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Chirps and Cheers: China’s Crickets ClashBy ANDREW JACOBS06 November 2011Big Red Belly, his thick limbs nourished by a strict liver-tofu-ginger diet, should have been a contender. Instead, as his trainer watched in dismay, the young fighter nervously circled his more menacing adversary and then skittered to a corner of the ring, prompting jeers from a half-dozen spectators.“Worthless,” his patron, Chang Hongwei, a retired mechanical engineer, growled as he yanked Big Red Belly from the arena and unceremoniously ended his brief fighting career. “Next!”Countless members of the Gryllus bimaculatus clan, also known as field crickets, have faced off in the capital’s narrow alleys this fall in a uniquely Chinese blood sport whose provenance extends back more than 1,000 years. Nurtured by Tang Dynasty emperors and later popularized by commoners outside the palace gates, cricket fighting was banned as a bourgeois predilection during the decade-long Cultural Revolution, which ended in 1976.But like many once-suppressed traditions, among them Confucianism, mah-jongg and pigeon raising, cricket fighting is undergoing a revival here, spurred on by a younger generation — well, mostly young men — eager to embrace genuinely Chinese pastimes.Cricket-fighting associations have sprung up across the country, as have more than 20 Web sites devoted to the minutiae of raising critters whose daily needs can rival those of an Arabian steed. Last year, more than 400 million renminbi, or about $63 million, were spent on cricket sales and upkeep, according to the Ningyang Cricket Research Institute in Shandong Province. Shanghai now has more than a dozen cricket markets, and several cities, including Beijing, stage public bouts where the Lilliputian action is blown up and projected on to giant screens. (A related activity, competitive cricket singing, draws the affections of those inclined to more pacific pursuits.)“As living standards go up and people have more time and money to spend, they want hobbies rich in history and meaning,” said Wang Suping, the owner of Autumn Delights, a shop packed with all manner of cricket accouterment — from elaborately carved cricket houses that sell for hundreds of dollars to hand-painted ceramic bowls fit for a tiny king.One Beijing taxi driver compared his passion for cricket duels to a Spaniard’s love of bullfighting. “The main difference is that cricket fighting is much less dangerous,” he said. (Insect-rights advocates take note: Combat seldom causes injuries, save for the occasional severed antennae, and losers are generally tossed onto the sidewalk and allowed to roam free until a November frost, or a pedestrian’s foot, puts an end to their chirping.)There is, though, a nefarious side to the cricket craze: illegal back-room matches that draw legions of gamblers. In late September, the police in Jiangsu Province raided one such parlor, arresting 79 people and seizing 100 prized fighters. According to the police, cricket owners would bet 10,000 renminbi, or nearly $1,600, on each bout. Wagers by spectators exceeded 100,000 renminbi.Liu Yunjiang, 60, a self-described cricket connoisseur who stages exhibition matches for tourists in Beijing, said the spread of gambling on cricket fights has raised the stakes for the casual cricket buyer. “A really formidable fighter can be worth more than a horse,” he said. “And they eat better than you and I do.”Most aficionados, however, insist that the sport is a wholesome diversion that fosters camaraderie and friendly competition among devotees.Even as interest grows among the computer-game generation, cricket fighting remains the domain of older men who grew up without toys or television.“It reminds us of our childhoods, when everyone was poor and you could fetch crickets in the fields just outside the city walls,” said Chen Huihua, 72, a retired schoolteacher. “The fields are now covered with tall buildings, but crickets still bring us great joy.”
Men like Mr. Chen also take pride in China’s long affair with the insects, which legend suggests were first domesticated by imperial concubines who kept trilling crickets at their bedside to stave off loneliness.Crickets, both the fighting and singing ilk, are a staple of Chinese poetry, painting and storytelling. A few tales stand out, like the Ming Dynasty emperor who required subjects to include crickets as part of their annual tax burden.Even if digital scales are now used to sort fighters into weight classes separated by one-hundredth of a gram, cricket trainers still follow many of the rules and recommendations laid out in a 13th century how-to guide written by Jia Sidao, the Southern Song prime minister whose obsession with crickets supposedly led to the dissolution of the empire.There is an elaborate system for feeding, judging matches and categorizing fight styles — “Creep like a tiger, fight like a snake,” describes one particularly effective move. The trained eye can supposedly differentiate 260 different grades and skin tones.Although championship brawls take place after the fall equinox in late September, cricket season begins in earnest during summer, when farmers take a break from tending crops to thrash their way through corn fields after dark in the search for would-be gladiators.Experts agree on one thing: the best specimens come from a few counties in northeastern Shandong Province, where the soil and climate seem to produce a particularly fiery breed. “The loudest chirpers are usually the fiercest,” said Chen Chuanfang, 47, a corn farmer from Ningjing County who estimates he makes an extra 10,000 renminbi a year from cricket fighting.While some die-hards trek out to Shandong, most buyers scour Beijing’s main insect market in the south of the capital, where peasants display their specimens in ceramic jars capped by metal lids.Serious trainers often purchase 200 or more males, at roughly 10 renminbi, or $1.60, a pop, with the hope of finding a handful of decent brawlers. Promising candidates might be given names like Yellow Flying Tiger or Big Purple Teeth.It is then that the rigorous work of cultivating a warrior begins. Each cricket must be kept in its own clay pot on a bed of sand-and-clay mortar, and diets can include ground shrimp, red beans and goat liver. The truly spoiled might enjoy the occasional herbal bath, and a maggot or two just before the big fight.To stoke its territorial instincts, trainers use a strand of boiled hay or a mouse whisker to cajole the cricket. “If you’re serious about breeding winners, you never smoke or drink near your crickets,” said Mr. Liu, the Beijing master. “A bit of chili pepper will make them especially ferocious.”Then there is the matter of conjugal visits. Before fight night, a succession of females will be dropped into the jar, which experts say amps up the male’s fighting spirit.Weeding out the meek and the spineless takes place through marathon qualifying sessions, during which contenders are weighed and then dropped into two sides of a clear plastic ring. Once the divider is lifted, the owner of each will use the so-called tease stick to rile up the insect. It often takes less than a minute to determine whether a prospect is worth its mettle.A good fighter will give off a shrill chirp, open its mandibles wide and attack its opponent with moxie. After two or three quick tussles, the loser will usually make itself known by backing off. The victor will be swept into a wire net and dumped back into its pot to fight another day.As a crowd hovered over a ring at the cricket market, Zhang Zheng, 33, who works in finance, offered his own theory on why grown men become so smitten with insects.“It’s in our nature to be aggressive, but fighting is illegal,” he said. “So we project our emotions onto crickets and when they win, we feel proud but then perhaps we become a little less aggressive.”Li Bibo and Mia Li contributed research.
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