If someone in China challenges you to a cricket match, there's no need to fish out your bat and pads. And don't worry, you won't be the one fighting a cricket. Reach instead for the little cage in which your prized fighting insect resides. It will have been trained to perfection, much like a human boxer, and fed a carefully controlled diet in the hope of producing the best fighting cricket possible.
Crickets have long been popular animals in China, and are traditionally seen as symbols of luck and auspicious virtue. During the T'ang Dynasty (618 - 907 AD) aristocratic ladies used to keep them in little cages and listen to their singing at night, and this hobby spread across society. For such small, seemingly insignificant creatures, they have long enjoyed a privileged position in Chinese culture and society. During the 'golden age' of Chinese civilisation, when China was by far the richest and most advanced nation on the planet, they were the subjects of poems, essays, and the research of wise men. They are associated especially with autumn - the Chinese character for autumn, Qiu, takes the form of a cricket. In the wild, most singing insects sing in the autumn and die with the coming of winter, and so they are associated with loneliness, sadness, pity for the fate of mankind and are used profusely in Chinese poems. These two examples show this, though perhaps their lyricism is lost in the translation.
The singing cricket chirps throughout the long night, tolling in the cloudy autumn with its rain.
Intent on disturbing the gloomy sleepless soul, the cricket moves towards the bed chirp by chirp.
- Listen to the Cricket by Bei Ju-Yi, T'ang dynasty
What's the matter with the crickets?
Their sad melodies fill the night.
So few they are, yet so loud their song.
It cuts through the breeze and coagulates in the drizzle.
No sleep in sight for the anxious lady within her home.
- Cricket, written during Ming dynasty
According to Liu Tong's Cu Zhi Zhi (c1700 AD), towards the end of the Ming dynasty, people started to rear crickets themselves rather than catching them from the wild.
...placing soil in a pot, let the insect lay its eggs inside. In the winter, put the pot on a kang [a heated brick bed], water it every day and cover it with a cloth. At the beginning of the summer, the soil will start to stir, and one week later, the nymphs will emerge as white maggots. In addition to watering and covering, feed these nymphs with vegetables. After the legs and wings become mature, their colour will darken. One month later, the crickets will start to sing their song, although it is softer than in the autumn and they will die with the coming of the spring.
One particular Chinese emperor, Ming Xuan-Zhong, was a great lover of these insects, and became known as the Cricket Emperor. Hundreds of crickets were sent to the emperor as a form of tribute. This made crickets very fashionable pets and highly valuable.
When he saw a good cricket, an officer of the local rice-granaries exchanged it for his best horse. While he was away, his wife opened the pot to peek at the special cricket which promptly jumped out and was instantly eaten by a cockerel outside. The lady was so scared that she committed suicide. Her husband, upon returning and seeing his dead wife along with the missing cricket, also took his life.During the Cultural Revolution the sport was shunned due to its 'bourgeois nature', but it is now making something of a comeback.
- Ming Chao Xiao Shi (a history of the Ming Dynasty).
Cricket fighting is an especially popular pastime in the south of China, around Macao. In Beijing, the Association for Cricket Fighting still organizes cricket fighting events and championships. It must be remembered that cricket fighting is technically a bloodsport, and that it is now illegal in both Macao and Hong Kong, though it still continues. The sport has spread to other parts of the world, presumably exported from China, especially on the east coast of the USA (New York and Philadelphia are supposed centres of American cricket fighting).
Raising your cricket
It is worth mentioning that there are numerous Chinese books on this subject, but the cricket enthusiast's Bible is Cu Zhi Jin, which includes contributions from the notorious Cricket Minister of the Song Dynasty, Jia Shi-Dao. His obsession was so all-consuming he was accused of dereliction of his duty as a government official. The book gathered all cricket-related philosophy, literature, and science into one volume. So it was not just about how to make your cricket into the best fighter - there were also sections on precise biological observations, behaviour, diet and how to treat your cricket should it become ill.
On to the task in hand: the first thing to do is to select the best cricket to work with. It can be very hard to find a good one, and some enthusiasts are known to spend whole days crawling around in fields looking for them. The best fighting crickets are big ones with a dark face. Remember a cricket's natural lifespan is only 100 days or so, so you will have to find a new one pretty soon. You can choose to buy one, of course, but good crickets can be fiendishly expensive. Sales often take place as auctions, where prices can start at 180 yuan (around £12)1 and quickly escalate through bidding to 8,000 yuan (£530). Some sell for in excess of 10,000 yuan (£670).
Once you have your cricket you must raise it properly if you ever hope to get it fighting. It is common to feed them a special diet of corn or wheat flour and apples. Ground worms, fish and water chestnuts are also a popular diet, providing protein and nutrients in abundance. The best crickets are also treated to calcium tablets or ginseng to make them strong and good fighters. Some trainers love their crickets so much it is quite common for them to share their bed with them, leaving their wives to sleep alone. They are treated like thoroughbred horses, and much care is lavished on them to keep them in peak physical condition, including medicine and veterinary care. Some champions are given a new female cricket every day.
