Seconds out as season for cricket fighting arrives

The tradition of raising crickets to fight and enjoy their singing is deeply rooted in Chinese culture. The popularity of cricket rearing promotes the art of making cricket pots.
Seconds out as season for cricket fighting arrives
Jiang Xiaowei

A cricket pot made in the Ming Dynasty features an elderly man and a boy strolling in the garden.

Seconds out as season for cricket fighting arrives
Jiang Xiaowei

A potable case with a box used to contain hot or cold water on the left and a pair of cricket pots on the right.

Autumn has arrived, according to the Chinese solar calendar. For many people, especially elderly men, the major seasonal pastime is raising crickets to fight but also to enjoy their singing. 

The tradition is deeply rooted in Chinese culture. Keeping crickets in cages in order to appreciate their sounds dates back to the reign of Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). 

Cricket fighting thrived in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279). One of its biggest fans was Jia Sidao, a chancellor in the late Song Dynasty. Regardless of public affairs, he indulged in the game. He even brought crickets to the court and it is said that one of his crickets once jumped on the emperor’s beard. 

The official was a contributor to the study of crickets, writing a comprehensive classic called “Cuzhi Jing,” the first book about how to rear crickets. This “bible” is still used today. 

The activity continued to flourish in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) especially when the Emperor Xuande ruled the country. He required officials to hand in the finest crickets and thus the whole nation was dedicated to catching crickets at that time. Due to the emperor’s obsession, he was nicknamed of the Cricket Emperor. 

The popularity of cricket rearing also promoted the art of making cricket pots which are not only used for raising the insects but also regarded as collectible art pieces. Ceramic, clay, jade, stone and lacquer, cricket pots are made of various materials. 

“Compared with other materials, clay has the best air permeability and thus is perfect for raising crickets. They would not suffocate in the clay jars but would in the ceramic ones,” said Tang Yulong, founder of the Chinese Ancient Pure Soil Crickets Basin Museum, a private museum in Xuhui District. 

Seconds out as season for cricket fighting arrives
Jiang Xiaowei

Chinese Ancient Pure Soil Crickets Basin Museum, a private museum founded by Tang Yulong

His interest in cricket pots was sparked by a passion for cricket fighting since childhood. Over 40 years, Tang has collected more than 500 ancient cricket pots spanning from the Southern Song Dynasty to the initial post-liberation period. 

“When I was young, my neighbors and I often had cricket-fighting competitions in the alley. Instead of money, winners gained opponents’ crickets or cricket pots and mooncakes as rewards,” said Tang. 

The difference in climate between north and south China results in the different styles of cricket jars. The northern school of cricket pots have thick clay walls which insulate against the cold and retain moisture. Since the weather is humid in the south, the walls of the pots are thinner in order to have good permeability.

Tang said that cricket pots can be gray, black, red or yellow. The various colors result from the different content of iron oxide in the clay and the different firing temperatures. Most pots are cylindrical though a few are rectangular, hexagon or octagon shapes. 

The pots made in the Ming Dynasty were relatively large. Unadorned ones were more common and the simple and elegant style of the pots reflected the aesthetic ideology of the time. 

The cricket pots made in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) were more artistic and decorative. Figures, flowers, birds, clouds, water, dragons and phoenix, various motifs and traditional patterns were engraved on the pots along with calligraphy and poetry. In the mid-Qing Dynasty, seals featuring the names of the craftsmen began to appear on the pots. 

In the 1950s, the cricket pots, used as a tool of propaganda, were deeply affected by the politics. Political slogans like “step up production,” “world peace” and “defend the motherland” were frequently engraved on the pots. 

Some of the crickets’ homes are quite luxurious. Like suites, many pots contain a living room, or sleeping box called lingfang which is made of clay, wood or ivory. There are also miniature porcelain “dishes.” 

Another type is the two-bedroom apartment with a small room for a female cricket and a big one for a male. The “wall” between the two rooms can be removed, which allows the couple to enjoy their happy marriage. 

Other ancient tools associated with the cricket fighting include huang, high-precision scales, and douzha, tube-like wooden cages where fights were held. Before the fights, crickets needed to be weighed and sorted in three weight classes. 

Seconds out as season for cricket fighting arrives
Jiang Xiaowei

A cricket pot with a sleeping box called lingfang and two “dishes“ was made in the first year of the reign of Emperor Kangxi of Qing Dynasty.

Seconds out as season for cricket fighting arrives
Jiang Xiaowei

A cricket pot with a small room for a female cricket and a big one for a male was made by Li Shengming in the Qing Dynasty.

Today the fascination with crickets is still alive in China.

Last weekend, a visit to the Qinqing Flower and Bird Market in Xuhui District revealed crowds of people at stalls selling crickets at prices ranging from dozens to thousands of yuan. The cricket traders were putting a few grains of rice with water into each cricket container. Several elderly men sitting on wooden stools were using a strand of grass to prod the crickets and observed them carefully.

“The tickler is used to agitate crickets into fighting mode. The stimulation allows people to see whether the cricket is aggressive or not and how big its mouthpart is. The more aggressive and the bigger mouthpart, the better,” said one trader.

Grappling, shoving and throwing, a pair of crickets were fighting like gladiators. The loser retreated while the winner burst into song. According to the trader, only male crickets sing and fight while female crickets are raised for breeding.

“The most expensive cricket was sold at over 100,000 yuan (US$77,500) this year,” the trader added.

Spending more than 100,000 yuan on an insect? For most people, this is inconceivable. But for the cricket enthusiasts, it happens.

“I once purchased a cricket from a Shandong trader at the price of 80,000 yuan. Yellow and glossy, it looked very strong and beautiful. However, it was defeated by another cricket which was far cheaper than mine. It was really frustrating,” Tang said.

The outcome, however, didn’t affect Tang’s love for crickets. He spent nearly 800,000 yuan on more than 100 crickets this year.

“During my childhood, I once raised a cricket progressing from fight to fight to the rank of a ‘general.’ It didn’t die until December, which was quite long-lived. I did a funeral service for it, storing its body in a cigarette box and burying it,” said Tang.

An exhibition featuring Tang’s collections and Xu Benjian’s paintings of crickets is at Shanghai Library through September 20.

Seconds out as season for cricket fighting arrives
Jiang Xiaowei

Huang, a high-precision scale, used to weigh crickets before fights

Seconds out as season for cricket fighting arrives

Douzha, a tube-like wooden cage, where cricket fights are held

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