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Thinking pig in Providence

Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design

By Globe Staff 

PROVIDENCE — My one-time roommate and still best friend once brought home a piglet. We were in our 20s, studying and doing menial jobs in Sydney. (I was, in fact, a “dish pig” in a nearby pub.)

We had two other roommates, one of whom took to sleeping with the piglet in her bed. She was voluptuous and very smart, in ways that put her fellow roommates, male and female, somewhat on edge. At night, we tossed and turned.

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The piglet, which soon began to show unmistakable signs of turning into a pig, seemed to pick up on the general mood. In a matter of three or four days it transformed our entire backyard into a ravaged no man’s land. Having thus achieved the requisite level of piggy gemutlichkeit, it nonetheless remained discontent, and began to ram itself repeatedly into the sliding glass door that separated inside from out.

Obviously, it couldn’t stay. But what to do?

Pigs can make or break a home. I thought of the dilemma posed by our pet when I saw this 2,000-year-old Han dynasty sculpture showing a pig lying in its pen. It’s on show in the splendid Asian galleries at the RISD Museum.

The character for “home” in China (pronounced “jia”) first appeared 1,000 years before this sculpture was made, during the Shang Dynasty. At that point it was a drawing of a house with a pig inside it.

It was subsequently simplified. But the character, which can mean not just “home” but “the place where family lives” or even just “family,” still has lines at the top suggesting the roof of a house and marks below that refer to a pig.

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Why would the character for “home” and “family” show a pig inside a house, instead of a human? The simple answer is that, 3,000 years ago, animal husbandry was an important part of Chinese domestic life. Pigs, especially, were usually kept inside. A house with a pig was therefore more than a building: it was a sustainable home.

So this modest-looking, partially glazed earthenware sculpture, which may have been buried in a chamber with the deceased, suddenly feels more important. Looking at the pig lying there, with its big ears, short tail, and tapering back legs, we are encouraged to think of home, and of what makes a home.

In my early 20s, neither I nor my roommates had the first idea of how to make a home. But on reflection, we began to think that a quickly growing piglet probably shouldn’t be part of the mix.

The shared house fell apart, as such houses do. Thankfully, the “Come and Eat Our Pet Party,” which one of us had wryly suggested, didn’t happen. Instead, my clever friend — the girl who had let it sleep in her bed – found a place for it in the country with her mother, a dog, and a goose, and — home at last! — they all cavorted happily together for many years to come.

PIG IN A PEN

By an unknown Chinese artist

At RISD Museum, 20 North Main Street, Providence, R.I. 401-454-6500, www.risdmuseum.org


Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.