Was China essential in the development of modern pig keeping practises

Reference & Education

  • Author David Steven Chalmers
  • Published April 12, 2023
  • Word count 2,165


While the practise of pig rearing has been common throughout both Europe and Asia it appears china was one of the most prominent civilisation for the practise. Meanwhile European pig farmers would not develop more sophisticated practises until the 16th century. The question is whether later trade with china was key to Europeans to adopt these more modern practises. Until later centuries European pig farmers would mostly mast feed their pigs, making pigs less viable causing farmers prefer cattle and sheep. Meanwhile china was sty feeding their pigs since the neolithic era allowing for much more efficient selective breeding and meat production. However, trade with china in terms of livestock would not occur until much later than Europeans adopted the sty system. While introduction to Chinese breeds would create a more efficient gene pool available to European pig farmers particularly for the industrial revolution.


Pigs have been domesticated across Eurasia for around 9000 years independently in several different countries with different methods and levels of success. China has in particular had a long history with pig rearing with an estimated 180 million farmers rearing pigs today commercially and for personal consumption. In addition to this pig dung is used widely across china as a domestic crop fertiliser with crop waste being fed back into their hogs. Today china is one of the largest producers of pork ranging small backyard farms to large scale industrial farms (Cheng. H, et al, 2011). Meanwhile Europe has had a more tumultuous time developing a pig rearing system, it has been though several European civilisations have developed pig rearing systems independently. As such it is implied that Europe was not been able to develop more efficient methods for pig rearing and fattening until later trade with China. The purpose of this essay is to look at historical accounts for both China and Europe in terms of how pig rearing methodology developed and when they would have reached the more modern approach of sty rearing and foddering. This will be done by looking at historical events from both areas to compare their styles of pig rearing and see what overlaps of methodology occur.

Early development for Chinese pig farmers.

Between the 6th and 2nd millennium BC China was one of the main countries in Asia for rearing both pigs and dogs domestically. During the bronze age trade existed between central Asia and eastern and central China which mostly included livestock, including pigs as well as farming methods and technology. By the 2nd millennium a dietary shift occurred for domestic pigs in north western Asia towards cultivated crops and farming by-products. Prior to the second millennium BC communities in northern china had an entire economy based on pig rearing and millet farming, this was linked due to pigs feeding on millet. It is thought that pigs were kept in social enclosures to restrict their movement encouraging growth and ensuring their dependence on farmers. As trade across the Hexi corridor increased diet of domestic Chinese pigs diverged further alongside regional variation into other livestock management alongside pigs such as stall-feeding cattle somewhat based on pig sties (Vaiglova. P, et al, 2021).

From early neolithic fossils significant divergences can be seen between wild and domestic pigs in china. This implies China had a complex domestication process between 8000 to 4000 BC which involved Chinese farmers keeping their pig stock separate from their wild cousins. It is thought that these practises would have changed from extensive herding during the Yang Shao period to entirely household rearing during the Han dynasty. This would have involved foddering with millet and other agricultural by-products as well as household scraps. Changes to Chinese pig rearing may have been due to economic and political changes during the Han dynasty as well as some climate changes. Droughts may have cause pig herds to collapse leading pig farmers to keep small amounts around their home to maintain sustainable food sources (Cucchi. T, et al, 2016, Pechenkina. E. A, et al, 2005). Typical daily life for Chinese peasants involved pigs to the extent the Chinese character for home for home was a pig under a roof. Before the advent of commercial fertilisers, the way peasants would fertilise their crops would be pig manure. This shows farmers

were reliant on pigs even outside pork, of which China is still the largest producer off (Chen. C, et al, 2022).

Archaeological evidence suggests that while pigs where the most common domesticated animal in neolithic China hunted meat was still more predominant with pig bones accounting for 14-41% of animal bones found on site. Domestic pigs were commonly fed on human refuse in later eras, this implies that keeping pigs in confinement and foddering was common early on. Some evidence suggests that pigs where also used as sacrifices and specific feasts implying Chinese cultures may have developed specialised rearing programmes. Depending on their purpose some pigs may have been fed better than some humans around them particularly if they were reared for religious purposes. by the late neolithic many pig sties were connected to latrines and household refuse bins to assist in feeding the animal. This is a practise would later become used throughout Asia with a well-known example being the traditional method of rearing Jeju black pigs in South Korea. However, neolithic practises where not perfectly efficient as around 90% of a pig’s caloric intake would be lost on metabolic process. (Pechenkina. E. A, et al, 2005).

Problems for early European pig farmers.

