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Sacrificial Swine

Pretty pigs trotted out for contest, slain for clan ancestors

01·25·2015

It’s not often a “beauty pageant” aims to select the fattest contestant, and it’s even rarer for all the entrants to be dead, but when the pigs of Chaoshan (潮汕) celebrate the New Year, they do it in style.

The clans of Chaoshan, a coastal region nestled along the border of Guangdong and Fujian provinces, have been holding the Big Pig Competition (赛大猪) for over a century. Part beauty contest, part animal sacrifice, part New Year’s feast, the event takes place on the 17th day of the first lunar month each year. Although these dolled-up pigs may be the stars of the event, they never live to see it. They are slaughtered the night before, to be put on display and judged by their weight and decoration, in what effectively amounts to a sacrifice to clan ancestors. Celebrations take place in village all over the Chaoshan area. In each village, the event is organized by two of the area’s clans—which are essentially sprawling extended families that all share a surname. Each family within the two clans contributes pigs to the competition, while elderly members of the clans decorate the halls, organize the contest and act as judges.

The Zhou and Xu clans are the key players each year in the event held in Guanshan (冠山) Village of Shantou (汕头) City, Guangdong Province. In 2014 they revealed their swine for all to see, in an event which locals believe helps ensure a plentiful harvest with healthy livestock. But although those clans are the key players, they do not face off against each other. Each year there are effectively twin competitions, and everything is kept within the family, which means judges are only judging pigs from their own clan and are less likely to be accused of favoritism.

A local man paints his pretty pig, preparing for the final judgement

A local man paints his pretty pig, preparing for the final judgement

On the morning of the competition, the slaughtered pigs are laid upon a wooden frame about a meter high. They are decorated with items such as stamps and ribbons, often with fruit stuffed in their mouths. Some even place slaughtered goats— also regarded as animals suitable for sacrifice to ancestors—above the pigs to increase their “value” to the ancestors, and perhaps just as importantly, their value to the judges.

They are first brought to large tent areas in front of the ancestral halls of the clans. Hauling the pigs, which often weigh hundreds of kilograms, to these tents used to be an arduous challenge, which required the family to have a team of strong, young men on hand. Fortunately for those young men, these days hoists are used. But plenty of locals—most probably the ones who don’t have to do the carrying—express regret that the tradition of hauling the pigs has fallen by the wayside.

Each pig is labeled with the name of the person who provided it. At the 2014 event the photographer counted over 600 hundred pigs in the tent of the extended Zhou clan, whereas the Xu clan, with a tent just a few hundred meters away, was much smaller in scale.

A man stamps his porcine princess before the competition

A man stamps his porcine princess before the competition

Elderly clan members serve as judges, reviewing the decorations and overseeing the weighing of the pigs. A “Pig King” for each of the two clans is then chosen based on its weight and presentation. In recent years, these “kings” have weighed over 500 kilograms. After its coronation, the Pig King is moved to the front of the tent and the owner receives a cash prize, which was donated by the clan’s richer family members.

Naturally, any proper coronation requires a parade. In this case, the festivities are designed to lure a deity into the ancestral hall— the scene bursts into life as gongs are sounded and music is played, while colorful flags are twirled amid the “lion dance” performance. Clan members then file into the hall to burn incense, while the local “Teochew opera” (潮剧) is performed outside the hall throughout the day. And, as with most traditional opera, the audience tends to be dominated by older people.

At the end of the day, each family brings home the bacon, ready to settle down to a meal, which undoubtedly consists of a great deal of pork. The families then almost certainly need to keep pigging out for the rest of the week in order to use up all that meat.

Trussed up and decorated, the pig awaits judgment

Trussed up and decorated, the pig awaits judgment

The Chaoshan region is the most densely populated area in China. Ever since the tenth century, people in this coastal region have had a reputation as famed sailors, leading them to make their mark all over the world. In the Ming and Qing dynasties, when trade and commerce began to take off, this focus on the ocean was reinforced. From the 19th century to the 1940s, increasing numbers of Chaoshan people emigrated, taking traditions and customs overseas with them. In many Chinatowns across the world, Chaoshan culture is very well represented.

Today, there are more Chaoshan people living abroad than in the region, with an estimated population of 15 million diaspora throughout the world, compared to the 10 million in Chaoshan.

The strong emphasis on clan and family ties runs in tandem with a generous attitude toward education and philanthropy. As a result, the Chaoshan area provides the most private donations for school funds and public facilities out of all regions of the country.

The precise origins of the Big Pig Competition are unclear, but the links to ancestor worship indicate a fairly long history. Some clues to its history are actually revealed within the characters used in the title itself. The character 赛 was first used to refer to “contest” roughly 1,500 years ago, but the nature in which it was used is very telling—it was used in reference to when families provided sacrifices such as geese or pigs, and tended to compare them, in order to boost their status— sounds familiar, does it not?

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