Barry Eisler

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Just Pigs?

Fascinating article in today's Wall Street Journal: "Pigs Get the Ax In China TV Ads, In Nod to Muslims." The gist: next month, China rings in its once-every-twelve-years Year of the Pig. And the state-run national television network has banned all references to pigs, spoken and visual, from commercials, so as to avoid offending Muslims.

The ban strikes me as strange -- reminiscent of, yet exceeding, the self censorship practiced by the Western media over last year's Mohammed cartoons imbroglio. China's 20 million Muslims represent less than two percent of China's population, and, I gather, are offended by pigs. For China's non-Muslims, though, the pig has positive associations, including prosperity, good fortune, and fertility -- so positive, in fact, that the average Chinese eats 80 pounds of pork per year. Ninety-eight percent versus two percent... on strictly quantitative grounds, a ban on pig depictions in advertising in China seems a significant imposition by a minority on a majority.

But there's a qualitative element, too. Do Muslims really find pig imagery so offensive that they want it banned? In the press, I always read that Muslims consider pigs "unclean," but why would that lead to animus? I consider dogs unclean, but if you want to live with one, go for it. Getting upset about a picture of an animal seems strange to me, but then I'm not Muslim nor even religious. Are there any Muslims reading this blog? If so, I'd welcome your thoughts.

I guess you could argue there's an implicit balance going on here. Sure, it's only two percent... but if the two percent feel *very* strongly, and accession isn't that big a deal for the majority, why not accede? A question, then: if Chinese Muslims, or Muslims generally, wanted to do away with the very notion of a Year of the Pig, should the Chinese government accede to that, too?

Culture is a hard thing to quantify, but you tend to know it when you see it. In China, the pig is big. In Japan, you take your shoes off before entering someone's house. In America, English is the lingua franca. Demanding that the majority culture change to accommodate a small minority's tastes or even beliefs seems boorish at best... the same kind of boorish behavior for which "ugly Americans" are lambasted when they engage in it overseas.

I wonder what's next, and where?
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Blogger Debra Parmley said...

So what is the newscaster to do? Announce the year of the animal who shall not be named?

I would think complete avoidance of the word would simply draw more attention to it.

Everyone will know it's the year of the pig even if no one is allowed to say it.

What's next? Exactly.

Thursday, January 25, 2007 9:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Maryann said...

Considering that Seattle-Tacoma International actually removed a Christmas tree to avoid offending those of other religious persuasions (the tree went back up after a day or so), I think we're already being conditioned to avoid societal conflict, even over something as ancient as the Chinese calendar, while wars are being fought in the name of religion; whether it be Islam, Christianity or the Church of Fossil Fuels. Criticism of the Chinese Islamic community is immediately considered religious bigotry. China as a country doesn't prohibit the practice of Islam, so in my humble opinion, the Muslims need to show tolerance in return.
What's next is already here.We have visitors in this country from all over the world. Some are pleasant, others are rude and insult the very culture they come to in order to avail themselves of our universities and corporations.
There is an expectation that Americans will allow insults to their way of life without retaliation. And for the most part we do, although our perception of these visitors becomes less favorable. And we are the ones lambasted for intolerance.

Maryann (seething about a local University symbol in danger of disappearing because it is undignified and insults Native Americans. Again, the minority stirs the pot)

Friday, January 26, 2007 7:28:00 AM  
Anonymous Maryann said...

One other thought: If Chinese culture pre-dates the presence of Islam in China, the expectation by the latecomer that centuries of tradition (calendar-wise) should be erased because one animal is not revered in Islamic culture is a bit presumptuous.

(Oh...and the first protests about the university symbol came not from the Native Americans but from a disgruntled (and tenured) professor...the minority).

Friday, January 26, 2007 10:28:00 AM  
Blogger Kevin Wignall said...

Barry, of course, another reading might be that the authorities are trying to make life difficult for China's muslims by demonstrating so publically that they aren't typical Chinese.

Here in the UK, Christmas is increasingly preceded with news stories that local councils are replacing "Christmas" with a non-religious "Winter Festival" so as not to offend Muslims. Bear in mind that, as a country that is predominantly secular-Christian, we've never gone down the US route of having "Happy Holidays" so the threat to Christmas stirs up ill-feeling. But this Christmas, Muslim groups were at pains to point out that they had never asked for the name change and made clear that they enjoyed Christmas.

