While attending an Yimin Festival (義民祭) three years ago, 47-year-old Lin Jui-chu (林瑞珠) was surprised to find that the centerpiece of the ritual — the “divine pig” — was missing at the ceremony, with only its skin left for the public to see.
Lin said she remembered that when she was younger, a whole pig would be laid out on a bamboo altar, with its head and tail clearly visible to the public.
However, nowadays, the pigs are skinned and only their skin left to hang on the bamboo altars — presumably because the pigs have become so heavy the altars might not be able to support their weight, Lin said.
Animal activists have decried the practice of fattening pigs for the ritual, a Hakka ceremony honoring the yiminye (義民爺), or volunteer militia, during the Qing Dynasty.
In an effort to put a stop to the practice of temples holding contests on who can raise the fattest pig for dedication, Lin, a Hakka and journalism graduate from Shih Hsin University, recently made a documentary titled The Divine Pig Salon (神豬沙龍).
The documentary records the lives of divine pigs, how they are raised, butchered and dissected, and their skin removed and hung as an ornament during the ceremony.
Lin said the price of a divine pig is determined by its weight: A hog weighing 1,100 jin (660kg) can fetch about NT$300,000 (US$10,350), while one weighing 1,500 jin can sell for up to NT$1 million.
The process of producing such massive pigs is inhumane, Lin said, with the hogs being force-fed 30 jin of food and given Chinese medicine to increase their appetite three times a day.
If the pigs refuse to eat and lie down, they are beaten and forced to stand up and continue eating, Lin said.
When the pigs grow to such a size that their feet cannot support them, they are put in custom-built metal cages where they cannot move around.
“Divine pigs do not even enjoy the right to procreate naturally,” as breeders use artificial insemination to raise the next generation of divine pigs, she said.
Lin said she originally blamed the farmers who raised the pigs. However, she said she later realized that the breeders were fattening the pigs not for profit, but because of the genuine belief that the heavier the pigs they raise, the more luck they could bring to the village in the coming year.
Lin said that during her research for the film, she had met an old farmer who had started raising divine pigs as a sideline because he could not make enough money from raising crops. However, he was devastated when he found that with the economic downturn, the market for divine pigs has plunged as well.
Lin said she realized then that the breeders were not to blame, but rather that the competition on who can raised the heaviest pig needs to change.
Aside from the documentary, Lin has also posted on her Facebook page calling on fellow Hakka people to join her in opposing the competition. She has received endorsements from renowned Hakka writers Chung Chao-cheng (鍾肇政) and the Wintry Night trilogy (寒夜) author Lee Chiao (李喬), as well as legal academic Lee Mao-sheng (李茂生), lawyer Wu Chun-ting (吳君婷) and 243 other people.
Lin has also held salon-style meetings in which she talked about the issue from different perspectives — including belief, law, animal protection and politics.
She said that most Hakka remain in the dark about how divine pigs are raised, and were shocked when they saw the documentary.
“If the yiminye knew how the offerings had been raised, would they eat the meat? Would they still grant us protection?” some have asked.
Lin said she hoped the ceremony would return to the original tradition of offering thanks to ancestors and end the inhumane treatment of divine pigs.
Temple priests presiding over the Yimin Festival ceremony have also expressed shock when they saw the documentary. They said it was not that the Yimin temples did not wish to change, but they had to consider if the ancestors would be offended if the ceremony were to be toned down.
Lin said she believes the documentary has already made an impact and that it only needed time or the will for changes to take effect.