of diaspora studies. What are some potential risks and benefits of viewing the mass movement of intelligent nonhumans such as pigs in context with mass movements of groups of humans?

BL: I first thought about these kinds of ideas while reading Alfred Crosby’s book Ecological Imperialism, which shows that Europeans were able to conquer huge areas of the earth not because they were strong or smart, but because they travelled in multi-species communities of microbes, plants, and animals that all invaded new lands together. When I think about how humans move pig breeds around, I understand it in the context of humans becoming a key force rebuilding global ecosystems. Most of the human population on earth is now of Old World (Afro-Eurasian) ancestry. Most of the mammalian biomass on earth is composed of humans and a handful of species domesticated in Eurasia. And domesticated chickens outweigh all the wild birds on earth. The way I think of it is that before 1492 you have a long process whereby agricultural societies expand across large areas of the Old World and become increasingly complex. European agriculturalists then spread this system across the rest of the planet while using modern science to intensify the domestication of the most productive species. This ongoing process is greatly simplifying the earth’s ecology, replacing diverse ecosystems with monocultures that produce a handful of domesticated crops. Much of our farmland is now used to grow soy and maize to feed cattle and pigs in “concentrated animal feeding operations.” Rather than compare this process to a diaspora, it strikes me as being more similar to the spread of a disease. In any case, I think that once we think of human societies as ecosystems we can immediately see lots of fascinating new possibilities for historical research.

 PB: Particularly in the final pages, the article points out the dangers and downsides of industrial pork production. These are framed mostly in terms of their hazards to humans, via zoonotic diseases, declining antibiotic efficacy, and environmental pollution. Is it possible for scholars to rigorously discuss industrial meat production from the perspective of the animals themselves? How might a pig tell the history of Chinese livestock husbandry in the last century? Or is this beyond the scope of responsible scholarly analysis? 

BL: It would be a great idea to tell the history of Chinese livestock husbandry from the perspective of pigs. Mindi Schneider has done great work on the industrialization of pig farming, but there is not much research on the lives of pigs in family farms. Just as there were many different breeds of pigs in China, there was also a great diversity in the lives of pigs. For example, a pig in the pen of a wealthier household would probably get tastier leftovers than one whose owners were poorer. And pigs in less populated regions were let out to forage, while others never left their pens.

If we look at industrial meat production from the perspective of the animals involved, we are immediately reminded of the most horrible things humans have ever done to one another. Scholars tend to stay away from explicit comparisons with human history because people whose relatives were murdered or enslaved understandably find it offensive to hear them compared to livestock. This is especially the case because depicting specific groups of people as animals has often been an effective step in convincing other people to accept their oppression. More concretely, the technologies people use to brutalize one another are often the same ones we use on animals, as shown in Reviel Netz’s book Barbed Wire. I’d say that telling the history of the meat industry from a pig’s perspective would not be irresponsible at all, but most people would find it unbearable to read. I highly recommend Bong Joon-ho’s film Okja, which does a good job of depicting the experiences of animals in the meat industry by fictionalizing their situations just enough that the viewer can choose to tell themselves that it’s not real.

This is Number 8 in the “JAS Author Interviews” series at #AsiaNow. Click here to see all posts in the series.