The irony in this case is that, as Maryann points out, it's often a white "do-gooder" who ends up making life uncomfortable for the minority.

Friday, January 26, 2007 12:18:00 PM  
Blogger Sean the Blogonaut said...

Frankly I find it amazing the chinese government has done this.

This pandering to religious/cultural groups I find worrying. When I go to Korea or any country that has dogs on the menu I am slightly offended but,I choose to go there and I respect the culture.

The has been some debate about the willingness of muslim taxi drivers to carry dogs, in direct contravention of bylaws surrounding guidedogs for the blind.

Where will it end? Hard line muslims will want it to end when Islamic law is the law of the land, but in my view the P.C. tolerence will only go so far before the average citizen will say enough is enough as was seen in the Cronulla riots in Australia.

I can respect someones religion and culture as long as it is reciprocal.

Friday, January 26, 2007 2:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Sean said...

If China's Muslim population amounts to 2%, that's still over 26 million people; and it's only a few hundred thousand short of Iraq's population, and a little less than half of Iran's. It's a fairly safe assumption to say there are more than a few aggravated groups in west China, not necessarily all of them Muslim. Ever since China took over administrative control of the Xinjiang region, there's always been at least some grassroots movement for separation going on, similar to Chechnya and Russia, and the PRC dealt with uprisings in similar ways, too. Of course, Xinjiang is said to be the second biggest domestic Chinese energy supplier so the PRC is going going to be more willing to suppress any and possibly all movements to keep that region stable. America's invasion of Afghanistan was similar in that the intent was to contain Islamism and keep the radicals from spilling into the Central Asian states, as well as Pakistan to the south. I really doubt the State Department cares all that much for the governments of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, or Tajikistan, but they're stable and not being too influenced by Iran. Kazakhstan, being a country that borders China on its Xinjiang border, is a major producer of oil as well and there is probably a defense pact between the two to protect that swatch of territory. Particularly after 9/11, China used the "War on Terror" label to go after all sorts of separatist movements, or really, just about any subversive element it seemed.

I guess I'm just remembering back to the rather thin-skinned moments when the Islamic world railed against the Wests for all sorts of perceived slights. Particularly when Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published their infamous cartoon of Muhammad, I thought it was unwarranted and unnecessarily offensive, but the level of backlash was as well. That and a few other examples I think China is just trying to keep unnecessary blowups from happening. It might be telling in of itself - indicating China is having more substantial difficulty keeping control of certain parts of their country than they're letting on.

Saturday, January 27, 2007 2:44:00 AM  
Blogger elkit said...

It has puzzled me for a long time that some people expect to go through life without being offended, and demand to have it made so. Until now, I thought this was a predominantly American affliction. I am bummed to find out it's not so.

Sunday, January 28, 2007 10:30:00 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Krecker said...

Fascinating. And I thought Americans were the only ones obsessed with political correctness.

I've read that Islam prohibits the depiction of people or animals in art - hence the beautiful, "arabesque" patterns in Islamic tile and architecture. Perhaps there's more to this pig story than meets the eye.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007 12:43:00 PM  
Blogger Papigiulio said...

interesting post.

China actually banned it? I thought they only banned stuff from their own country and their movies that involves or has something to do with the government.

Guess the extremists are winning their battle and everybody is getting scared to share their oppinion or even bann images for their own cultural festivities.

Shame tho, I hope no other country is going to claim another animal to be religious or China might end up cancelling all years of all animals heh.

Thursday, February 01, 2007 2:11:00 PM  
Blogger Nikki Magennis said...

I found this story rather dubious, so I did a little checking. According to Reuters, the source was 'a media company', and 'An official at the censorship department of China's Central Television denied knowledge of the advertising ban.'

A link to the article here.

The only other mention I could find from what I consider reputable sources (BBC) was that the year of the pig was being treated with greater sensitivity in Indonesia and Malaysia, with their much larger Muslim populations. No mention of a ban on pig images in China.

As was mentioned in a previous comment, these type of stories crop up frequently around Christmas time in the UK, and are almost invariably gross distortions of fact created by the media.

Saturday, February 24, 2007 1:50:00 AM  

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