Construction for the 2008 Summer Olympics is only one of the many signs of modernity in China’s second-largest city. Today, not only is Beijing home to traditional cultural sites like the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, but it’s also increasingly an international hub for the high-tech, pharmaceutical, and electronics industries.
Outside the city’s Central Business District, however, a much older industry is still very much alive. A visitor strolling through Guanyuan Market might initially linger to take in the wondrous variety of rare flowers, birds, and reptiles. It’s the crazy noise, though, that will eventually win the spectator’s attention. A cacophony of incessant chirping carries over the hum of the crowd. It’s a familiar sound amplified to a deafening level — and it beckons everyone walking by to come and check out the crickets.
The merchants here display hundreds of their chirping wares right on the street, each inside a bamboo cage or a plastic container. Some crickets are for singing, others are for fighting — and all are for sale. Prices can reach the equivalent of several thousand U.S. dollars, an astonishing amount for an insect that will live only two to three months.
For centuries, China has regarded a cricket chirping around the house as good luck; a deluge of crickets means wealth will come to the family.
Under the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD), the Chinese began keeping crickets as musical pets. “Ladies of the palace” would catch crickets and carry them either in their bosom or suspended from their girdle. At night, the women would place the crickets near their pillow to provide solace during moments of loneliness. It’s said that the cricket’s song mirrored the concubine’s own sadness. With as many as 3,000 women per emperor — each hanging out with her own cricket — this made for very noisy evenings at the palace.
As the pastime grew more popular, citizens began sending thousands of their best crickets to the capital each year as gifts for the emperor. Then painters, poets, musicians, and politicians alike followed the emperor’s lead and began to keep crickets as pets, storing them in containers developed specifically for the little songmakers — containers that ranged from tiny cages wrought of bamboo and fish bones to clay pots, beautifully carved wooden boxes, and decorative gourds inlaid with ivory and gold. Eventually, cricket societies and clubs grew, encompassing all levels of hobbyists. Thus this appreciation, as with so many other customs throughout the world, began in the palaces but soon spread to the lower classes and to the villages.
In ancient Chinese agricultural societies, however, crickets were appreciated for an entirely different reason — their chirping was a crucial indicator of climate change. When farmers heard the Jingzhe (the waking of the insects) in spring, they knew that the time was right to begin plowing the fields. To pay tribute, farmers wrote proverbs and songs about the insects, artists rendered paintings of them, and children were told cricket fables. There was even the belief that, because crickets lay hundreds of eggs, the key to success in life was to have as many children as possible.
China developed the sport of cricket fighting during the Song dynasty (960–1279 AD); the fight is a natural outgrowth of interaction between two males who are competing for territory. The brave and valiant warrior spirit of a cricket in battle captivated audiences — and the cricket’s reputation as an intelligent and competitive insect with an added talent for making beautiful sounds grew.
Fighting was at first a sport for the upper class, as a means to display wealth. The lower class was attracted to the gambling element, though, and eventually the sport became aligned with slackers and societal problems. When the government prohibited the fights, the sport went underground. Only in recent years has the sport of cricket fighting again been officially allowed, and then only if no gambling is involved — or discovered.
A cricket fight in China is as ritualistic as a bullfight is in Spain — and there is equal respect for both of the creatures involved. As has been the tradition for centuries, two crickets are weighed and then matched up according to size, weight, and color. Both combatants are placed in a small fighting arena, with walls high and thick enough to prevent desertion. The cricket trainers stimulate their charges with a straw or a fine-haired brush, and then the insect warriors go at each other, antennae waving and jaws snapping.
Over the years, experts have outlined three main fighting styles: A cricket might stalk his enemy slowly, in a strategy of “creep like a tiger, fight like a snake.” Another cricket might lie in wait, attacking only when its opponent chirps, in the “listen for sound, look for the enemy” technique. A great fighter will use the “charge like the wind, valiantly forging straight ahead” method of champions.
Fights are usually face-to-face and eerily silent, except for the chirping and the scuttling of feet and wings, and they can be quite mesmerizing. A bout usually doesn’t last long, and it’s surprisingly PG, with minimal gore and carnage (a more fierce confrontation, though, might include one cricket flipping the other across the arena). The loser often runs away or simply stops fighting. Only occasionally does a match end in a fatality, with decapitation as the humiliating finale.
American expat journalist Aventurina King witnessed her first cricket match in the kitchen of a friend’s home in Beijing.
“White-collar workers in their 20s generally don’t participate in this activity,” King explains. “I would say it’s people [from] families that are still quite traditional who take this up as a hobby. On the weekends, they get together with their friends and see which one of their crickets is the best.”
It was King’s first cricket match, and her immediate impression was that, in China, having crickets as pets is nothing unusual at all. “It was cute. … Each cricket had its own water and food in a tiny bowl made of white-and-blue Chinese ceramic.” After some friendly wagers were placed, the match began.
“My cricket, the one I had bet on, bared its fangs and made a lot of noise — it sounded like the opera star Renée Fleming when she reaches the high A. It turned the other cricket over once or twice. After that, it seemed like a game of cat and mouse, with the opponent running around the bowl as my cricket chased it.” King’s cricket ultimately was defeated, and both gladiators were returned to their respective containers and rewarded with food and water.
