Updated: 2012-05-11 07:50
By Yin Yin (China Daily)
Cricket fighting is widely seen in large Chinese cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Guangzhou and Hong Kong. Zhang Mo / For China Daily
Insects' antics in an ancient Chinese pastime continue to delight audiences
The two face each other in the enclosure, their limbs taut and jaws bared. Pushed and cheered by an increasingly excited audience, the duo becomes more aggressive as they lunge for each other. But this is no underground boxing ring. It is a duel between two fighters in an age-old Chinese pastime - cricket fighting.
Also known as dou xishuai (斗蟋蟀), cricket fighting has retained its popularity in modern times and is even attracting foreigners.
"When I roam the southern part of Beijing, a paradise of local culture, I often hear crickets singing around street corners. But these little critters are not just good at making music, they are also great fighters," Spanish student Julen Oyarbird says.
"Last year, I watched a contest at the China Culture Center in Beijing. The organizers introduced the activity to overseas visitors and it was quite interesting.
"The fight is as ritualistic as a bullfight in Spain - and there is equal respect for both creatures."
Fans say the duel between the crickets involves singing as well as fighting. In ancient times, many Chinese poems mentioned the crickets and regarded them as a marker of the beginning of autumn.
During the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), imperial concubines used small gold cages to keep their precious cricket pets.
At nightfall, the chirping of the insects provided an "antidote" for the loneliness they inevitably felt in the evening as part of a harem that could have been made up of as many as 3,000 women.
Commoners soon imitated this imperial pastime and found ways to enjoy the caged crickets' calls.
As they brought the rearing of their crickets to greater heights, many of these people inside and outside the palace began to discover their fighting ability. In the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279), cricket fighting flourished as a popular activity. From emperors and ministers to aristocrats and urbanites, many Chinese people became addicted to the activity.
"In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the game became very cultured and systematic. First of all, the requirements of a good cricket were decided - it had a round head, long palpus, thick front teeth and large limbs. Apart from these, the body color of the best crickets was considered to be deep yellow, then red, black and white," says Li Cheng, an experienced cricket breeder of four decades.
During the Qing Dynasty, collecting crickets seemed to have spread to all levels of society. Members of the imperial household, scholars, city dwellers and rural residents all stocked up on crickets before autumn. Records show that the empress dowager Cixi was a fan of the insects and their fights.
Rearing crickets has become increasingly sophisticated.
"Feeding a good one is not easy," says the 65-year-old Li. He prefers to use a special food mix of wheat flour, corn and sliced apple.
"For some of the excellent specimens, their strict dietary needs range from flies and mosquitoes to ginseng, calcium tablets and soft-boiled chestnuts. The aim is to strengthen their bodies and hone their fighting abilities."
Crickets from Shandong province are the most prized. The Ningjin county cricket should have a huge head, with its neck and legs finely colored. They are said to be extremely aggressive and possess great endurance. Ningjin used to be famous for its cricket tributes to the emperors.
The crickets are said to fight because of a natural tendency of the males to compete for territory or to mate. They have a reputation for being intelligent, and this can be seen in their duels, which are usually accompanied by their delightful singing.
Cricket fighting is still widely seen in large Chinese cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Guangzhou and Hong Kong. There are many clubs and societies that cater to all levels of the pastime.
In Beijing cricket fighting competitions are held from early August to late November each year at breeders' haunts, such as the Shilihe and Tianqiao markets.
"According to traditional rules, the two crickets fighting are weighed and matched based on size, weight and color. The combatants are placed in a small fighting arena, with high walls to prevent the weak ones from retreating or escaping," says Wang Zhijun, a cricket trainer and professional competitor.
Before the duels, cricket trainers stimulate their charges with a piece of straw or fine brush. The fighters might then jump on each other, antenna waving and jaws snapping furiously.
Sometimes, one cricket might furtively close in on its opponent, much like a snake stalking its prey. Another cricket might lie in wait, attacking only when its opponent chirps.
"Fighters are always face-to-face, baring their teeth and chirping noisily before clashing briefly. They might sing excitedly as they wave their wings like fluttering eagles," Wang says.
The losing insect often tries to run away or simply stops fighting.
"It can seem like an intense, raging fight but only occasionally does a match end in a fatality. The worst usually end with the losing cricket being thrown out of the ring by its angry owner."
In the cold days of late autumn, crickets may take a few minutes to warm up for their fights - much like boxers before a match.
Doting owners ensure that each cricket has its own food and water in tiny bowls made of white-and-blue Chinese ceramic or stone.
But with its continued popularity, many people are being arrested for gambling on the fights.
For Wang, the activity is merely an opportunity for fans to get together and share their passion.
"My life with crickets not only improves my mental wellbeing and intelligence. The insects also give us a chance to spend more time with our friends," Wang says. "After the fights, we always get together for a hearty meal or drinks."
(China Daily 05/11/2012 page18)