Pigs from the Ancestors: Cantonese Ancestral Rites, Pork Division, and the Gender Revolution – James Watson


The rites of pork division (分豬肉) have been central to social life in South China’s Cantonese-speaking regions for at least seven centuries.  Pig meat, in various forms, was the most prized form of dietary protein and, until recently, was always in short supply.  Older villagers reported that, during the early decades of the twentieth century, they consumed pork on three or four occasions each year – primarily in the context of ancestral rites.  Male elders (父老) controlled these rituals and managed every aspect of pork division.  Other than enjoying meat in family meals following the rites, women were not involved in these activities.

By the early twenty-first century, however, the nature of the annual rites had changed dramatically, as had the social system of south China.  Pork division has survived – but only as a vestige of its earlier form.  This essay concludes with an analysis of these transformed rites, which are (in part) a reflection of China’s gender revolution and an amorphous longing for “home” (鄉下) among migrants and diasporics.


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