Oikos and the Ox, or for the ox pt. 3

Perhaps I spoke to hastily in proposing that the liberation of the ox could be found in the plough. History has shown that the increased sophistication and mechanization of the plough (industrialism has made animal labor obsolete). It is foolish to apply analyses of labor to any contemporary animal. The ox is no longer the worker, but has become a new sort of slave. The secondary value of the ox has become primary. Its flesh, once a resource for its potential labor value, has now become a resource like gold or wheat to be harvested for consumption. Its flesh has become meat.

Let us return to Aristotle, and choose an alternate avenue:

and Hesiod is right when he says, “First house and wife and an ox for the plough,” for the ox is the poor man’s slave.

An examination of the house is where I plan to lead us now. Aristotle does not mean just a building with walls and windows, and the implications we’ve inherited for oikos are greater still. From oikos we gain both economics and ecology, that is the structures that dictate our environment. So perhaps alterations in the environment itself, a new sort of oikos, can give some relief to the ox.

There have been a number of environments where the local conditions made the cattle valuable enough for their labor that their consumption became more rare. In many of these places a culture of dairy consumption developed where the wealthy could afford to consume their capital.* But these dairy cultures would develop complex systems where female animals (heifers, ewes, yak-heifers, etc) gained a third level of labor extraction, and the males tangentially, through their reproductive labor. It is not here, under yet more layers of exploited labor, that we will find the path of liberation.

If I may make such a leap, I’d like to look eastward, for it is here where alterations in the oikos allowed the development of a completely sort of dietary animal. And why not look towards another civilization? Octavio Paz, in Conjunctions and Disjunctions, leads us to look at history in terms of not just East and West, but also the potential for Indo-European and Sino-Asian (for the Indo-European systems inherited, as Georges Dumézil calls it a” tripartite ideology,” and Paz claims that the Chinese, along with Meso-America, developed a quadripartite system).

For our own purposes this division is useful not for the mytho-philological level, but rather for the material separation in that China, unlike Indo-European or Afro-Semitic civilizations, did not develop dairy cultures.



What China did develop was a soybean culture, and from this culture an object that has made it around the world and into supermarkets in far-flung corners, this object is of course tofu. The exact origin of tofu is uncertain, except that it probably arose sometime during the Han dynasty. The originator is popularly seen as Liu An, King of Hui-nan, who legend says also created soy milk for his ailing mother who missed the taste of soybean. Lore has it that Liu An through his alchemy discovered tofu. Contemporary sinologist also say that the Chinese may have learned of the means of creating tofu through contact with alien civilizations such as the Indians or Mongolians.

Regardless it is not the invention of tofu, but the oikos that allowed it to flourish, that we should examine. For tofu did flourish before Buddhism, with its disagreement with flesh-eating, arrived en force.

The oikos of China is intriguing in that by 1CE, the middle of the Han dynasties, there was an official population of nearly 60 million. That is depending on the estimates China contained 1/3 to almost 1/5 of the world’s population, and with a strong need to feed, at least the majority, of its subjects.** During this time the empire engaged in impressive irrigation projects and established the most impressive trade route of the ancient world. Without an industrial mode of production it would indeed be difficult to provide the daily protein requirements for 60 million in a good year, attach the uncertainty of nature (floods, droughts, etc) it is no surprise that the soybean rose to prominence (Liu An in his Taoist work, the Huai-nan Tzu, even describes the “meat shop owner’s bean soup” a soup made from soybeans for a man too poor to eat the flesh he sells).

Within the oikos of China technology made the flesh of the ox, if not unnecessary, then a luxury. Protein needs could be acquired without sacrificing the labor value of the ox. And these technological advances spread east and south evolving with local customs: the soy tempeh of Indonesia, which probably came from a fusion of tofu making and the process for tempe bangkrek made from coconut flesh (which according to B.J. Wood in Microbiology and Fermented Foods Vol. 2 has a high propensity for becoming toxic)***; to hpu of Mynamar made from chickpeas or split yellow peas; and the use of the byproduct of tofu production in Japan and Korea as okara.


It is the technological adaptations to specific oikoi that the master must make that allows for the ox to become free. For Han (and beyond) China it took the pressures of high population and a lack of an industrial system for resource-efficient flesh production.

It is truly unfortunate for the ox that we, in the center of the capitalist world, at the very moment we developed a plough with no need for an ox developed an equally sophisticated machine in the abattoir.


But we have not always had the wide selection of soy products in our grocery stores. The West has known about tofu since at least the 16th Century and American government documents mentioning it were common enough in the last two decades of the 19th. Can this sudden increase be attributed only to the development of antiseptic packaging? or is there something else besides the plough and the oikos? Can the oikos of China explain the spread of the soy culture to the rest of Eastern and Southeastern Asia or the development of seitan? Why can we buy veggie burgers at Burger King?

But mostly is the ox caught in a catch-22? So far we have looked at two bindings of the ox: it’s liberation from labor to be made meat, and its liberation from meat because the oikos demands its labor. So to where can we find the ox’s liberation.

* Cattle itself being derived from M.L. capitale, “property.” And these connections being common in the Indo-European world (pecuniary tracing back to PIE, peku, “cattle, flock.” Or the Welsh tlws, “jewel” cognate with Irish tlus “cattle.” Or the Old English feoh, “cattle, money.” etc, etc).

**The UN in 1999 placed the estimate at 300m worldwide, others have placed the estimate as low as 170m.

***10-20% estimate

****Images taken from a 19th Century US Federal Bureau of Commerce Consular Report displaying methods of tofu production.

*Also, I am a complete amateur sinologist, and I’d love information and/or corrections by anyone more read than I in the material history of China.*

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