For the past three years, we have rented a two-story section of a courtyard, the smallest of shacks in an ancient village called Yantou in Zhejiang province. There are weekenders like us, a few families who come for the river rafting, but our neighbors average over 80 years old and the village is made up of equally ancient people. It is an old folks’ home and a perpetual daycare for grandchildren. The villagers seem content to have lived there forever and will continue to do so. The village got its first ATM last year. No one seems impressed.
Other than the volume of the conversations, the haggling in the tiny market, and Chinese opera on TVs, Yantou is a relatively quiet place – until anything happens. There's always a witness or two (or three). A passerby wonders what they are looking at. In just over 30 seconds, every human being in a reasonable radius is there, elbows flared and ready to push to see what’s going on.
Around Chinese New Year, after a morning hike, we were on the main street and noticed a crowd gathering. At first I didn’t think anything of it. If you judge the worth of a happening based on the size of the crowd, you could be disappointed. But then I see a small snubnosed blue truck pulling itself along the road, with soldiers in the back.
Actually, the soldiers are more like boys who have scavenged secondhand fatigues, boots and a single rifle to carry between the two of them. One stands in the back of the truck, shoulders hunched, mouth agape, eyes fixated on their prize. When he sees the crowd, he beams triumphantly as if riding in a parade, having returned from conquest.
By the time we reach the crowd, one soldier has already leaped down and enlisted the help of several townspeople to move a huge animal off the flatbed. By now the majority of the village is in the street. Old people shout as their slightly younger counterparts move to help with the animal. Peering over the tightly packed bodies, I see men straining, each with their arms wrapped around a bristly leg and a hoof pressed against their grimacing faces. They heave together. The beast swings like a pendulum and parts the crowd like a battering ram. Their destination is a wooden table occupied only moments before by old men smoking and playing cards. As the table is moved to support the animal, cards fly everywhere. “Yi, er, san” – the men hoist the beast onto the table.
I see its face and I see its snout. The beast is a wild boar. For all I know, it may have been the last wild boar in China. Whenever I go hiking in the mountains, I never worry about encountering wildlife. I assume that most of the wild animals in Zhejiang have long since filled the bellies of gnarling and gnashing crowds like this one.
I push into the crowd – only a bit. Starting a sideways shoving match with a woman half my size and twice my age is not only disrespectful, but I would advise you in any similar rural situation to not underestimate your opponent based on size, age or gender. She will knock you down.
Finally, I get a better look. Boars don’t share much in the way of cuteness with their swine brethren. Covered in needlelike hairs, they resemble an enormous lethal porcupine with a pig nose. This boar’s face has a cartoonish quality. Its head is easily larger than two of mine and his long tongue lolls to one side. His eyes are small and black and they might as well have X’s over them. Tongue out, eyes black, legs in the air, he was beat and the crowd could not have been happier about it.
The star of the next act is the butcher. Having grown up in the American Midwest, I know as much as any boy who’s spent time in the woods the basics of field-dressing an animal. Having spent years in kitchens across the world, I understand as much as any prep cook the basics of how to take apart an animal. The majority of those rules do not apply in rural mountainous China with a wild boar on a wooden-table-turned-carving-block in the middle of the village with a horde of hungry onlookers, most of whom don’t have a full set of teeth.
Village Butchering 101 begins with hot water – a lot of it. New shouts prompt the crowd to make way. Two or three men shuffle together to bring large wooden barrels full of boiling water to the table.
The butcher emerges from within the crowd. Standing there in blue pants and a grey sweater, he takes out a large cleaver.
I feel like I am in a spaghetti Western run amok – as if the barber of a frontier town were plying his trade in the middle of the street and the townspeople have gathered to watch and shout about it. The butcher first softens the bristles with boiling water and then scrapes down the animal with his knife. The strain on his face tells just how much work this is – a cleaver is not a straight razor. Had the boar not been dead – I remember thinking – it might have liked this. Any man who’s had the straight razor at the barber can tell you the complete satisfaction that comes from the steaming hot towel after the shave. Still, there is something genteel about this effort. At times it appears as if the butcher is grooming the boar for a night out, lifting his leg gently and shaving with care around the boar’s armpit. (Do boars have armpits?) The butcher works until only tufts and patches remain on the skin – thick and tough, pale white and cream in color.
