China’s first viral sensation of 2019 was the trailer for “Peppa Celebrates Chinese New Year” — a feature-length “Peppa Pig” movie. In it, an old Chinese farmer wants to find a “Peppa” to give his beloved, city-dwelling grandson, but first he must answer a key question: “What’s a Peppa?” In the end, he creates his own steampunk, scrap metal version of the character based on a neighbor’s description. Real-life audiences fell head over heels with this makeshift Peppa Pig in part because of the perfect timing of the ad’s release: 2019 just so happens to be the Year of the Pig.
The pig is the 12th and last sign in the Chinese zodiac cycle. Round, chubby, and doltish as they may look, to Chinese, pigs have long been symbols of fortune, prosperity, and agrarian society more broadly. But society has changed rapidly over the past few decades, and today, Chinese millennials have begun appropriating pig imagery for their own purposes — turning pigs into icons of modern urban culture in the process.
On the most basic level, pigs have played a crucial role in rural Chinese culture for thousands of years. For Han Chinese, no Lunar New Year feast is complete without pork. As the holiday approaches, villages around the country celebrate by “killing a New Year’s pig,” the meat of which is then cooked and shared among residents. Urban Chinese buy pork to marinate, or their rural relatives might send them sausages that they then hang from the eaves in advance of the big day.
The place of pork in the Chinese diet can be traced back to the Neolithic Age. Archaeological evidence from both the Yellow River region in north-central China and the lower reaches of the Yangtze River in eastern China indicates that pigs were being raised as livestock as early as 8,000 years ago. However, the availability of pork remained limited for much of Chinese history, and it was typically affordable on a day-to-day basis only to members of the ruling class — indeed, the word for “meat-eater” was synonymous with “ruler.” Given this, the number of pigs a family owned became a key indicator of wealth. In Confucius’ lifetime — roughly 2,500 years ago — students might present their teachers with 10 strips of dried pork. This was both a mark of respect and a form of compensation for the teacher.
Over the past 40 years, however, pork has gone from a luxury item to an everyday fixture. At the same time, its price has become a point of sensitivity for Chinese consumers. Some Chinese even jokingly refer to the Consumer Price Index as the “China Pig Index.”
On a cultural level, the Chinese character for “home” or “house” is a pictograph of a pig underneath a roof. The character for “tomb” also contains a pig: People in ancient times believed that in order to ensure a comfortable afterlife, the dead should be buried with riches. Consequently, pottery pigs were a common accessory in tombs, and wealthy Chinese were sometimes even entombed clutching jade pigs in their hands. And pig bones and pig teeth are common finds at more ancient gravesites.
Elsewhere, excavations of graves from the Hongshan culture — a Neolithic civilization that stretched across what is now northern China from the eastern reaches of the modern-day Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region to Liaoning province — have turned up pig dragons, jade articles featuring the coiled body of a dragon with the head of a pig. In Chinese culture, dragons are legendary beasts whose features are an amalgamation of various other animals, and the jade pig-dragon shows that pigs were no exception.
A pig dragon jade. From the website of Liaoning Provincial Museum
Pigs aren’t immune to some of the negative stereotypes that exist in other cultures, but perhaps due to their unique combination of pudginess, slow wit, and cute factor, these connotations are not always bad. For instance, you might say someone is “as lazy as a pig,” “as fat as a pig,” or “as stupid as a pig,” but these same traits are sometimes associated with unpretentiousness or even charm.
Portrayals of the pig-man demigod Zhu Bajie from the classic novel “Journey to the West” are an example of this dichotomy at work. He eats a lot; he’s fat, lazy, and constantly being scolded by the Monkey King for being a “dimwit;” and yet his appearance belies an uncommon cunning and guile. These, along with his clumsy but kind mien, are all traits he shares in common with popular depictions of the country’s peasants — themselves the foundation of traditional Chinese agrarian society.
Then there’s Peppa Pig, the up-and-coming porcine star of a modern-day pop culture phenomenon. Hailing from England, Peppa Pig’s face is drawn in a Picasso-esque cubist style, and she began life as the titular character of a cartoon series aimed at very young children. The typical “Peppa Pig” story is a short and simple tale of an idealized family life.
However, when the show’s fifth season premiered in 2017, some Chinese netizens began overlaying subversive or even radical captions atop emoji and GIFs from the show, while others cut together dubbed mash-up videos known as guichu — often in dialects other than Mandarin. From there, Peppa Pig’s fan base soon expanded from young children to teenagers, young adults, and other highly active social media users. Quickly becoming known as the “gangster pig,” Peppa’s likeness could be found on everything from backpacks and snacks to tattoos and watches. People were clearly enamored with this odd-couple pairing of a pink pig and hood culture, and the subculture even developed its own slogan: “Get your Peppa Pig tatt, shout out to your frat!”
Around the same time, another pig-related identity was beginning to gain traction on social media: “little miss piggy,” which refers to female foodies who might look like slow-witted, lazy homebodies, but who are actually kind, easygoing, and approachable.
A woman sends a “Peppa Pig” Gif in Shanghai, Feb. 2, 2019. Ding Yining/Sixth Tone
The “little miss piggy” moniker appeals to many girls who feel they have merely ordinary characteristics – but who were still cute and worthy of love. The appellation soon linked up with Peppa Pig’s growing cultural status in the form of “fancy miss piggy” Gifs, which typically feature images of Peppa admiring herself in the mirror and exclaiming about her beauty.
Pigs would appear to have a universal appeal that transcends their somewhat plain appearance. A key part of rural Chinese culture for millennia, they’ve become symbols of urban cool or countercultural rebellion. This shift in attitudes ties back into the way people feel about pigs as animals: they may be lowly, simple creatures with no particularly remarkable traits, but they are nevertheless a helpful, steady, and even lovable constant in people’s lives. It’s an interesting combo, and one that perhaps goes a long way toward explaining how pigs managed to snag a spot as the twelfth and last zodiac sign!
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Zhang Bo and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A girl holds a Peppa Pig balloon during an event in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, March 2, 2019. Deng Yinming/VCG)