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Dogs, Chickens, and Pig Shit

It has been between 15,000 and 30,000 years since dogs began living with humans, and although it is appealing to imagine that it was humans who originally domesticated man’s best friend, it is actually more likely that the ancestors of modern dogs effectively domesticated themselves—finding it evolutionarily advantageous to adopt behaviors that would permit them to live symbiotically with early humans, from whom they could then obtain food and protection. Similarly, chickens were apparently first domesticated in China about 10,000 years ago, but for much of that time they were used primarily for symbolic and social purposes, and the earliest evidence we have that they were being consumed in large numbers dates back only about 2,200 years. With both dogs and chickens, accordingly, their most salient function in the modern imagination probably did not drive their initial domestication, but rather emerged as an accidental byproduct of a different set of evolutionary or historical processes. They are, in other words, examples of what Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin call spandrels.

Han dynasty pig-sty latrine, from the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Worldwide, pork is the most common source of animal protein in the human diet—despite the fact that it is strictly proscribed under both Jewish and Islamic dietary laws. Pigs, meanwhile, are also omnivorous creatures in their own right, and have long been used not only as a source of food but also as a convenient way of disposing of organic waste. In China, for instance, there is a tradition dating back at least two millennia of using “pig latrines,” in which an outhouse is positioned directly over a pig sty, permitting the pigs to consume the human waste from the toilet—thereby concisely closing the loop between food and feces, the oral and the anal.

The contradictory connotations of pigs are particularly stark in a society such as contemporary Malaysia, where pork is a cornerstone of the cuisine of the country’s large population of ethnic Chinese, but is also strictly avoided by the country’s ethnic Malays, who currently make up a bare majority of Malaysia’s population. This ethnic-religious juncture, for instance, provides the backdrop for the 1991 short story “Dream and Swine and Aurora,” by the (Taiwan-based) Malaysian Chinese author Ng Kim Chew (黃錦樹). Published near the beginning of the author’s career, Ng’s story opens with a description of the protagonist waking up early one morning and finding her nostrils assaulted by “a peculiar odor”: “the scent was sharp, ticklish, and familiar. She rubbed her nose . . . Ah, it was pig shit.”

The narrator is a former rural pig farmer, and the stench of pig manure functions as a Proustian madeleine, pulling her back into a series of nostalgic reveries in which she relives her childhood and the early years of her marriage. The narrative is written in a stream of consciousness, alternating back and forth between the narrator’s past and present, and between her experiential reality and a set of dreams and fantasies.

During one of the flashbacks (or fantasies) near the end of the story, there are two parallel ceremonies being held for the village’s women—one for ethnically Chinese women and the other for Malays—in which government officials recognize the women’s contribution to the nation, and give them a monetary award for every for every child that they have borne. When the narrator is issued her award for having borne a dozen children, the official frowns and tells her,

"Stop raising pigs. You know that we don’t eat pork. Besides, . . . we can’t stand the smell of pig manure."

"But," she responded, "if I don’t raise pigs, we won’t have enough to eat, and furthermore . . . I won’t have money to send my children to school. If I don’t raise pigs, what would I raise?" She sounded rather forlorn.

"You could raise goats, cattle, rabbits, or even fish. Furthermore . . ." he smiled mischievously, "even if your children were to get an education, that wouldn’t necessarily mean that they’ll be able to find a job." 

She stared in shock.

The smell of pig manure assaulted her nostrils.

All of the pigs in the yard began moving at once, and began circling the yard. She heard her son cursing, "It’s not that the government has no money—they’ve taken it all to raise pigs . . . "

The final word pigs in this passage appears (in Chinese) in handwritten typescript in Ng’s original text—emblematizing the degree to which pigs, in the work, represent a crucial point of tension and instability not only in the narrator’s own life and in the Sino-Malaysian society in which she lives, but also in Ng Kim Chew’s story itself. The story is written in high modernist form, making abundant use of stream-of-consciousness narration and an emphatically non-linear narrative structure. The story begins and ends with onomatopoeic strings of characters representing the sound of a train but lacking any semantic value ("WOO . . . KUNG KUNG KUNG KUNG  . . . WOO!"), and although it is composed in Chinese, it contains many Malay loanwords and other local dialect. The (faux) handwritten pigs, accordingly, is symptomatic of a more general process wherein the Chinese-language story pushes up against its own linguistic limits, underscoring not only the multilingual environment of Malaysian society, but also the various non-semantic dimensions of language itself. Ng Kim Chew, who is not only a prize-winning author in his own right but also a well-regarded scholar of modern Chinese literature, is even more experimental in his use of language in some of his subsequent works. For instance, in his 2001 story “Monkey Butts, Fire, and Dangerous Things,” the Malaysian Chinese narrator discovers a document titled “Secret Files from Malaya’s Communist Period,” listing a number of former communist activists. The list, however, becomes increasingly incoherent, and by the end it consists entirely of meaningless graphic elements such as ÕÓ c/o and # & * .  A more extreme example of this practice can be found in another story from Ng’s 2001 collection, From Island to Island—the “story” in question, titled “Supplication,” consists of a single paragraph of meaningless symbols: 


Meanwhile, the following “story” in the same collection, titled “Untouchable,” consists of six pages of completely black paper. Lacking any discernible semantic content, both of the latter works function as purely perlocutionary utterances, in that they do not attempt to transmit meaning directly but rather, through their very existence, they effectively interrogate the limits of language as a communicative practice.

