2019 is the year of the Pig. It is a special year because, not only will we be in China to celebrate it with my family, but we drove all the way from Germany/UK to get there. Growing up in the West I was seldom in China for chunjie (Spring Festival or Chinese New Year) due to school holidays rarely aligning with the Chinese one. This is most tragic because of the number of delicious feasts I missed out on but more to the point, I squandered the opportunities that comes with youth during this festive time of the year – the opportunity to receive yasuiqian (money given to children as a new year present stuffed in hongbao (red envelopes)! It is just not culturally correct for a person nearly in their 30s to be looking (trying hard not to use begging here) at grandparents and relatives with puppy dog eyes for pocket money and using the past as an excuse. But that still doesn’t stop me from trying!
This time of the year forever holds the warmest spot in my memory because the whole family comes together to spend time with each other. This warm, fuzzy feeling and festive energy is comparable to Christmas in Christian countries. In China, different regions have their own customs and unique ways of celebrating but universally it will involve copious amount of food, lots of drinking and guaranteed boisterousness. Our family is no different. We gather at my grandparents’ house; while the men (my uncles) cook, the women (my cousins and I) linger around the kitchen picking off food that comes out of the pan before it reaches the feast table. We banquet and drink until our hearts are content but soon everyone will be on the majiang (mahjong) table playing into the early hours of morning. Bog standard stuff really. The TV is blasting in the background with chunwan (Spring Festival Gala packed with traditional performances such as singing, lion dances, acrobatics, operas etc.). It starts off pretty cheesy but somehow gets better as it proceeds into the night. Maybe it has something to do with the increased level of alcohol intake.
In China it is a custom to kill a pig during layue (a month before the new year). In a poorer China, this pig would feed the whole family for an entire year but now it does not last nearly as long. On such an occasion the whole village or at least your immediate neighbours would come to help out since slaughtering a pig is no easy feat. After the job is done, you would cook a meal to show your gratitude and also to celebrate together.
This year we head off to the countryside in Toyotoro to witness this custom first-hand. My grandma’s sister still lives as a farmer in the countryside of Chongqing and she has been feeding our little piglet for a little over a year now. Admittedly, I have not seen the slaughter of such a big animal during my adult life, therefore I am both curious and nervous. After the initial greeting and comments thrown around on “how big I have grown” we get down to business. It turns out we are late and the local “slaughter squad” had been waiting for us.
When a bunch of men showed up to, what the fat juicy pig thought was its safe haven, it seems to immediately detect its inevitable end. Before it could even decide how to play the next hand, whether to play cute in hope to win a sympathy vote or better to take more violent measures, it was already dragged out into the courtyard. No time to lose, he decided on the latter strategy of resistance and put up quite a fight. It took a good half an hour and a dozen men to tie it to a bench. The squealing is the worst to bear. But soon all is quiet.
The “slaughter squad” under the direction of their leader executed with such expertise that it is like watching a visual art performance. First the pig is drained dry of the blood, next boiling water is poured over the body for ease of shaving, then before he put his practiced blade, like an expert surgeon, to open it up and systematically separate the organs and cut the meat into pieces, it is hitched up on to a tree. Clean and precise. Every part of the pig will not go to waste including the blood. As I stared at one half of the pig’s body, hanging from its back leg on that tree, so still and neat, a painting by the Chinese contemporary artists Zeng Fanzhi of Francis Bacon, vividly came to mind. Bacon wears a green trench coat, his left hand coolly in the coat pocket while his right casually holds up a carcass by its hind leg, just like the one I am looking at. He looks at me as if saying: “Now you get it.”
There are many festivals in China and the biggest and most important by far, for huaren (ethnic Chinese) all over the world, is chunjie. The date is different every year because it relies on studying the moon and sun which I do not have intellectual capacity to get into. Although modern China already adopted the Gregorian calendar, many especially the older generation still uses the nongli (Traditional Calendar). To this day I still don’t know when my grandparents’ birthdays are because it changes every year. Some travel across the country to get back home to be with their family for the New Year’s Eve dinner and it is the world’s largest annual migration. We even have a name for this movement – chunyun. If you ever get caught in this mass movement just hold onto a rock really tightly or hide in a cave somewhere and don’t come out until it is safe.
This year is additionally special because we have a new addition to our Zhang family. Meet Zhang Heidou (Black Bean Zhang). Without further ado, I will let the photos and video do the talking. Happy New Year everyone! For anyone who is born in the year of the pig, I hope you are wearing something red to ward off evil.
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