Happy Chinese New Year, loyal readers – or, as the original name 春节 is translated, Spring Festival.
2018 was the Year of the Dog; 2019 is the Year of the Pig. More specifically, 2019 is the Year of the Earth Pig (more on that in a future post). The pig concludes the twelve-year zodiac cycle; as the story goes, he finished last in the race because he overslept and arrived late.
When I think “pig”, three images come to mind: the green blobs called pigs in Angry Birds, the Communist pigs in Animal Farm, and Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web. Generally, you want no association with pigs. In non-Muslim Chinese culture, however, pigs carry an auspicious meaning.
Chubbiness traditionally symbolizes wealth and good fortune in China, as it indicates that you have plenty to eat, so the chubby pig represents prosperity. The Chinese character for “family” further demonstrates the pig’s connection to this positive meaning. This pictographic character 家 (jiā) depicts part of the character for pig – 猪 (zhū) – under the radical that means roof. Broken down, the character for “family” is pig under a roof, which suggests that you cannot have a home without a pig.
Related to its association with wealth and good fortune (i.e., having enough to eat), the pig is tied to feasting. In China, pork is the main meat; if a menu lists the meat in a recipe as simply “meat” (肉), it is most likely pork.
Beyond being sources of food, pigs were also sources of aid in ancient China. The Chinese would sculpt small, cylindrical pigs from jade or soapstone that their deceased loved ones could hold as they entered the afterlife. As the pig brought prosperity in life, so it might also in death. You can see an example of these pig tokens at the Cleveland Museum of Art, here.
In the classic literature Journey to the West, the pig also earns a hat-tip, though he does not occupy as fortunate a role as before. In the story, three creatures aide the monk Xuanzang in his quest to the west. A half-human, half-pig character named Zhu Bajie is among them. Because of his careless behavior, he often finds himself and his companions in a good deal of trouble alone the way!
While the symbolic treatment of pigs in the West follows more closely with the character of Zhu Baijie, for the most part he boasts an auspicious position in Chinese culture. For more about what the pig means in the Chinese zodiac and about the Spring Festival in general, I recommend this eye-catching article at the South China Morning Post.