I was on my way to meet the butchers.
The day was thick with smog, just as the day before had also been thick with smog.
But the day before the smog had hung heavy on the horizon as the sun set over Hangzhou’s West Lake. Each dull molecule of air was pregnant with lusty golds and tangerine reds, like firelight through woodsmoke.
When I went to meet the butchers, the sky was solid grey. The highway cut through the smog as the mountains loomed in the distance, half seen. No bright light beat through, as it sometimes does, to reveal suddenly the stark creases of a nearby mountain’s flank. Instead, peaks of ambiguous shade unfurled across the flat land like the unfolding edges of the known earth.
The cranes, which outnumbered cars on the highway, coaxed fledgling tower blocks through the haze. Not long ago, Anji County and its 60,000 hectares of bamboo were relatively hard to reach from the rest of Zhejiang province. But the turn of the century saw smooth asphalt open up the county. It takes just 60 minutes from the center of Hangzhou before you find yourself climbing tree-lined roads and following the sharp angles of mountain paths.
Most of the houses in the village had driveways, most were blockish, some larger and colder than others, made from fresh breezeblocks, with that outdated catalogue-order feel these places can have. Big and nice by all means, but full of new space, harbouring that very Chinese contrast to the ramshackle detritus of something still living, of grey bamboo and corrugated iron. Men in flat caps and duffel jackets stood by a wooden bench and a large bucket cut from half a barrel. They watched us drive up with self-assured but curious smiles. Some had faces and deep wrinkles, others had hair still free of black hair dye or strands of grey.
A smiling ‘hello’, in that peculiar tone of voice; the amused lilt of a voice bearing an unfamiliar word. I understood that they had been waiting for us some time, and as soon as we were out of the car it began. Three men, two in aprons, presumably the butchers, strode across mud tracked concrete to a white building, and from the black of the interior began to drag a screaming sow. It was over within a minute, but the lack of commencement or distinction swelled the moments from the passage of time like burnt skin.
The pitch and volume of the pig’s screams shattered thought and we swam briefly in the immediacy of another creature’s terror. The sow lay flat to the floor and pushed against the ground with all the might of its short limbs, but fell forward, coaxed by a hook through its nose, pulled by a rope wound across its foot, and prompted by a man at the rear, holding its tail. It died still screaming on the bench, the sound diminishing with the roar of unearthly bright blood from its throat, which steamed in the cold air. My adrenaline left to ebb as it gave its death jerks, flinging fresh faeces from its rear towards a man, who dodged the turd with perfect timing. My nervous laughter joined theirs.
The blood flow subsided, a small bucket now full with the rich, velvety liquid of perfect consistency, warm and thick. The large tub now needed to be filled. The three men worked quickly, pouring water from paint buckets. Another man joked to me that the pig would soon be taking a nice bath. Too hot and the skin would be affected, too cold and the pig’s tough bristles would not come off. The pig slumped into the tub, it’s body comically bunched, eyes closed and head cocked to the side as if passed out drunk. They worked with rusted knives and a small sheet of sharp metal, the bristles falling from the pig with satisfying ease, collecting on the floor in small blonde tufts.
The spectacle had drawn as many dogs as men, some raggedy and skittish. They chewed over the pigs hair, tasting flakes of skin. When the sow’s nails came to be pulled from the soft flesh beneath, the dogs chewed them too. The men then cut the bridge between the pig’s nostrils, forming a makeshift handle from which to haul it onto a wooden bench.
The hair follicles around the mouth and neck were different from those on the pig’s body. To remove these bristles the men softened them with a stone, bludgeoning the skull and jaw with rapid thuds. Once the pig lay hairless, smooth and firm to the touch, they removed the head. Their knives had that dull and ancient rust, but also the weight and practical edge of a knife used day in, day out, as an extension of the arm. The hole in the pig’s neck made way to a deepening gash that left the head hanging, and it was cut off, saved in a plastic bucket.
