It’s the last day of September and the Chinese cricket season has just come to an end – the Cricket fighting season that is.
Cricket fighting is very, very popular here. It is an ancient ‘sport’ going back over 1000 years to the Tang dynasty. The season starts in mid-summer each year and millions of Chinese men (well there may be a few women too but I suspect they are in the minority) roll up their sleeves, get out their kit and breed, search for, sell, catch or buy what they hope will be a championship fighter.
When you see the money invested in the insects and the specialist equipment needed, it is obviously not just for glory. The sums are astonishing, according to the Ningyang Cricket Research Institute in Shandong (the province famed for producing the finest crickets) 400 million yuan (US$ 62 million) was spent on cricket fighting in 2010.
Gryllus bimaculatus is the type of cricket most usually found in cricket fights,
which is not surprising in that they are found everywhere and poor and rich alike could get hold of them easily. The fights provided entertainment in what were bleak, often poverty-stricken lives.
One of the Ming dynasty Emperors – Ming Xuan-Zhong (ca 1427-1464) was absolutely mad about cricket fighting. As this became known, courtiers and officials from all across the kingdom started to send him ‘tributes’ of crickets, in the hope that if their insect proved to be a champion they would win favour. One provincial officer in charge of the local rice granaries was so thrilled to find a potential championship insect that he exchanged his horse for it, and planned to send it to the Emperor. Alas, whilst he was out of the house his lady wife, wishing to see this expensive creature, opened the pot in which it had been placed for safe keeping whereupon the cricket hopped out and was promptly devoured by a passing cockerel – she was so distraught she killed herself. Her husband came home, found dead wife and cricket missing so he killed himself too! What Shakespeare could have done with a plot-line like that…
Beijing, Shanghai and other cities have a plethora of specialist shops catering to the cricket fighting aficionados
Every cricket, no matter how humble, needs a home,
and just like the housing markets in London, New York and Shanghai there are a variety of dwellings available – depending on how much you want to spend. They range from the simplest bamboo cages, plastic pagodas (which can be multi-storey) to fabulous palaces carved from sandalwood, jade, ivory, mother-of-pearl, turtle shell, and coconut shell .
Then you need little dishes in which to bathe your cricket, dishes for its food and water – simple earthenware or the finest porcelain, special brushes to clean them with, and sticks to encourage them forward during the fight (ie to poke them with). Fighting crickets get fed on a rich diet of ground shrimp, red beans, goat liver, and maggots. Yum.
If, on the other hand your cricket proves to be a loser, or cowardly, has a limb torn off, or is generally not up to snuff – then it has an ignominious end, and will be chucked out to sing for its supper on the pavement until crushed underfoot, or by a passing bicycle or just dying of starvation and cold as winter advances.
A Chinese cricket fighting fan said that this sport was the Chinese equivalent of bull-fighting in Spain – culturally important, but less dangerous. Except for the cricket.