With the grooming out of the way, the work can begin. The butcher haphazardly lays out a few smaller cleavers and a cheap kitchen knife with a broken plastic handle. Tools in China do not go on pegboards outlined to designate their place. They are shoved in drawers or strewn about a room. With these knives on the table and on the ground near his feet, the entire proceedings take on the feel of medieval surgery. But the macabre show has only just begun.
First, a sort of ritual throat-cutting. I remember laughing: How much more dead can this boar be? Just in case, let’s slit his throat. In truth, the butcher was merely marking. The decapitation doesn’t require much force. He switches to the cheap kitchen knife and keeps slicing, leaning in close. A German Shepherd that lazily guards nothing in the town makes her way to the front of the crowd. She pokes her nose in to see as best she can. The thrill of so much flesh on the table is exciting, regardless of species.
Methodically, the butcher slices away until the head seems to tumble off. Using a cord run through the boar’s snout, they dump it in a plastic five-gallon bucket. The water turns a pale pink and the boar’s eyes stay black and still under the water.
The butcher gathers his tools and moves to the other side of the boar. You can see resolve wash over his face as he prepares to dress the boar. He picks up his cleaver again.
Like many cooking enthusiasts, I love a shiny handmade chef ’s knife that has perfect balance, a rare handle, and a cultivated patina. And yet some that hang in my kitchen are from Chor Bazaar in Mumbai, where discarded pieces of thin steel have been given a simple handle and shaved into an edge. Others are traditional Chinese cleavers with incomprehensibly small handles. These are working tools for working people. This village butcher’s cleaver has weight and age. It has punished its way through countless miles of flesh and slammed against numberless wooden chopping blocks, and by saying that I have imbued it with more romanticism than anybody here ever will. For them, the cleaver is a mere tool to be mistreated and then disregarded until it’s needed for another task. Today it cuts a boar, tomorrow it opens canned food, and the day after that it will be turned around and used as a hammer.
As the butcher makes the first incision, the crowd murmurs a little louder. Then I hear an unmistakeable voice. It belongs to the resident trash collector, a man in his twenties who has Down Syndrome. He spends his mornings cruising around on a sanlunche (flatbed tricycle) that serves as the local trash truck, going from shop to shop and chatting with people. Occasionally I see him while hiking in the mountains; he is usually squatting near a stream and looking into the water. Though most of his days seem to be spent in contemplation, when he is excited he is uncontrolled. As the butcher begins hooking into the sternum of the boar, I can hear our friend’s giddy cries punctuate each rip. He jumps up above the wall of chattering grandmas, completely unable to contain his ecstasy at seeing the inside of the boar.
As the chatter rises and the crowd moves in, the butcher keeps working methodically. Speed is important when dressing an animal. Removing the internal organs and cooling the carcass helps keep the kill from spoiling. The butcher makes quick work of the initial cuts – from the anus to the base of the sternum – careful to avoid rupturing the intestine.
What comes next requires a little more elbow grease. Normally, hunters prefer to gut an animal while it is hung from a tree, so that gravity does most of the work. But here in the middle of Yantou village, there is no tree to make it easier.
Satisfied that he has freed the connections between the major membranes, the butcher pushes up his sweater sleeves with the backs of his hands. He appears like a magician preparing for a trick – which is apt, because he proceeds to dive into the boar. He has his arms into the animal up to his shoulders and the only thing wider and deeper is the smile on his face. He begins pulling and grunting and yanking. Anybody who has gutted an animal soon realizes that not much holds together these wet, sticky, bloody masses that we call bodies. As he yanks, the red, purple, and grey mounds of steaming material blossom out of the cavity of the boar. It just keeps expanding until it hits a critical mass and the steam lets off. The entire insides of the boar sigh.
Wrapped in grey wet spirals of innards, the butcher resumes yanking and pulling until he coaxes the entirety out of the boar and into a metal bowl below. The inside of a body contains so many more reds than you would think. I look at the boar’s entrails. Some organs are so vibrantly bloody they look fake, others are so deep and dark they seem like jelly. After a few minutes, the insides take the shape of the metal bowl and the butcher’s helpers begin separating them out.
The villagers line up, each holding their own plastic bags. Aside from some bickering, the distribution of the offal seems prearranged. I see no money changing hands.