Archaeological sites in Europe are dominated by livestock bones including pigs showing they have been common for some time on the continent. Though in the early to late medieval periods cattle and sheep tended to be more commonplace as seen in records for the doomsday survey. Pigs were often found in assemblages in rural sites implying they were commonly slaughtered on site. Smoking was common practise for pork due to it being more commonly killed for household consumption with only a few males reared for sale (Albarella. U, 1999). Pigs where quite commonplace in medieval England due to their foraging ability, allowing for conversion of various materials to edible meat and fat. This led to the theory where not the multifunction animal they are today and were just for meat. The main method for European pig keeping was pannage where pigs are loosely managed and moved seasonally released into forests to root. This is a highly unreliable method and was argued was not the only method of pig rearing as some evidence suggests pigs were fed on waste marshes, pastures and other rubbish. One reason or the decline of mast feeding (letting pigs forage in forests, usually on fallen nuts, roots and fruit) may have been decline in woodlands due to an increase in urban areas and cultivated land. While sheep and cow rearing would have been more popular due pasture feeding which pig’s more destructive rooting behaviour would be incompatible with (Hamilton. J, Thomas. R, 2012).

Historical evidence suggests pannage declined by the 11th- 12th centuries and was replaced by sty feeding utilising legumes, cereals and waste from breweries and dairies. This was furthered in the 14th century when specific products were grown for the purpose of pig feed (Hamilton. J, Thomas. R, 2012). From the late medieval period onwards domestic livestock including pigs began to get larger implying a greater efficiency of both breeding and fattening. Evidence suggests that in the 17th century that new breeds where introduced may have augmented the gene pool of European stock. This led to greater efficiency in producing meat, pig would get larger faster meaning they could be slaughtered at an earlier age making them a more efficient investment for farmers (Albarella. U, 1997). As can be assumed pigs were not as beloved in Europe as in China as pigs could be quite damaging to medieval townscapes if left uncontrolled. There is evidence that in the 1300s domestic pigs were left to wander by their owners which resulted in property damage, injuries and even fatalities making European pig keeping a somewhat undesirable element. As a result of this it began becoming mandatory for pigs to kept in sties and pigs wandering without an owner could be legally killed. This is a sign of adopting a sty system many centuries after China though not through interaction with China (Jorgensen. D, 2013).

Livestock was essential part of urban economy as such urbanisation may have been a major factor in the development of the European sty system. Swine products became an increasingly popular in European towns to sty rearing pigs becoming increasingly cheaper. A pig’s omnivorous diet made them more suitable to urban environments as they would not require grazing like herbivores. Another form of evidence was local governments to try to regulate pig rearing practises, however records were only kept on incidents making it hard to get a good feel for general processes. As of the 15th century pigs could only be removed from their sties at allocated times for sanitisation which of course led to further disputes over proper waste disposal. While this was going on it seems countryside farmers still kept to traditional methods such as swine herding and mast feeding. The 16th century sties where standardised as closed rooms with stone floors with pigs being fed on domestic waste such as brewery dregs. This was the beginning of pigs being used as waste recyclers being fed butchery waste and even excrement, even specific occupations such as bakers and brewers keeping pigs to help dispose of their businesses’ waste (Jorgensen. D, 2013).

Interaction between Europe and China

Chinese breeds and farming methods were first introduced to European nations such as England at around 1700. However, by this point many European nations had already begun to adopt sty systems at this point so it is unlikely this would have had a significant impact on European pig farmers. It is possible however that the interbreeding of Chinese and European pig stock may have been the actual catalyst to modern European pig keeping. Being kept in sties for many more centuries, Chinese breeds would have had many more generations to adapt and evolve traits such as faster weight gain and tolerance to more intensive practises. Meanwhile mast feeding would not protect pigs from natural evolutionary pressures as they would still need to move long distances and potentially fend off predators. These pigs would also interbreed with wild stock making selective breeding for European stock highly difficult. After their introduction to European stock Chinese descended genes would eventually become dominant in the pork industry. As industrialisation would later occur intensive farming would become more standard newer generation hybrids of Chinese and European stock would become popular while older leaner breeds would either go extinct or become niche breeds (White. S, 2011).


From what has been read it seems that while China has always been more advanced in pig rearing due to a greater cultural dependence on them. While in Europe ruminants like cows and sheep were much easier for farmers to rear and breed making pigs a more secondary concern for many farmers. These factors would cause pig rearing methods to remain much more primitive in Europe as easier livestock were always more available. However, it seems that as time goes on pig farming in Europe would start to advance towards sty keeping as more traditional free ranged became more undesirable. Of course, the millennia head start saw Chinese stock evolve into more suitable livestock breeds. It seems that it was the genetics of Chinese pig breeds that allowed European pig farming to modernise rather than methods. And while pigs under European methods would have eventually evolved in a similar fashion to their Chinese cousins, it would have taken significantly longer. So, while China was not arguably essential for the development of modern pig keeping it certainly helped catalyse it in time for events such as the industrial revolution.


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White. S, 2011. From Globalised pig breeds to capitalist pigs: a study in animal cultures and evolutionary history. Environmental history 16 (94-120).

I am a Medical Laboratory assistant and part time essayist with an interest in natural history and livestock managent.

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