While Ng Kim Chew is, in many respects, a very original writer in his own right, he is also working within a broader literary phenomenon associated with ethnic Chinese authors from Malaysia and other regions of Southeast Asia. Many of these authors write in Chinese, but others use English or Malay. Like Ng Kim Chew, a number of these authors currently reside in Taiwan, where many of them have adopted a distinctly modernist writing style—though in many cases this modernism builds more directly on Taiwan’s modernist literature from the 1960s than a Euro-American modernist tradition. Although there had been an earlier burst of literary modernism in Mainland China in the 1930s, which was centered in colonial Shanghai and was in dialogue with a set of concurrent modernist trends unfolding in the West, the modernist movement that emerged in Taiwan in the 1960s reflected a rather different dynamic, as it came to stand for a self-conscious cosmopolitanism that was later contrasted with the literary nativist movement that became influential in Taiwan in the 1970s. It is therefore ironically appropriate that although the heyday of Taiwan’s mid-century literary modernist movement had largely run its course by the time Taiwan’s decades-long martial law regime was finally lifted in 1987, some of the most prominent modernist authors currently working out of Taiwan (including not only Ng Kim Chew but also figures like Zhang Guixing, who writes in a similarly heteroglossic language, and Li Yongping, who was born in Malaysia, received his doctorate in the US, and writes in a version of Chinese that is so “pure”  that even Taiwan-based literature professors frequently have to pull out their dictionaries to look up unfamiliar characters) are in fact Malaysian-born authors currently based in Taiwan and writing at the interstices of Sino-Malyasian, Taiwanese, and Greater Chinese cultural spheres. For many of these Malaysian Chinese authors, modernist techniques reflect not a local or cosmopolitan consciousness, but rather an attempt to negotiate competing regional and transregional discourses of tradition and identity.

Malaysian Chinese authors have recently begun to attract considerable interest in Chinese literary studies, and recent scholarly studies in English include Jing Tsu’s Sound and Script in Chinese Diaspora, Andrea Bachner’s Beyond Sinology: Chinese Writing and the Scripts of Culture, Brian Bernard’s Writing the South Seas: Imagining the Nanyang in Chinese and Southeast Asian Postcolonial Literature, Alison Groppe’s Sinophone Malaysian Literature: Not Made in China, and E. K. Tan’s Rethinking Chineseness: Transnational Sinophone Identities in the Nanyang Literary World. Collectively, these and other studies examine the complicated imbrications of culture, ethnicity, territory, language, and literary form in the writings of authors from Sinophone Malaysia, as well as from other regions from throughout the global Chinese diaspora. Many of these authors write in Chinese, but at the same time many of them have a deeply ambivalent or conflicted relationship with the Chinese nation with which that language is conventionally associated. The result is a set of stark tensions between form and content that often manifests itself in literary qualities associated with modernism. Here, however, these formal qualities are symptoms not so much of the sort of idealized cosmopolitanism frequently associated with early Euro-American modernism, but rather with a set of deeply localized considerations. The modernist character of their writing is arguably a form of Gouldian spandrel—bearing a superficial resemblance to Euro-American modernism, but actually originating from a very different set of enabling conditions.

In this respect, the origins of Malaysian Chinese literary modernism may be compared to that of the domesticated animals discussed above, in that not only should one be wary of assuming that the contemporary function of domesticated animal is what drove its original domestication (more often than not, it didn’t), but furthermore one should be equally wary of assuming that these processes of domestication unfolded in a linear fashion from a single point of origin. Instead, evolutionary biologists are finding that these histories are in fact unexpectedly complicated. For instance, genetic analyses of the global canine population have concluded that modern dogs first evolved from wolves either in Europe, the Near East, Central Asia, or in China, and estimated dates range from 15,000 to 32,000 years ago. The analysis is complicated by the fact that dogs and wolves continued to interbreed long after dogs were first domesticated. Similarly, there is evidence that modern chickens are the result of multiple, independent domestication events in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Southern China. And, recent evidence indicates that modern pigs are the product of two separate domestication events in Europe and Asia, with the situation further complicated by the fact that Asian pigs were introduced into Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and interbred with local “European” pig stocks.

A similar story can be told of contemporary Malaysian Chinese literary modernism, in that it is the product of a variety of different, interwoven lineages, some of which originated independently of one another. The history of Malaysian Chinese literary modernism is, in part, a history of the attempted domestication of language itself—which is not only an indispensable vehicle for literary expression, it also marks the fracture points where idealized unities of nation, ethnicity, and culture threaten to collapse. In this respect, language, for these modernist authors, functions as both food . . . and as shit.