The Story of the Three Little Piggybanks

Once upon a time there were three small children (triplets, actually) who donated their piggy-banks to DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen. There is little doubt that some parental guidance prompted their deed, but it did make for great footage on the evening news. Unfortunately though, the big bad Control Yuan began to huff and puff, blowing the house down by announcing that it would investigate the Tsai campaign for violating election laws pertaining to campaign contributions by minors. In the end, some Tsai staffers had to return the money, causing the triplets’ grandfather made an even larger donation in their place.

Triplet piggy-bank-gate on the evening news

But the story doesn’t end here. Now the Tsai campaign, prompted by the outrage and disbelief sparked by the Control Yuan’s actions, has announced a new campaign to collect 100,000 piggybanks full of donations (see here and here). The results of this tactic will soon be apparent.

Why has such a little story become such a big deal? Apart from the obvious reasons (the children are adorable, and nobody likes a government that appears to be heavy-handed), there are other factors at play as well. As in the West, the piggybank represents thrift, and while these little piggies may be a recent innovation the practice of children saving money in receptacles generically referred to as puman 撲滿 (especially those made of bamboo or porcelain) goes back to ancient times. In modern Taiwan, other popular puman have included those of postmen (until recently, almost everyone put their savings in post office accounts) and the Datong 大同 company mascot.

The pig is also one of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac, symbolizing wealth and prosperity (my son Philip is a “golden pig” or jinzhu 金豬, charged with the sacred task of ensuring his old man’s retirement once his pittance of a pension runs out). Pork is an essential component of the Taiwanese (and Chinese) diet today, although in the past it was only eaten on festive occasions, with many festivals featuring offerings of enormous pigs (zhugong 豬公) to the gods (for the political implications of pigs as offerings, see Robert P. Weller’s Resistance, Chaos and Control in China).

Finally, there is the symbolism of the small donations that are largely responsible for fueling the DPP campaign, as opposed to the size of the well-oiled KMT machine and the support some local corporations as well as Taiwanese businessmen in China are credited with providing to Ma Ying-jeou’s own presidential campaign (One reason the election is being held two months earlier than usual, just prior to the Lunar Neww Year, is to allow these businessmen the chance to return home to vote; Taiwan has yet to institute a viable absentee ballot system). If these patterns continue, the entire election may come to be cast as a battle of The People vs. The Machine, with the implications of victory for either side being profound indeed when it comes to the future of Asian democracy.

Professor Paul R. Katz is a Fellow at Academia Sinica and author of the brilliant China Beat blog’s Tales From Taiwan.