It's autumn, the season of crickets. But there's more to crickets than fabled fighting, there's a rich Chinese cricket culture of socializing, lore, poetry, calligraphy, stone-carving and more.
Laure Houze (left) and Jean Philippe show great interest in cricket fighting at the Wanshang Flower and Bird Market on Xizang Road.
Fighting crickets, chatting about crickets, comparing their virtues, listening to their chirps, and assembling a chorus of insects -- these are ancient Chinese pastimes symbolic of the golden, passing autumn, from September through November. Crickets only live about 100 days.
It is said that once cricket fighting was a sport of emperors and literati, but today fighting is more widespread, though the culture lovers tend to be intellectuals, like retired Professor Li Shijun in suburban Minhang District.
Li says most of his cricket-fancier friends are professors, publishers and teachers and he has cricket aficionados visit from as far away as Japan, Spain and Australia.
Their focus goes beyond fighting to poetry, calligraphy, stone-carving and painting on fans.
Today many people are cricket fanciers, some spending large sums on winning crickets, and betting, of course, goes on.
Winning insects all have names, like "White-Hat General" for a white spot on its head, or "Big-Mouth General" for one with an especially large mouth. All are called "generals."
Those who die after especially illustrious careers may be preserved on cotton under glass, with a memorial notation of their exploits in the cricket ring: "Here lies courageous White-Hat General ... 50 conquests."
Crickets seldom live into December. They eat grains, like rice and corn, and drink water.
Some people carry crickets with them in elaborately carved cases for the pleasure of hearing them chirp.
During the Mid-Autumn Festival on Chongming Island, the six-day National Cricket Fighting Competition was held -- drawing six teams of six enthusiasts, each from around the country -- hundreds of crickets, many of them caught on Chongming Island, famous for its combative insects. Hundreds of fans cheered them on.
The winners from Qingdao in Shandong Province received 20,000 yuan (US$2,530), divided equally among the team.
"Crickets are very brave, they will not back out once they start fighting, yet the fight is graceful to watch. We can learn from such courage. Even Confucius promotes fighting for one's belief when necessary," says Professor Cai Aoying, a cricket enthusiast, who retired from East China Normal University.
Two crickets of comparable sizes (weighed carefully before the fight to ensure fairness) stare at each other behind a clear glass barrier dividing an arena about a square foot (30 square centimeters) in area.
Then the bar is removed and both insects are prodded with special reeds. Suddenly, one hops up in a stylish curve and aims towards his opponent, who retreats in a circle and eludes the attack. He continues to move in a circle while carefully observing his adversary.
No, he is not afraid. The way he moves implies such confidence and elegance that he almost looks like a professional dancer rather than a fighter -- a dancer waiting for the right moment to invite his partner to the dance of his life.
"His partner" seems impatient and starts waving his tiny head. Here comes the high point of the dance. He rapidly slides forward, attacks and bites his opponent's bottom.
Now the two seem to become one and they slither around the tiny arena until one falls to the ground. It is end of the dance, the end of the fight -- he's down, though not dead.
The curtain goes down and the bloodless show is over. It's almost impossible to tell whether the loser is hurt.
Many people bet on crickets and a good fighting cricket can be costly, though a cricket lives only a few months.
"Cricket fighting is pleasant to watch, and its tie to Chinese history and culture dates way back," says Cai.
Even from the very beginning, crickets have appeared in Chinese literature. In The Book of Odes, a collection of ancient poems dating back to 1000 BC, part of a poem refers to crickets in autumn, in the lunar calendar:
"In the seventh month, in the fields;
In the eighth month, under the eaves;
In the ninth month, about the doors;
In the tenth month, the cricket goes under our beds.''
That's the first written record of crickets and indicates our ancestors started observing and perhaps catching them more than 2,000 years ago, says Li, a retired professor from Shanghai Jiao Tong University who's also a cricket culture expert.
Since The Book of Odes, many literati in ancient times have written about crickets, as cricket fighting became activity enjoyed by all.
Among them, Prime Minister Jia Sidao of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), author of The Cricket Classic, was among the most famous.
It is said he refused to attend to his duties while a cricket fight was under way. Partially because of his neglect of duty, cricket fighting was banned from the palace.
"That is an extreme example. Currently, many people bet on cricket fighting, but that doesn't make cricket fighting itself bad," says Cai.
"It depends on the people who have the hobby. Our cricket friends are mostly intellectuals like professors, publishers and teachers. We develop the hobby in a more cultural way," he says.
Cai and his cricket friends often travel for hours to Li's home in suburban Minhang District for cricket-fighting gatherings. With these friends, the insect battle is just part of the socializing.
Li often writes poems expressing his love for crickets. Then, he will ask a cricket-fighting friend who is good at calligraphy to write his poem on rice paper or sometimes on a fan.
Chinese paintings of crickets decorate his walls. Most depict cricket fighting and human satisfaction and joy in the activity.
"It is a fascinating activity that ties cricket lovers together," says Li. "I often get calls from strangers and we get to know each other very soon because of crickets."
Cai collects cricket-related antiques such as cricket pots. Some of his most valuable treasures date back to Yuan (1271-1368) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties.
In addition to poems, calligraphy and Chinese paintings, Li is also fond of collecting stones, a hobby of many literati. He asks some cricket-fighting friends who are good at engraving to carve his poems on stones.
The stone itself becomes a piece of art as well statement of his love for crickets.
To Li, Cai and their cricket-fighting friends, the battle, its preparation, its lore and camaraderie have become a rich culture.
"Our shared love of crickets ties us together to explore the relationship between crickets and other aspects of Chinese culture," concludes Cai.
(Shanghai Daily October 31, 2006)