Yesterday I made a trip to the Jianchuan Museum in Anren, a small town about 140 km west of Chengdu. It was actually a pilgrimage to see 猪坚强, the hero pig of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake. 猪坚强 (zhu jianqiang),whose name means “strong pig”, is a celebrated cultural figure and beacon of hope, and was named China’s most inspirational animal in 2008. Zhang Yunteng and Jin Bo even collaborated to write a song and make a music video about her. It’s worth watching.
The hero pig’s story is pretty remarkable. On June 17, 2008, a group of soldiers with a rescue team in Pengzhou found this persistent piggy under the rubble of a house that collapsed during the May 12 earthquake. She survived for 36 days by eating charcoal and drinking rainwater. When the soldiers found her, she weighed only 50 kg (110 lbs), about a third of her pre-disaster weight.
News of this unlikely survivor spread, and soon Chinese netizens were begging that the pig never be slaughtered, some even offering to take care of her themselves. But after loosing everything in the earthquake, the pig’s owner, Wan Xinming, had no way to feed her.
Enter Dr. Fan Jianchuan, founder and curator of the Jianchuan Museum. Dr. Fan bought the pig from Mr. Wan for 3,008 RMB ($438), and named her “strong pig”, with the nickname “Baby 36” for the 36 days she survived in the rubble. Dr. Fan vowed that the pig would never end up on the wrong end of a chopstick, and would spend the rest of her days as part of the Wenchuan Earthquake display at his museum.
Okay. So there’s a national hero pig living only an hour’s bus ride away from me. Can you imagine my excitement at the prospect of meeting her? Or my disappointment when we arrived at the museum only to find said hero slumped motionless in the corner of a concrete cage? Having plumped up to over 150 kg (330 lbs), Lady Strong Pig seeming to have about as much spunk as a Krispy Kreme-fed human couch potato. I couldn’t even find her at first, hidden as she was behind an enormous plow on display for its role in clearing rubble in the earthquake.
Let me describe the scene. 猪坚强’s cage is built into the side of an outdoor concrete structure, and is about 10’ x 10’. The only thing in the cage is the hero pig herself, and her feeding trough from Tuanshan Village, on display but empty. Above her are photos and descriptions of her significance — images of a skinny pig crawling out from under debris, and of a happy, much plumper pig feeding on greens.
I guess I just wasn’t prepared for this scene. I’d read media stories about Baby 36, all of which extolled her posh post-quake lifestyle, and included pictures of her frolicking in green fields. I’d even seen video of her romping about. So when I met the hero pig, I sort of felt like I was meeting the washed-up, retired version of herself, almost like Mikey Rourke’s character in The Wrestler, but with less desire to stay on top. I wanted her to do something heroic, or at least stand up so I could have a proper picture taken with her. Instead, we visited her cage 3 times over the span of 4 hours, and each time found her in the same lifeless position. The best I could do is get a shot of me with her big ol’ pork butt.
Now, because I’m the type of person who can’t encounter a fly without offering some kind of analysis, and because my current obsession and life project is analyzing the Chinese pig industry (as a development sociologist), I can’t help but share a couple of thoughts about the hero pig.
First, that the miraculous animal that survives the earthquake for 36 days by scavenging for charcoal and rainwater is a pig is no surprise. Pigs eat anything and everything, and this makes them exceptional livestock, particularly for small-scale farmers. Contrary to agribusiness and researchers (as if the two are distinct these days!), pigs don’t need to be raised on a diet of corn and/or soybeans. Agribusiness needs to sell corn and soybeans, but pigs don’t need to eat them.
Second, that the hero pig’s digs are Spartan at best might possibly reflect new ideas about pig housing. I wanted to see the pig running around in a “pig sporting arena” (I’ve been to pig farms that have a yard so named), or perhaps bedding on straw with a little mud for rolling around in, or maybe she would have her own personal lanai. Instead, her home looks like the inside of a commercial pig farm, complete with a spanking clean concrete floor and metal grates for caging (Her housing was designed and provided by Baisikang Biotech Co.). I imagine that this is considered the lap of luxury, as industrial production is thought to be the height of modernity and animal welfare.
Finally, I need to look into this further, but 猪坚强 doesn’t seem to be a native Chinese breed of swine. She looks more like a Western breed, perhaps crossed with a local breed. This provides another little nugget of insight that tells us about the changing Chinese pig industry, from genetics and semen at the micro end of things, all the way to housing and marketing on a broader scale.
I don’t want to overstate my disapproval of the hero pig’s quarters at the museum. In fact, she gets taken out for walks twice a day, and was even put on a diet at one point when she became too fat and lazy. She also gets heaped with attention, and people, like the other tourists who visited her yesterday, really seem to love her. We witnessed lots of baby-talking to the pig, and people remarking at how amazing she is. My comments are more a result of reality not matching expectation. I was hoping for something more along the lines of: A girl and a hero pig, who upon catching the other’s gaze, instantly recognize a close bond of the porcine kind. The pig nuzzles the girl. The girls strokes the pig’s back. The two pose for a picture, vow to be BFFs, and to write often. Maybe this was asking too much.
 There is some disagreement about the pig’s name. Some sources list it as 朱坚强, using the Chinese surname 朱 (Zhu), which is pronounced the same as 猪(zhu), meaning pig. But at the museum, the placards use 猪坚强.
 Feeding pigs corn and soybeans (or other feed grains), of course, produces leaner meat, but this is a separate issue entirely.