If pigs could fly…

By Guest Blogger Annie Eagle

 If pigs could fly…
(after the year of the pig)
If pigs could fly…

In Vietnam there is a delicately sweet, street-speciality called ‘jambong’ (from the French for ham).  It is often served with sticky rice (xoi) or is deftly stuffed into cut baguettes alongside cheese or meat and slivers of cucumber.  I had eaten it myself a couple of times before I discovered what it was.  It looks to me like mattress stuffing, or very fine wood shavings.  What I find striking, is how the once living animal, the pig, could be rendered unrecognizable, just as great trees are reduced to sawdust……

Now that the Year of the Pig has just ended, I wish to consider the reputation and treatment of this lowly and most serviceable animal.

In the Orient, the Pig has an honoured place in the Chinese Calendar.  This Year of the Pig ended a 60 year cycle, so was known as the Year of the Golden Pig.  It was seen as an especially auspicious year.  Orientals believe that those who are born in a Pig year will have a good life,  as reflected in the Vietnamese proverb ‘Tuoi Hoi nam doi ma an’ which roughly translated means ‘If you are born in the Year of the Pig, just lie down and wait, and someone will bring you food’ !

People born in the Year of the Pig are said to have the attributes of honesty, patience, generosity, courage & even nobility, and, an admirable belief in the perfectibility of mankind(!)


In one of the many variations of the Animal Zodiac story, each of the 12 animals was called before its peers and had to explain why it deserved a position at the top. The Boar, at a loss, proceeded to claim that the meat on its bones “tasted good“. This explanation was apparently considered unsatisfactory, because the Boar was placed at the very end of the Zodiac.


Although Moslems and Jews regard pigs as ‘unclean’, pork has become the meat of preference for the Oriental palate, principally in Thailand, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea and Vietnam.  So much so, that pork has to be imported from the USA & Canada.  One estimate is that 1000 pigs an hour are slaughtered in the US alone. I’ll let you do the arithmetic.  An interesting linguistic point here:  English is one of the few languages where the words for meat, are divorced from the animal it came from, – a relic from the feudal system installed by the Normans, who invaded England in 1066 (the meat ‘pork’ from the French word for pig ‘porcs’, whereas the animal retains the Anglo-Saxon names ‘pig’ and ‘swine’.) 

As a European residing in Viet Nam, I have given much thought to the plight of pigs, not least, because one aspect of it was right under my nose, on a daily basis.  For my first two months in Da Nang City, I lived with a Vietnamese family.  The balcony of my room on the fourth floor overlooked the busy Han Street Market, with a marvellous view of the adjacent Han River, suspension bridge & the mountains beyond.  However the deep pleasure of this was marred by something I saw & heard directly across the street below me.

My daily wake-up call around 4am, in the grey light of dawn, was the sound of a man hacking up freshly-slaughtered pig carcasses with a cleaver.  Every morning he would roll up with three of them slung across the back seat of his motorbike, cloven in half from snout to tail, trotters jiggling obscenely in the half-light.  All skinned & pink, looking vaguely human, The man threw them down on a tarp on the ground, & proceeded to butcher them.  A grisly sight. By 5am they were all skillfully & systematically reduced to ‘cuts’ of meat, around which a small crowd of shoppers would gather;  by 7 or 8am the whole lot had been sold, the tarp was empty & the man packed up & left.  This would repeat itself again the next day, & the next…..
Every morning three pigs, three pigs, three pigs….. I often thought of that other very English expression ‘ If pigs could fly…….. with the extension  ‘they probably
would!’


No matter how many times I heard the chopping, my horror of it never quite dissipated.  Even if I did not see it, there was an inevitable visual association, with the accompanying thought of the animals’ death.  A constant reminder to me of the Buddhist Wheel of Life & Death & the daily suffering of animals, at human hands.

This became more poignant for me, just before Tet, which I spent in a village, in a very rural part of northern Vietnam.  There, I heard the prolonged screams of three or four pigs, meeting their demise.  I have never heard a more distressing, more piercing sound.  It conveyed everything of their fear and pain, their will to live, & their ‘betrayal,’ all at once.

However, the killing & eating of pigs, along with many other animals, is simply a matter of fact here in Asia.  It is far more visible than in the west, where saran-wrapped cuts of meat in the supermarket fridge are far removed from the slaughterhouse experience.  Generally, the conditions in which the animals are reared differ little from the west.   Inhumane farming methods and overcrowding are certainly a factor in the recurrent outbreaks of foot & mouth disease in the UK and the recent epidemic of ‘blue-eared pig’ disease in China and Vietnam, most poignantly in the Year of the Pig.


Pigs still run wild in the forests of Vietnam; they are powerful, solitary, clever animals.  Very different to
what the domesticated version has become.


This animal was once revered, even held sacred in Celtic and other traditions, as the White Sow, an incarnation of the Great White Goddess.  Nowadays, pigs are much maligned in the western world. They are considered dirty animals.  English idiom reflects our disdain, in expressions such as : pig-headed, pig-ignorant, sweating like a pig, fat as a pig, to make a pig of oneself, to hog one’s  food, to be a road hog…  In fact pigs are not dirty, and neither do they sweat; they roll in the mud in order to keep cool.  And they are also very intelligent –reputedly more intelligent than dogs.  Moreover, genetically they are very close to humans, which is why pig organs are used in human replacement surgery.  And here’s some more ‘food for thought’ – the Papua New Guinea word for “human” translates literally as “long pig“– we apparently taste very much like pig meat.  So, give a thought to how similar we are, and thank your lucky stars that, in this life, you weren’t born a pig!

Postscript: From a Buddhist perspective, I appeal to you to ruminate on the idea of giving up meat….. or at the very least, if you must eat it, try to reduce your consumption and seek out organically farmed, ‘free-range’ meat, from animals that have lived a happy life.   Then, if you do ‘bring home the bacon’ you can be assured that it has not had to suffer, in order to please your palate.  Perhaps you will find it in your heart to bring compassion into your diet, and over time, come to recognize the wisdom in this. 


May these words not fall like pearls before swine!

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