Pig To Market

2006 – Colette Hosmer
wake to an urgent knock, “Hurry”, Li Wen says in a forceful whisper, his face close to the door, “we sleep late, market boy come for us!”  As planned, “market boy”, the young man from the local market, had arrived on his motorbike at 5:00 a.m.  Now he waits for us––motor rumbling, legs spread––parked between the two granite elephants that flank the door to our hotel.  Although the brochure promises, “Our well-trained staff and The Cidu Hotel will be your sincere friend forever!”, our “well-trained and sincere friends” failed to give Li Wen and me a wakeup call.

We speed through the dark, deserted streets of Dehua. I am pressed against the back of the young driver who smells of cigarettes. Li Wen, my friend and translator, sits behind me––forehead tucked between my shoulder blades to shield his face from the cold.  Frigid air clears fragments of early morning grog and I feel charged with anticipation for what lies ahead.

I am setting out to witness a pre-dawn pig slaughter in the old tradition. Li Wen, my accomplice in unorthodox adventure, has arranged with a local market vendor to let us observe his morning work. Yesterday, we left the coastal city of Xiamen, China, and made a five-hour climb by bus into the Dai Li Mountains to reach Dehua, a centuries old source for fine porcelain.  Later today, we will meet with Mr. Su, the latest in a long lineage of porcelain masters, who is presently casting my market-inspired, original plaster sculptures into porcelain.

The night is inky black––no moon, no stars, no motorcycle lights.  Market boy drives to the far edge of town and begins to climb.  Concrete road bumps onto pot-holed dirt road and finally, a rutted, slippery footpath.  Dogs bark as the bike begins to fish-tail up the slick track.  Our thirty-minute journey ends as we scale the last slope and level out.  I smell pigsty and assume we have arrived in the farmyard.

The moment we dismount, the waiting men––pale shadows in the dark–– move off with our driver following close on their heels.  Within seconds, shrill screams, guttural grunts and shouts rupture the curtain of dark.  I wrestle with my new video camera, can’t see, can’t remember how to turn the light on.   The best I can do is aim in the direction of the struggle and begin filming.  I back up as the riot advances.  A great sense of urgency is palpable as these four men maneuver the terrified and dangerous sow from her pigsty to the waiting bench frame and heave her onto the platform.

A husky voice, belonging to the undisputed man in charge, shouts above the tumult.  The sow screams once more, jerks, settles.  I hear liquid pounding into a container and know that her jugular vein has been severed.  Slow, even breaths gurgle through the dwindling blood stream.  The man and his oldest son step back, light cigarettes and watch while the young son and the hired worker hold the animal securely and wait for her life to drain out. Another minute passes before the father, sons and helper lift the bench frame and carry the quivering mountain of hog into a three-sided shed. I follow.

A bare bulb hangs in the center of the space, emitting dim light that fades before it reaches the walls.   In a far corner, wood glows red and yellow as steam rises from an immense metal wok, four feet in diameter, set into a cylindrical concrete furnace.   Light reveals the curved hook used to help subdue the sow along her final journey and I feel a flash of gratitude that that scene took place in the dark.

The men count in unison, “yi, liang, san”, and heave the sow into the steaming wok. Her rear half droops over the side as scalding begins.

The sow makes ripples in the simmering water as the young son bobs the body with gentle hands. The boy is waiting for her coarse hair to loosen but instead, appears to be comforting the sleeping giant with a gentle rocking motion as she dozes in her hot bath.  I am jolted out of my reverie as the men join forces and flip the hog with great exertion. The boy begins to work the scalded hide and his father joins him – their long knives make satisfying scraping noises as sleek, baby-butt skin appears from beneath bristly hair.

First light exposes chinks between rough shed boards as the earliest birds begin to sing timidly. Logs in the furnace crackle and glow.  Now, with less effort, the men guide the slick hog out of the wok and onto the waiting bench.  I notice for the first time that the older son is no longer with us and must have slipped away following the heavy, most dangerous work.  I had imagined the older son to be in his early twenties and married.  His hair was flattened at the back of his head from sleep – good-looking but no longer very conscious of his appearance.  While the young son, who looks to be around seventeen, is nicely groomed for this hog slaughter and for his arrival in the marketplace to follow.    

First light exposes chinks between rough shed boards as the earliest birds begin to sing timidly. Logs in the furnace crackle and glow.  Now, with less effort, the men guide the slick hog out of the wok and onto the waiting bench.  

Father and son wear rubber boots and long black aprons that cover their ankles.  The helper is identified as a lower social order by his worn Mao jacket and thick home-sewn trousers.  His too-short plastic sandals allow his heels to make contact with the blood and mud as he cough-smokes a cigarette, which never leaves his mouth. He only stops work to re-roll his pant legs or to light the next cigarette before the current butt burns his lips.