Many people keep crickets as pets simply to listen to their singing. One old Chinese chronicle records that crickets were treated with a mixture of brass powder and rosin2. This mixture was applied to the stridulatory mirror of the front fore-wing with a needle and was supposed to refine and heighten the volume of the insect's 'voice'. This practice is less common in modern times.
Now, how should you house your cricket? This is a surprisingly involved business, as there are five basic types of container.
There are pots: clay containers, used either for rearing and training fighting crickets or keeping singing crickets. The singing pots are smaller and have hollow covers for better sound transmission. The clay is decorated with symbolic carvings of dragons and other auspicious creatures.
Cages are mainly used for larger crickets, obviously because it would be hard to make a cage with bars closely space enough to stop a small one getting out. Cages are commonly made from bamboo, wheat or corn stems, reed or gauze. They are usually about 7 or 8 centimetres across. The fanciest cages are made from sandalwood and have ivory decoration.
Cases are perhaps the most universal 'living quarters' for your cricket. Cases are often sold with the insect, made from cardboard or bamboo (although more modern cases use plastic). They have at least one sliding panel for access, and one side is a gauze breathing window. The more elaborate cases, made from ivory, horn or sandalwood, tend to be decorative rather than practical and are used merely as collectibles.
Tubes are used to keep small singing crickets in a pocket. They have a breathing cover and a feeder at the bottom.
The gourd is the most popular container. It is an auspicious material, and, though not exotic, is extremely practical. Inside it is moist and keeps at a constant temperature. Latticed lids (to allow for breathing) are made from all sorts of materials and can be quite richly decorated. The gourds themselves are usually decorated by a technique called huo hui, where a hot needle is used to scorch lines onto the surface. Some jars emulating the gourd shape are also used.
The Big Fight
Crickets are highly territorial creatures and fight naturally in the wild. They live alone in small holes, and quickly come to blows if another cricket attempts to take over a piece of prime real estate. Sometimes, however, bamboo sticks are used to incite more reluctant animals to fight. They are sometimes not fed beforehand to make them more aggressive. They will be weighed before a fight so it is an even match.
Some fights can end in death, after which the victor eats the loser3. However, many fights follow a more usual pattern of fights in the natural world. The combat tends to follow several well-defined stages. The two animals will generally square up, bare their fangs4 and make a lot of noise, then clash briefly. The argument will usually be settled in the favour of whichever animal gets the upper hand at this point. In the wild the loser would run away, chased by the victor, but in captive fights in little enclosed arenas this is not possible. Thus it is up to the owners when to remove their cricket from the ring. Losers appear to become depressed after the fight and become docile and unaggressive for a day or so.
Fights are generally finished after a few minutes. But in the case of some resolute and powerful crickets, the contest might last half an hour or even longer. The tenacity and perceived courage and determination of the insects is one of the reasons they are so well respected in Chinese culture. There have been case of fights going on between crickets who have lost all their legs to their opponent's bites.
Huge bets are often placed on the outcome of fights. The spectators can come to blows with each other as the fight gains in intensity. This violence typically occurs if one gambler, who may have staked his entire livelihood on the match, suspects foul play. The huge amount of cash floating around inevitably attracts organised crime, but not to a large extent since more money can be made in other fields, such as dog fights.
The Cricket Economy
In some rural parts of China farmers have found they can make a lot of money from selling the crickets they collect from their fields. Areas reputed to have the best crickets are almost seen as destinations of pilgrimage for enthusiasts. They support hundreds of hotels and thousands of people working in the specialised occupation of cricket transportation. The income from crickets is seasonal as they are most prolific during early autumn. During this time hundreds of thousands of people flock to the country, including high-flying businessmen from Beijing or Shanghai. Some families can earn 10,000 yuan (£670), which provides their main income for the year. One province which benefits from the cricket craze is Shandong on the eastern coast. Cricket enthusiasts from Shanghai alone bring 300 million yuan (just under £20 million) every year to the province.
The problem of losing crickets being reluctant to fight again has a solution. According to Chinese folklore, when two male crickets engage in combat, the loser will refuse to fight again unless he's shaken and tossed in the air by his trainer. For a long while it was acknowledged that, while this appeared to be true, there was no scientific explanation for this behaviour. Biologists then found that the key action was not the shaking, but the few seconds of flight in the air after being tossed. The subordination of defeated crickets was dispelled by activating their motor program for flying5.
This finding could have wider-reaching consequences. Insect aggression is controlled by the brain, and the command to fly comes from an electrical signal generated in the animal's thorax area. If the nerves between the thorax and brain are cut, the animal can still fly, but the flight no longer restores its aggressiveness. This indicates that the act of flying releases a neurotransmitter or some other chemical signal from the thorax that directs the brain to 'reset' the cricket's willingness to fight. This sheds new light on research done into human depression. People suffering from depression often report feeling euphoria after being deprived of sleep. There appears to be some kind of activity performed by the body (exercise or similar activity in order to keep the subject awake) which decreases their depression. There is hope that a simple exercise can be found to provide a similar 'instant relief' to depression as the brief sensation of flight can for crickets.