Outwitted by a pig. That was the shame a sister and I had to live with for much of our childhood. We spent the better part of one afternoon locked in the barn, contemplating the intelligence of pigs. We wondered if it was pure happenstance that the sow had chased us across the farmyard, and then jumped up against the pig barn door and jostled the latch enough to lock us in. She had good reason to be annoyed with us: we liked to scoop up the smallest of her litter, rinse them in the creek and then dress them in doll clothes.
Lately I’ve been contemplating the intelligence of pigs once again; there must be good reason for the Chinese to have selected the pig as one of their 12 zodiac animals. Looks can’t be it. Their bulbous-shaped bodies, floppy rag-tag ears, and long noses ending in a snout have little appeal. Their snuffling and grunting at the trough aren’t too pleasant either. And if you’ve ever stuck your nose in a pig barn, you’ll know their manure can be rather odiferous.
My big book on Chinese symbolism by C.A.S. Williams offers some enlightenment. A fancy name for the pig, he says, is ‘the long-nosed general’. Many Chinese bear the surname chu (pig) apparently in the belief evil spirits will imagine a person so named is actually an animal, and thus not worthy of tormenting.
Williams notes the symbol for pig has a roof-shaped mark, reflecting that peasants often shared quarters with their pigs. He notes a common Chinese proverb: the coming of a pig into the house betokens poverty, and the advent of a dog, riches. The essence is that pigs only eat and sleep, whereas a dog earns its keep by protecting the family.
A wild boar, according to Williams is a symbol of the wealth of the forest. It descends from its lair in the wooded hills to commit depredations upon the fields. In old times the Chinese snared them in deep pits hidden by long grass. Specimens over 400 pounds with 10-inch tusks were known to frequent the Yangtze valley.
Such wild hogs yield an important export product for China: the 2 – 6 inch long hairs or bristles, of which a single hog can yield about 6 pounds. And these bristles are used in the manufacture of brushes. Ahh…. I do indeed have some regard for the pig.
With the goal of printing cards depicting all animals of the Chinese zodiac, I hunted for guidance on painting pigs. Two kinds showed up in my art books: big roundish pink ones like those of my childhood, and the dark-skinned Vietnamese pot-bellied variety.
Jane Dwight painted a simple grey outline specimen in her Bible of Chinese Brush Painting. Her technique is to outline the main piggy shape with a detail brush and then convey some of its roundness with sidestrokes.
Dwight’s pig had large black spots on its sides, probably inspired by some of the distinctive pig breeds in her native United Kingdom. (I have inspected numerous such breeds in the Agricultural Museum in Ottawa, recalling the largest specimens were Yorkshire pigs–aka the English Great White Pig–weighing in at a hefty 500-700 pounds.)
Cheng Shifa, (the master known for painting donkeys) included several pink ones in his repertoire of rural scenes. He often painted them with children on their backs. The brushwork for pigs proved quite easy, but the addition of figures inspired me to actually finish a composition for a card. Here it is:
Pig noses bestow good luck
As I dabbed in the floral bouquet for this composition, I remembered the unusual bronze statue of a wild boar that graces a courtyard in my hometown Butchart Gardens.
The boar is seated on his hind legs; passersby rub his nose for luck and hence it remains shiny, whereas the remainder of his body has aged to dark patina. Turns out he is a copy of an Italian statue created centuries ago in a small village in Florence, Italy. The website for Butchart Gardens tells us:
“The boar is a rare bronze copy of a casting of the marble statue displayed in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. This bronze is known affectionately as “Tacca,” in honor of Pietro Tacca, the artist who created the statue in 1620. His snout is finely burnished by thousands of visitors who give it an affectionate rub for good luck. Tacca is dedicated to all the children and dogs who visit The Gardens. “
I discover ‘il porcellino’ meaning ‘piglet’ is the name Pietro Tacca gave to his original sitting boar with the lucky nose. The musical name rolls around in my head as I continue to paint pigs.
Soon I’m back to contemplating the intelligence of pigs. A little research confirms scientists are impressed with piggy brains. But then the wild boars inhabiting the ravines in Edmonton and rural Manitoba, and those in France trained to ‘rustle up the truffles’ are strong evidence. And who knows what genes our old Susie passed on to her progeny. (How coincidental is that: the formal designation of pig is Sus scrofa domesticus. Our Susie was well named.)