Starting from the anus, their knives puckered skin and slid through the thick layer of white fat, opening the animal like a zipless coat, shiny organs nestled inside. The pig was hung from a hook, on top of a sturdy bamboo ladder, and the cut was continued until the wormy treasures inside were visible. These were pulled from the cavity and one man set to tearing the valuable organ fat from the rubbery tissue. The white jelly separated, he began the task of emptying the intestines into the pig’s old bath water. He massaged the partially digested nuggets towards a hole he had cut, and once the bulk had been vacated, the sagging tissue was rinsed in the brown slop. A woman took these skins to the small river below. I watched her crouch by the mountain stream. She rinsed and wrung what could have easily been laundry, were it not for its purple capillaries and water resistant sheen.
The man at the cadaver dug his hands into the pig’s chest as it hung from the hook, slopping out a surge of rich, dark colored blood into a bucket below. His hands found the weighty lungs and heart of the animal, and began working on the rest of the organs. Before long the sow had become two – one half still hung from the hook, while the other lay on a wooden bench. A man in a flat cap passed out smokes, handing me a stubby cigarette with a brown filter – an expensive local brand that tastes silky and sits heavy on your lungs. The butcher worked with a cigarette in his mouth, hacking with blows that were precise, but seemed rash, and ever close to his own long-fingered flesh.
The back-seat butchering began, my host at the event pointing to this and that hunk of meat, the butcher replying, and the men around the bench chiming in, arguing over the best cuts.
He pointed vigorously at a section of rib, which was cut and then ushered into one of the many bags assorted on the floor. There were old grain sacs, supermarket bags, and black plastic bin liners. They were filled quickly with their assigned cuts of meat – the butcher working with casual ease and lazy success, skimming fat from skin, cleaving joint from joint, and at one point answering a retro brick phone which rang with a jaunty tune from an apron pocket. The sow had unseeingly completed her destiny; in about an hour she had made the transition from snorting, eating and breathing, to bags of ribs, belly fat, pork loin, sausage skin and pig’s foot, amassed in the boot of a car like the aftermath of a mafia execution.
The family whose car was laden with organ meat could afford to eat nothing but the finest cuts of pork loin if they wished, but in the city they slaughtered and plucked their own geese for drying. Not out of organic and Locivore impulses, but because they know how and it tastes good. Chinese eating habits are universally insistent on the application of every piece of skin and giblet, sometimes to the exclusion of conventional looking meat, a fact that perplexes strangers in China.
Pig’s feet, sheep’s feet, chicken feet, large and small intestine, ribbons of feathery organs, starfish, scorpions and cheesy silk worm explosions, turtle, frog and penis, dog’s tongue and duck larynx, they are all on offer, sometimes in various unappealing states in touristy night markets. But the village banquet style lunch is also rife with opportunity.
After the meat had been divided, we were invited to one of the larger houses, further up the winding road. We sat down to eat with the owner’s brothers and father in a huge but low ceilinged room which seemed more municipal function room than home – sparse furniture arranged waiting room style, a gratuitously large TV that was always on. The grandfather sat opposite me at the round table, two sons either side. The table fit 10 or so people, yet more than that flitted to and from the meal. The kids grazed, and new arrivals, including one of the butchers, came to sit at the table and eat. Once or twice Grandma took a break from her work replenishing the dishes to sit and eat herself. She raised her glass as she did so, gulping down the 100 proof moonshine.
She laughed at my accent and when I complemented her cooking it was as if a grandchild had spoken his first words. A spritely ball of indomitable strength, you had the feeling that if you saw her cry it might destroy you. A rock of pleasantries and comforting coos, advice and passing comments. She gave that impression, universal to tough old grandmas, that her apparent lack of depth was underwritten by a wisdom forged throughout a pretty tumultuous lifespan. In China, these elders are like time-travelers or celestial beings.
The dishes were many, and summoned to the table so perfectly upon our casual arrival that it was as if we had made an appointment. Fat hunks of ‘mountain pig sat in red cooked sauce and tasted pungently meaty, their tender flesh dark and moreish. I was guided towards a rabbit stew that was also delicious, but I was warned against eating the juicy leeks – their function was merely to flavor the meat. Among the dozen or so fresh dishes on the table, the pig feet stood out. Sheep’s feet in particular seem to carry with them an unflattering barnyard floor flavor, a musky, almost cheesy gelatin depth – you chew the thick skin from a bone that looks comically similar to the actual fact of what you are eating. These trotter’s carried the same odour and deep flavour, but were flesh rather than thick skin padding. More than anything they were overwhelmingly salty, though the meat melted in the mouth.
