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5,000 years riding high on the hog

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Two thousand years ago, privileged Chinese, such as aristocrats or superrich businesspeople, could expect a lot upon their deaths.

Their remains would most likely be encased in jade armor sewn with golden thread. Their heads would be set to rest on gilt bronze pillows inlaid with jade disks. The deceased, who were likely surrounded with luxury in life, would possess two objects-flat jade cicadas in their mouths and columnar jade pigs near their hands.

"The cicadas and the pigs were de rigueur for a man honored with a proper burial, since they represented the two crucial elements anyone would have wished for," says Liu Yunhua, a researcher with the Hebei Provincial Museum in Shijiazhuang.

Items unearthed from the burial ground of a vassal king in Mancheng county in Hebei province today constitute one of the country's best-known archeological discoveries from the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220).

"Cicadas, which ancient Chinese believed fed on unspoiled dewdrops, symbolized virtue, while pigs represented wealth," Liu says.

"This funerary tradition started to form at the beginning of the Han Dynasty and had a firm hold on people's imaginations for more than three centuries. It only began to wane at the end of the Han era, when China was torn by war."

In recent decades, archeological excavations have turned up enough jade pigs-also known as zhu wo, which translates as "pig handles"-from Han tombs that almost every Chinese museum with a serious ancient jade collection displays at least one.

But the styles differ over time, says Ding Zhe, an antique-jade connoisseur.

"In the first half of the Han, the jade pigs were rendered more cursively. The entire animal was tubular, with a curled tail, pricked ears and a wrinkled snout indicated by only a few deep marks made by a hand-operated jade-grinding wheel. Today, the style is called han ba diao, or the "eight scratches of the Han knife".

"Eight" in this case refers to the artful precision with which a jade carver from the time handled the precious material."

But the style became more realistic over the next 200 years, as the jade pigs' identity as a status symbol matured.

It wasn't uncommon for aristocratic families to own pig farms, according to historical records. The life of a person whose wealth afforded ease without court politics' entanglements would have included more than a few pigs.

By that time, the pig had lost its supernatural connotations and was viewed as property.

"Long before that, pigs and their ancestors, wild boars, were given a more elevated status," Ding says.

One prominent example is the C-shaped "pig-dragon".

The jade pig-dragon was usually meticulously polished. Many have been found in what is today northern and northeastern China. The creature with an elongated body and flowing mane resembles a dragon-Chinese people traditionally call themselves descendents of the mythical, rain-producing, supernatural being-with a protruding snout.

Historians debate the snout's origins, Zhejiang Provincial Museum researcher Shi Chao says.

"Opinions differ, but most believe it may have something to do with the wild boar, which also later appeared on the belt buckles of nomadic men, who roamed the vast Eurasian steppe," Shi says.

"The boars (on the belt buckles) were often portrayed as being locked in combat with a ferocious predator, such as a tiger or lion.

"Pigs, as we know them today, are often associated with inertia. But their ancestors are anything but slow. The wild boar is vigilant and occasionally violent. It may have impressed ancient Chinese enough that they made it their totem.

"The pig-dragon curls into a circle, except for an opening between its head and tail. Ancient Chinese believed this breach could open the cycle of their mundane existences to another, celestial world."

The C-shaped pig-dragon dates from around 4000 to 3000 BC. It has long been associated with the birth of Chinese civilization and has remained a symbol until today.

Images of pigs and wild boars were incorporated into primitive belief systems as far back as the Neolithic period, archeological discoveries show.

A lot of jade wear featuring porcine imagery from this period is believed to have been used by sorcerers in sacrificial ceremonies, Ding says.

"Such rituals were so central to ancient people's lives that the inclusion of these items speaks volumes," Ding says.

A boar-shaped bronze utensil unearthed in Central China's Hunan province offers further proof, Shi says.

The bronze ware dates to around the 10th century BC. Bearing in mind that productivity was limited at that time, almost all bronze wares, which usually featured extremely sophisticated patterns, were made for use during important occasions, such as when people prayed for rain."

The bronze boar was probably a liquor container. A bird is perched on the part of its back that serves as a lid. Both sides of its body are covered in armor patterns.

The animal has bulging eyes, sharp fangs and spiky bristles. It's a fighter whose wild beauty resonated with the unbridled imagination of its time.

"Similar images were also used as prototypes for clay vases or were sketched on the pottery dating back to the Neolithic," Shi says.

Naturally, the image also implied authority. One mace topped with a jade boar head that was discovered is believed to have belonged to a powerful man about 5,000 years ago.

But things gradually changed.

Carved bricks from Han tombs were inscribed with vivid descriptions of pigs being carried to the slaughterhouse. Another find is a Han-era clay figurine of a kneeling cook preparing pork for a banquet.

Starting in the following era, pigs were portrayed as they're thought of today.

A smooth jade pig carved out of the best material of its kind in the third century is portrayed smiling. It looks round and contented, happy and harmless.

Although most people on the planet raise pigs and consume pork, there are very few places outside of China where the creature is so deeply embedded in the culture.

Take its presence in the pantheon of the Chinese zodiac animals. (The preceding ones, in order, are the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster and dog.)

The zodiac doesn't just measure time.

Like the C-shaped pig-dragon, it reflects a way of thinking, a cyclical way of seeing the universe and life-this one and the next.

During the Han Dynasty, people believed that a person should be treated the same in death as he or she was in life-hence, the jade cicadas and pigs.

But jade pigs were often found near corpses' forearms or hands rather than in their grips.

"Perhaps the hands of the deceased couldn't hold it," he says.

"However much wealth people command, there always comes a time when they have to let go of it."

China Daily


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