BEIJING — According to the calendar, this is the Year of the Pig in China. Cute little piggies in all forms -- ceramic, stuffed, cast, drawn -- are ubiquitous these days. But it isn't tender feelings for swine that caused Wang Bin, a retired export company worker, to start replacing pork with vegetables, chicken and fish as the mainstays of her family's diet.
Like hundreds of millions of other Chinese, she's simply feeling the pinch of pork prices that have gone up 40% or more over the last year.
"I buy less pork now," she said Wednesday as she stepped away from the butcher counter at the Chaonei Market, a warehouse-size food shop in central Beijing that has just about everything a Chinese cook could want. She held a small plastic bag containing a bit over half a pound of pork to use as a filling in a dish of rice-filled bamboo. It cost her 9 yuan, about $1.18.
"Before, I could get a big chunk," Wang said. "Now, it's a small chunk."
If this were beef or lamb, veal or chicken, it might be cause for concern, just not nearly as much. Pork is to China what beef is to Texas and fish is to Japan -- not just food, but part of the national identity. In culinary circles, every year in China is the Year of the Pig.
It isn't clear why pork prices are rising, but it appears to be a combination of factors. Farmers have cut back their pork production this year because a surplus had led to lower prices last year. Meanwhile, feed prices have been increasing. And an outbreak of "blue ear disease," a serious porcine illness, has led to livestock losses -- just how much is a matter of dispute.
News reports have put the losses as high as 22 million pigs, but the government insisted this week that only about 24,000 pigs died or were killed because of the disease.
Egg prices have also risen sharply, and the official China Daily newspaper reported Wednesday that the combination of pork and egg inflation had driven up the consumer price index 3.4% in May, the biggest monthly increase in two years.
In a sign of concern, officials in the southern city of Guangzhou announced this week that they would give a monthly subsidy of about $2.60 to every low-income family for the next several months to offset the rise in prices, especially of pork.
Official media quoted Chen Weiqui, a city spokesman, as saying the price of pork, which was hovering at about 80 cents a pound in Guangzhou, had become "unbearable" to poor families.
Pigs have been raised in China for food since at least 5000 BC. "Through the millennia that followed, pork remained the prime source of animal protein," said Nicole Mones, an American who has written extensively about Chinese food and whose latest book, "The Last Chinese Chef," is a gastronomic novel.
Pigs and poultry, she said, "are the most efficient converters of feed to protein," and both can be raised on marginal land, a description that encompasses a great deal of agricultural land in China.
Still, she said, pork has historically been expensive and used sparingly. Because of the price, "Chinese cuisine developed extensive methods for preserving it, as well as for using every part of the animal in imaginative ways."
That frugality is displayed in grocery stores all over China, where one can buy everything from snout to tail, and pretty much everything in between. Until recently, there was a restaurant in Beijing called Pig Face, whose name described its specialty.
More conventionally, pork is used in many of the most famous dishes in Chinese cuisine -- moo shu pork, twice cooked pork, sweet and sour pork, steamed pork buns, even home-style tofu, which often has as much pork as bean curd.
Qu Hao, president and founder of the Qu Hao Cuisine School in Beijing, said he couldn't begin to count how many classic Chinese dishes use pork. "There are too many," he said.
Still, Qu said pork was becoming less central to Chinese cooking. People have more choices these days and also are more concerned about their health. "It's not like in the past," he said, "when the best food for people was just pork, nothing else."
He wasn't terribly concerned about the rise in pork prices. "I don't think people will be affected too much," he said. "They just won't eat pork."
Gu Bo of The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.