We ate banquet style, picking over our food slowly but in perpetual motion, sipping hot tea, dragging on cigarettes, finding another tasty morsel, and frequently standing to toast one another at the table. Cigarettes, dishes and especially toasts were thrown generously in my direction. I suggested that they wanted to see me drunk, and they laughed, but no one denied it. The spirit was green tasting. An unmasked alcoholic donkey kick. The sickly sweet baijiu taste that you grow to love, partly out of eventual familiarity, and partly out of respect and fear. We happily sipped through a couple of 2 litre Sprite bottles of baijiu. I sat cemented to my chair, sweet tobacco smoke on my lungs and sticky baijiu coursing through my veins. While I melted into warm laughter and conversation, characters arrived and disappeared into the mountain smog.
In the Han dynasty, a tradition evolved to keep the Emperor’s hands clean and his spirit pure of guilt: if an official committed a capital offense against the emperor, he was expected to commit suicide rather than await the Emperor’s sentence. To plead innocence was a pointless and awkward gesture. So when the butcher sat with us, I toasted him and those around the table in a pre-emptive strike against myself.
As the lunch bled into the drunken afternoon, I was ushered into a car. We drove further up the mountain road, dogs running behind us. The car stopped and one of the men I had been talking to at dinner got out and beckoned me to follow him.
We were visiting the largest house I had seen on the small mountain road. The dark and marble floored atrium was vast, the walnut wood furniture was cushioned in fake beige-orange leather. The man grinned and his mother came downstairs at the sound of footsteps, smiled a shy greeting and went to fetch the tea. We sat briefly and sipped the hot tea before he became animated with another idea – he walked towards a bookshelf and began to spread several rolls of calligraphy across the table. This enthusiasm, from a man at least twice my age, was touching, but it made me feel namelessly sad as well.
He rolled and secured with a rubber band an especially beautiful piece of his work, handing it to me with a grin. Every society on earth has something to say about hospitality, most claim it as their specialty, Welsh mining towns and mountain villages in Hangzhou alike. But no matter how expected it becomes, this generosity is the engine of that sublime spark of connection between strangers. Compensating with smiles and cigarettes, and another helping, for that vast distance between people. The further apart and the harder we try, the sweeter it feels, the stranger the stranger, the stronger the liquor, the wider the smiles. With the help of a full belly, and the potency of homemade liquor, it’s a beautiful thing.
I drifted in between dreams as the car home forged its way across the highway, returning through the quieting mountains to Hangzhou. My friend was at the metro station and as dusk settled I rode on the back of his moped through the industrial/higher education sprawl of Xiasha district. That Sunday night I prolonged my baijiu haze as we sunk beers and shared dishes across a tissue papered table. We had found our way to one of the many indistinguishable cheap eateries that lay thrown across the dark, neon and garbage painted alleys, the light was stark and straw yellow, naked bulbs and pitifully low alcohol beers that were nonetheless endless.
On the way out to dinner I’d taken the subject of my day’s activity to practice my Chinese with the cab driver. He’d laughed and asked me if the pig was tasty, told me what I’d already known: that homebrew was strong stuff. I tried my luck again as I made my way home alone. The driver was frosty, and the photo I’d shown him on my phone didn’t have the desired reaction. The man didn’t eat meat, and beneath his greasy bundle of hair his small face wore a blank expression, slightly tinged with disgust. Unable to recall the word for Buddhist, I asked him whether it was because he liked ‘Sakyamuni’.
I can’t quite be sure, but as I left I think he warned me ‘not to play around here’. Whether he meant in his taxi, in his country, or on this mortal plane, I do not know. I began to make an account of my crimes as I rode the elevator to my apartment. And sitting alone in my concrete tower, drunk and ashamed by the taxi driver’s condemnation, I wrinkled my eyebrows as he had wrinkled his, and scowled as he had scowled.