Only by observing and touchin can a man precisely estimate the meat production of a cattle. Perhaps it sounds like science fiction, but in China a group of professional cattle brokers have been performing such a wonder for centuries. However, discouraged  by the unpleasant working environment and traditional views on the propagation of their knowledge, cattle brokers find themselves becoming  the last of their kind.

History of Cattle Brokers

Everyday, cattle sellers and buyers from several nearby provinces gathered in Hengli Cattle Market. One cattle sellers was unloading the cattle.  Photo by Xirui Dai

Located in Dongguan Guangdong, Hengli Cattle Market is the largest cattle market in southern China. The history of this market can be traced back to 400 years ago.

“Traditionally, cattle brokers are primarily responsible for assessing the quality of farm cattle,” said Zhu Shuxuan, the manager of Hengli Cattle Market. “As time passed by, cattle have become more of a source of food instead of labor. Consequently, cattle brokers adapted to this change by mastering the techniques to estimate how much meat a cattle can produce after being sent to a slaughterhouse. ”

According to the rules of the market, the price of cattle is not determined by its weight, but rather by how much meat it will produce. The cattle’s weight can be deceptive as a cattle’s stomach can hold hundreds kilos of food and water.

One cattle broker was estimating the meat production by pinching cattle’s skin.  Photo by Xirui Dai

Zhu told a story of a cattle buyer who had bought a truck of cattle in Shandong, where it was standard to use a weighbridge to measure cattle’s weight to determine it’s value. However, after the cattle were butchered, the actual meet production was far less than what weighbridge calculated. Consequently, the buyer lost more than a million RMB for this deal.

Beyond estimating the meat production for buyers, cattle brokers also play a role during the bargaining process before the final transaction. They balance the interests of both sides and help them reach a fair price. This profession incorporates not only veterinary knowledge and experience but also a profound understanding of the practices in the cattle business. Through each deal, a cattle broker can earn 20 RMB.

“The role of cattle brokers in the cattle trade can never be replaced by any modern measuring tools,” Zhu claimed.

Story of Uncle Jin

DPP_0007Zhang Yangjin, an 87-year-old man, is the oldest cattle broker in Hengli Cattle Market. People in the market often call him Uncle Jin. Following his father and grandfather, both cattle brokers, Uncle Jin  became an apprentice when he was ten.

“It was the first time my father took me to the cattle market, and I was immediately fascinated by the cattle and the knowledge my father possesses. Each trading day, I would follow my father to the market and learn the skill from him,” said Uncle Jin.

One year later, at the age of 11, Uncle Jin made his first deal. A buyer simply wanted to test him. After watching the cattle’s strides, nipping the cattle hide and hitting the cattle’s bone, Uncle Jin proposed a price. During this process, his father couldn’t help nodding in agreement and appreciation. The dealer accepted the price as fair. The details of the deal are long forgotten, but Uncle Jin would never forget the sense of achievement he had felt.

However, throughout his career Uncle Jin was not immune from doubts and disputes. A buyer once challenged him on his estimation, so Uncle Jin made a bet with the buyer. If he misjudged the meat production, he would pay for the cattle. In the end, the deviation of Uncle Jin’s estimation was less than one kilogram, and the buyer was dumbfounded.

From the age of 10 to 87, Uncle Jin has devoted his entire life to the cattle market. Although he is old, he still insists on working everyday. His diligence, proficient skills, and business integrity have earned him respect and admiration.

Issues of Inheritance

Hengli Cattle Market used to have hundreds of cattle brokers, but now there are only seventeen. According to Zhu, this drastic decrease can be attributed to the “Reforming and Opening” policies, which started in the late 1980s, when plenty of Taiwanese companies opened up factories in Dongguan.

“People prefer to work in factories to in farms. Therefore, fewer people would raise cattle, and the number of cattle brokers fell as a consequence of the shrinking demand,” Zhu explained.

The buyer and the seller were bargaining with each other.                          Photo by Xirui Dai

Zhu also said that another factor that restrains the continuation of the cattle brokering profession is the traditional rules the brokers strictly maintain. Generally, this skill can only be taught to the sons of brokers. However, the unpleasant work environment associated with the business has significantly undermined its appeal to younger generations. Most cattle brokers’ sons would rather go to college and seek desk jobs than working among the cattle.

“Learning brokering skills takes a long time, and I don’t want to stay with smelly cattle everyday,” Uncle Jin’s son said. “Also, it pays very little.” His words echo the sentiment of much of his generation.

Although some brokers still insist on the old tradition, others have already taken actions to preserve their dying profession. Many have decided to share the trade with apprentices or to teach the skills to other family members. For example, Uncle Jin has chosen his son-in-law as his successor.

Zhu said that they have taken measures to improve the working environment and increase broker’s income. He hopes that this profession can generate tourism once the public has learned more about its traditions and its influence on the history of Dongguan. By raising awareness within a broader audience, Zhu hopes to attract more people to learn the skill.

“As long as there are people eating beef, there will be cattle trade and the brokering skill would never disappear,” Zhu asserts.



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