In China, work basically consists of one person doing something – and nine others smoking and commenting on the action. But there’s always a guy who isn’t the main guy but wants to play for a minute at doing his job. Like clockwork, this guy shows up and takes a turn whacking at the carcass with the cleaver. His jaw is clenched, the long glossy filter of his cigarette pinched by his teeth; he bites down with each strike as he attempts to split the chest. The butcher patiently smiles and talks him through the process, but when the boar refuses to surrender, the butcher reclaims the knife. His smile falls, his eyes go somber and far away. Like a lumberjack splitting firewood, he cleaves the boar.
With the guts out, the head gone and the internal ribs seeing their first sunlight, there is no more boar.
There is meat.
One of the butcher’s helpers takes a rag and dips it in hot water. Slowly, he washes the inside of the carcass, an ablution that also takes on a strange sense of care. Compared with the strength and work expended to maneuver the boar, remove his bristly hair, decapitate him and exorcise his insides, this moment seems tender. The skin of the boar turns porous as if it had goosebumps.
When the butcher comes back, he proceeds to dismember the slab of flesh. The object of good butchery is to get the animal to come apart as easily as possible, using the cleanest and simplest cuts to convince what was once a heaving, breathing brute of a beast to fall apart into perfect cuts of meat. In the West, this is a precise job that occasionally involves a heavyduty band saw or bone saw. A Chinese butcher works differently. He can stand there and twist a limb to make it easier to sever connective tissue. Or he can use his cleaver and obliterate the connections, swift and heavy, with tremendous personal force.
This meat is broken down and distributed. A set of ribs might go to a family, but as in all Chinese cooking, this will be shared in the center of a table. The ribs are separated and then each bone is crushed into so many little squares – faster to cook, requiring less fuel, and easier to share. Individuals push forward, claim their meat, take it away. Old men gather closer around the carcass and chat. Kids in plastic masks play tag and hide-and-seek around the table. Nothing is out of the ordinary. Slowly they peel away. As the last of them leave, there is nothing left. The German Shepherd is still sniffing around for the astonishingly few scraps left over from the beast. The wooden barrel of hot water is turned on its side and a river of pale grey red washes down the road as little tributaries into cracks and over small plants, the metallic twinge from the blood mixed with the rust of the cleaver.
The wooden table is wiped down quickly. None of this has seemed unsanitary or remarkable to anyone involved. This windfall was celebrated but not romanticized. No sanctimonious ritual, no concept of eating the entire animal and therefore being noble or savage or anything as demeaning as being called a noble savage. Because meat comes from animals, having meat requires taking an animal apart. The village shared the experience – just as they will later share their meals.
After a few more wipes, the table is returned to its place under an awning. The same old men who had been playing cards gather again and joke a little. One lights his long metal pipe and the others their cigarettes. They open new packs of cards.
The beginning of the commotion had marked a victory over nature, a capturing of one of her beasts. That beast became meat and now that too is gone. There is only a big red stain in the concrete, dogs sniffing, and old men laughing. By nightfall, they will be gone as well.
text by Nick Jumara, photos by Sylvie Meltzer
Wild pigs make for a disproportionate amount of "weird China" news, frustrating local law enforcement and providing regular fodder for South China Morning Post headline editors. ("Wild boar strays into Hong Kong shopping mall, becomes pork of the town," "Very Important Pigs get police escort back to Hong Kong country park.") Conservationists blame these incursions on urban sprawl and dwindling natural habitats:
- A humongous boar-pig hybrid on a rampage through a Shanxi hospital campus defies police efforts to take it alive. After a three hour chase, a tug-of-war, and several broken cudgels, it dies in a hail of bullets.
- While trotting through a Hangzhou road tunnel (?!), a wild boar unexpectedly veers from the bike lane into a Mercedes-Benz. The driver's money quote: "I mean, it [the boar] bears full responsibility, but now I have to admit it was my bad luck. I cannot go to a boar to get compensation."
- Two animals penetrate secure areas of Hong Kong International Airport on the same day. An elite counterterrorism squad batters one to submission with riot shields; the other escapes into the ocean.
Nick Jumara and Sylvie Meltzer regularly work as a team in the world of travel writing and photography. Their focus is on authentic and fresh content that looks at the world of travel and food with a little bit of irreverence and a lot of verve.