“[Since neither] of these was my cricket, there wasn’t much emotion involved,” she says. “But I can imagine that for someone who has spent a lot of time training a cricket, things [could] get pretty heated during fights.”
Especially if there’s money at stake: The forbidden element of gambling is one of the causes behind the contemporary resurgence of cricket fighting. At matches where money is exchanged, the pressure is as intense as at a heavyweight boxing match in Vegas. Cheating — such as giving the insects stimulants — is not uncommon. Occasionally, cricket-fighting dens are even raided, resulting in police arresting the gamblers and confiscating cash and crickets. So-called luxury games, held in outlying provinces, switch venues for each match in order to avoid the police.
The majority of today’s cricket culture is aboveground, though — and accepted in society. There are even some cities, like Jinan, where fights are broadcast live on television. And Chongming Island, off the coast of Shanghai, hosts a six-day national cricket-fighting competition, drawing hundreds of fans and their combative insects from all over the country.
Beijing’s Chinese Culture Club also sponsors cricket matches. Mariel Escudero and Sonia Dupont, expats who live in the city and work on the Latin American website GRILA.net (Grupo de Residentes Ibero Latino Americano), recently attended a cricket lecture and workshop at Beijing’s culture center, which provides English-language services for non-Chinese residents. The class culminated in cricket bouts for all participants. “I found it fascinating,” Escudero tells me. So fascinating, in fact, that she and Dupont collaborated on an article about it for their website and even posted a fight video on YouTube.
It’s said that there are as many as 900 species of crickets in the world, and the Chinese cricket culture includes a number of variants.
The best singing crickets are said to possess thick wings with wide veins. (Only mature males make the chirping noise, produced by rubbing their forewings together.) A cricket can create as many as five distinct calls, including an after-mating sound and sounds that signify courtship or attack. Some insect keepers will alter the wings of their favorite crickets, applying a tiny amount of wax (at the correct temperature) to amplify the sounds.
Chirping has been calibrated in certain species to be able to actually calculate the temperature of their environment, which is known as Dolbear’s Law. (Depending on the species, a rough method is to count the number of times a cricket chirps in 15 seconds and then add 38; the sum should equal the correct temperature in Fahrenheit.)
For fighting, the Gryllus bimaculatus is favored for its aggressive nature, thick body, and length of up to one and a half inches. Found throughout Asia, Africa, and southern Europe, this cricket is considered the best chirper of all the species; it has a strong, clean sound, which adds more excitement to the fight.
Like a boxer or a wrestler, a fighting cricket undergoes training and medical care. Keepers observe their crickets’ behavior carefully, watching for signs of disease and extremes in temperature, which can injure them. Their strict dietary regime ranges from flies and blood-filled mosquitoes to boiled chestnuts, ginseng, and calcium tablets. Some keepers prefer to feed the insects corn, wheat flour, and sliced apple. Training might include putting a female in the jar with the male, to create agitation and aggression. Other keepers will have the fighter fast prior to a match, and as soon as the cricket starts acting sick, they’ll quickly feed it small red insects to rebuild its strength. There are no instances in modern cricket fighting of the use of illegal steroids. Not yet, anyway.
Victorious fighters are treated with the respect of sumo champions. A winning cricket is referred to as a general. Owners of such warrior crickets will often travel great distances to meet one another and to ensure that their heroes are well matched for another bout. The best crickets will fight as many as six times before they are retired or defeated.
A particularly noble fighter may be preserved under glass for eternity, or his likeness may be rendered in a painting. In 1999, in Shandong Province, one champion, dubbed King of the Insects, was valued at 100,000 yuan ($12,920) — a shocking amount, considering that the annual income in Beijing, one of the wealthiest urban centers, averages just 7,000 to 30,000 yuan ($904 to $3,876).
Commercial and residential expansion in China has led to the slow decline in the number of agricultural fields (where crickets originally were collected), so breeders now supply many of the country’s crickets used for retail purposes. Yet there are still specific areas where champion crickets grow in the wild.
Many great cricket fighters come from Zhejiang Province, from a town called Yuhang, where the pepper fields are said to lend a fiery disposition and incredible strength. Crickets from Luhua’s watermelon and soybean fields are also said to possess power and a hot temper.
But Shandong Province, south of Beijing, is still considered the ultimate birthplace for a fighting cricket. Folklore tells us that during an enemy invasion some 800 years ago, a Song dynasty emperor scattered his cricket collection at the foot of the sacred Mount Tai. The descendants of these crickets are said to be the world’s best fighters. It’s estimated that nearly half a million people travel to the county of Ningyang for crickets each year. Local farmers earn their main income just from plucking crickets from their fields and selling them to buyers from Singapore, Japan, and Hong Kong.
Demand for the insects is so high that many have been able to make a comfortable living as a cricket breeder in the big markets of major cities. One popular business model is to buy or capture young crickets, feed them special concoctions twice a day to increase their strength, and then resell them for profit.
It’s unlikely that citizens will once again send thousands of prized crickets to the emperor’s palace — nor will 3,000 concubines clasp a cricket to their bosom as they sleep in fitful loneliness — but it’s obvious that the hold this chirpy little insect has on this country is as strong as ever. And worth a buck or two