Like any good capital investment, the Gao family pig has come to pay dividends.
The stoical sow and her 10 little piggies went to market recently in this country town in east China. None of the piggies went home, and the Gaos fattened their coffers.
The Gao brothers, farmers from a neighboring village, sold the entire litter for about $100. The transaction, similar to those carried out week after week in rural markets all over the nation, is a study in the basics of Chinese economics.
Mama pig, a 300-pounder who bears the nickname Black Elephant, has been paying off like a blue-chip stock ever since the Gaos bought her two years ago for about $15. Her most recent brood brought her reproductive output to 29.
As local business ventures go, Black Elephant carries little risk. Although pig breeding was denounced in the 1970s as a "capitalist tail that had to be cut off," it has regained its political luster. Pigs are now valued as self-contained fertilizer factories and potential pork chop dinners.
The Gao family, swayed by the new Communist premium on prosperity, decided to tie its future to a capitalist pig. They bought Black Elephant as a piglet and nurtured her in the finest Chinese tradition, giving her free rein to munch on village garbage and wallow in mud puddles.
She provides a return on capital every time the Gaos march her and her latest offspring to the outdoor market of Qufu in southern Shandong Province.
On a recent Sunday, the Gaos and their swine left home at sunrise, traveling by foot to the raucous market where butchers hang sides of pork on metal hooks, vegetable vendors hawk strings of pungent garlic and peasant matrons stir huge cauldrons of soup.
The Gao's mobile barnyard arrived at 7 o'clock, settling down on a few yards of dusty earth. The piglets, whose eyes had been sewn shut to keep them from being frightened, pressed against Black Elephant's ample belly.
"They've been fattened with special feed for two months," said Gao Guangping, oldest of the brothers, poking a stick into the ribs of a piglet to show off its plump flanks.
How about their appetite?" asked a prospective buyer, stooping next to Gao to inspect the merchandise.
"Look for yourself," Gao replied with a huff.
Little more was exchanged in this unusual sales talk, and the customer got off his haunches, pretending to lose interest.
Gao was growing impatient with the sizable gathering of observers that seemed to contain no buyers.
"Are you all curious or do you want to do business?" he blurted out.
Finally, a buyer emerged, then another. All 10 piglets were spoken for within minutes.
Still, prices had to be negotiated. This was done in private clusters with everyone squatting so low you could only see the tops of their six-corner straw hats, which no Shandong peasant would be caught without.
Once the deals were sealed and the money changed hands, the buyers returned for their chattels only to discover that several piglets, perhaps sensing their fate, had escaped.
The small corner of Qufu market suddenly erupted with the intensity of the Chicago grain exchange. The Gaos dashed everywhere, oinking for the missing porkers. They looked in trash bins, under fruit stands and in baskets before finding them hiding behind the wheel of a cart. The slapstick over, the Gaos bound each piglet with rope and dragged them by ears or hooves to the local tax bureau for an official weigh-in.
The tax office, upended during the frantic piglet chase, was actually a piece of canvas supported by stakes. A serious young man sat behind the scale, weighed each purchase and levied a 2 percent tax on the final sale price--to be evenly split between buyer and seller.
By 11 o'clock, the Gaos had finished their business. They stood together counting their profits. The piglets, sold for an average of 50 cents per pound, were carried off, squealing loudly, in baskets or wheelbarrows.
Black Elephant, nonchalantly wading in a shallow puddle, had lost her piglets but brought home the bacon.