Pigs, Pork, and Ham in Early Modern Chinese Society


A review of Pigs, Pork, and Ham: The Practice of Pig-Farming and the Consumption of Pork in Ming-Qing China, by Chung-Hao Kuo.

Chung-Hao Kuo’s dissertation takes a macro view of Chinese history through the lens of one indispensable feature on the dinner table of almost every Chinese: pork. Writing in delicious detail, Kuo historicizes the production and consumption of pork, describing how it became the country’s most widely consumed meat in conjunction with broader social and economic change. He traces its evolution through an interdisciplinary perspective, involving anthropological theory, the latest findings from the history of food, and social and economic history. He also makes use of a wide array of Chinese-language primary sources from ancient times to the Qing Dyynasty.

Kuo begins with an examination of pig farming. As he shows, pork did not constitute a major source of meat before the Tang Dynasty (618-907 C.E.). Because China’s population and commercial centers were overwhelmingly concentrated in the north, close to the Central Asian steppes containing plenty of grass and other forage, lamb enjoyed distinction as the meat of choice. The marginal status of pigs only improved during the Tang-Song transition (eleventh to thirteenth centuries) when the Yangzi River Delta became the country’s most populous and commercialized region. The relatively moderate climate of the south and the widespread cultivation and consumption of rice, which meant less space devoted to foraging animals, proved more amenable for pig farming. Pigs could breed under crowded conditions and consume leftovers from humans.

As pork entered the mainstream of Chinese dietary customs over the Yuan (1271-1368) and Ming (1368-1644) periods, the meat came to be touted for its health and medicinal benefits. Over the course of the Ming, it attracted appreciation as a delicacy in its own right to be savored and enjoyed. Here, Kuo skillfully and exhaustively analyzes the cookbooks authored by gentry, and examines different pork recipes to trace this evolution. By the Qing, pork consumption had become so commonplace that eighteenth century cookbooks admit that it was China’s most popular meat.

Another element of Kuo’s dissertation involves a treatment of specialty meats, especially the delicacy of Jinhua ham. He places it in a comparative framework with the Spanish jamón ibérico. He also utilizes the concept of terroir, or the elements of soil, water, and specialized production techniques of a particular locality, to describe Jinhua ham’s rise to prominence. The term terroir originated in France within the context of wine production. Kuo relates it to a similar Chinese concept, known as fengtu: literally wind and soil.

The rise of Jinhua ham, from southern Zhejiang, could not be possible, of course, without the prevalence of pig farming. It also depended upon a commercialized economic network that could allow for the smooth circulation of products. Interestingly enough, Kuo points out that the curing methods for Jinhua ham did not originate in Jinhua, but in nearby Huizhou, home to a large contingent of merchants. Huizhou-based merchants brought their expertise to Jinhua, where they combined with the special pig breeds and feeding regimes native to the prefecture to create a system of meat processing that he calls “localized technical skills” (see, for instance, p. 345). Starting from the late Ming and early Qing, Jinhua ham acquired a reputation as an item of conspicuous consumption and a lubricant for relations between Han and Manchu, and became touted for its medicinal benefits. Soon, duplicates and watered down versions of the meat appeared in nearby cities. During the Qing, many recipe books taught the reader how to discern the real from the fake, showing that many utilized this knowledge as a means of brand recognition and status differentiation. The trajectory of Jinhua ham thus mirrored that of pork in general: depreciation from an item of medicinal value to rare delicacy and, finally, to commonplace dish (for most varieties).

Kuo’s dissertation demonstrates in mouth-watering specificity the importance of a holistic view of history that transcends the traditional confines of periodization and academic disciplines. He takes something seemingly so mundane, so timeless, and so “Chinese” as pork, and historicizes it. He shows that the prominence of pork, too, came about as a result of a long process of evolution in which the outcome was often contingent upon changing political, social, economic, and cultural factors. Indeed, pork only became established without question as China’s favorite meat dish during the late eighteenth century.

Kuo’s dissertation makes a significant contribution to the budding field of the history of food and the discourse on objects, expanding upon the pioneering works of Craig Clunas (Superfluous Things: Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991), Timothy Brook (The Confusion of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), and others on the significance of consumption in historical development. It also provides a case study of the broader application of technology for the preparation and production of food, strengthening the case made by Francesca Bray (Technology and Gender: Fabrics of Power in Late Imperial China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997) for the need to widen the definition of innovation and technology in early modern societies. Finally, Kuo highlights literati cookbooks as part of a distinct urban culture in Ming and Qing China, providing neutral spaces that mediated between official and private interests (see Tobie Meyer-Fong, Building Culture in Early Qing Yangzhou. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003). In sum, Kuo Chung-Hao’s study is worthy for the reader to relish and feast upon.

Xing Hang
Department of History
Brandeis University

Primary Sources

Local gazetteers of Jinhua, Huizhou, and surrounding areas
Classical Chinese canons
Agricultural treatises and medical texts
Literati works

Dissertation Information

New York University. 2013. 377 pp. Primary Advisor: Joanna Waley-Cohen.

Image: Meat stall in China. Image by author.

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