Two precise rows of sow teats catch the light.  Steam rises from the hog as it succumbs to more scraping. I sense no sentimentality, no gratuitous roughness – just the efficient, fluid movements required to do the work.  Father and son float past each other as if the scene had been choreographed.  I step closer as they balance the hog on her back in the concave frame.  Gravity arches the heavy head backward and exposes a broad throat. The father steps to the front of the bench.  His long knife makes wide, circling slices as it disappears, as if through butter, into the massive girth of flesh.  He squats to better maneuver his knife between the vertebrae and then stands, as the head swings by a strip of hide still connected to the body.  This dramatic moment – one I’ve been waiting for – is over in a few minutes.  Head in hand, the father slices through the remaining skin and begins a thorough rinsing of the deep folds and lumps that make up the old sow’s face.  He then swings the head onto a wooden table piled with greens from the garden.  The misshapen face squints at its surrendered carcass, and now appears reconciled to it’s fate.

The father places the tip of his long knife into the open throat and glides the instrument between the rows of teats until it reaches the tail.  I am startled by Li Wen’s whispered statement, “now they take internals off”, having forgotten that he is standing somewhere behind me.

The son materializes with buckets of fresh water and pours them into the sow as his father removes the organs and slips them one by one into a red plastic tub. There is no plumbing in the shed. Instead, large barrels hold fresh water – each is covered with a wooden lid.  The helper also fills buckets and pours water over the floor again and again.  The men appear to be walking on water as light from the fire hole and bare bulb overhead is reflected in the moving current under their feet.

A few resounding hacks of the cleaver divide the breastbone –  a lighter hand chops at the ribs where they attach to the spinal column.  All at once, and all in one movement, father and son advance to opposite sides of the rib cage – each yanks back sharply at the same moment and the bony frame rips open with a resounding crack!

 Li Wen and I are invisible.  Another pig screams in the distance. Then another, and another.  Early morning pig slaughters are taking place across the mountain, countryside, province – the whole of China. Two hundred pigs go to market each day to feed this mountain town of Dehua.  I admire the system by which the pig fuels China.  Pigs consume all table scraps and garden waste and do not require pasture, the sow provides two large litters a year, the pig feeds the populace and fertilizes the garden – a complete and flawless cycle.

The men do not wear gloves – they connect skin to skin with the sow throughout the process, and the father and son are also connected somehow – these two men butchering a hog work as oneThe helper continues to sweep the blood-stained water out of the shed and into the mud.  Hack, hack, hack and the occasional slosh of pouring water are now the only sounds coming from the shed.

The father tends to the hog slaughter with an efficiency that shows he has been doing this for decades. He has smoothed and polished the rough edges from this task ages ago and any variation or delay in the process is unacceptable. His low, raspy voice rockets into the higher octaves when he can no longer control his impatience and frustration.  Once his hair-trigger temper fires, typically due to some minor slowdown of the process, he has to rant until it bleeds-out.  On this day, the helper is the receiver of these outbursts.  The young son buries his smile in his shoulder – he likely caught his share of these explosions over the years and knows better than to explain himself like the helper attempts to do.

The sow carcass, now separate from head and internal organs, is carried out of the shed and into full sunlight. Steam continues to rise from the warm flesh as the young son artfully hacks and slices until the spinal column comes away. The head, sides, and vertebral column are weighed on the spot.  A simple Steelyard (a weighing instrument attributed to the Romans) is hung from a pole placed on the shoulders of two of the men.  A portion of pig is suspended from a hook and a weight is shifted along the beam of the steelyard until a balance is reached – a task assigned to the helper. The helper fumbles his first two attempts, and we are treated to another round of exasperated rants by the father.  His helper is not fazed and offers excuses once again as the son buries his smile and I hide mine behind my camera.  Calm returns and the father hums as he cleans the intestines.  The son appears with a bucket of clean water just as the father holds open one end of the long organ to receive it.

There was a moment during the pig slaughter when I slipped in puddles of blood and mud.   Reflexes kicked in as I regained my balance, and in that moment I became conscious of where I was.  The moment before, there was no “I”.  For a time, the separate components of fire, vapor, hog, and I merged as one thing – my sense of an individual reality had collapsed. This was a deeply emotional experience and rare one.

One hour and ten minutes have passed since the sow was taken from her pen.  Now the same motor bike that delivered Li Wen and me to the site, is draped with pig – the head and bucket of organs is somehow attached to the load, and the young son begins the potholed journey back down the rutted, slippery footpath, dirt track, gravel road and concrete street into the marketplace where the mother is waiting in the family meat stall.  She will distribute portions of pig to her customers, through each of whom, marrowbone soups, pork-filled buns, and stir-fried pork will make its way back to the soil. There the sow will fertilize the earth and the cycle continues.