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September 16, 2011

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Brave bugs do battle

CRICKET fighting has a long history in China, and this is the season when insect warriors slug it out. There's a match on October 1 in Qibao Town, chirps Hu Min.

This is the peak season of cricket fighting, a popular game in China for more than 1,000 years. Obsessed cricket lovers never stop searching for the fiercest fighters.

They share tips in cricket selection, breeding, diet and training; they pack the trains to Ningyang and Ningjin in Shandong Province, legendary home of China's most celebrated insect warriors. And they are overwhelmed by joy when their insect is victorious.

"It made me happier even than winning the first prize in a lottery," says 79-year-old Li Jiachun, known as Shanghai's guru of cricket fighting, with a broad smile.

He started fighting crickets when he was a boy. Revered in Shanghai and elsewhere, Li has published five books about fighting crickets and he has a number of disciples.

His mission in life is to promote cricket culture which, in addition to cricket fighting, also includes cricket-related painting, calligraphy, poetry and beautiful cricket cages (an art in themselves) and accessories. Of course, some love the music of chirping crickets, but those aren't the fighters.

Cricket fighting dates back to the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) and gained popularity during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). It is said that lonely imperial concubines kept crickets as pets, comforted by their chirping.

There's a lot of folklore surrounding cricket fighting. Part of its allure was the gambling and there were legendary high-stakes fights. Today, gambling is banned in China, but there are still cricket wagerers.

Jia Sidao (1213-1275), a Song Dynasty chancellor notorious for corruption and incompetence, was a passionate cricket fighter. He told his servants not to bother him, no matter what happened, when he with his crickets.

Legend has it that Jia ordered a neighbor's house to be demolished after one of his champion crickets fled there and had to be found. He even wrote a book about how to select and raise crickets.

There are around 150 species of crickets in China. Some are considered smarter and better tacticians than others, seemingly able to wear their rivals down with uncanny patience before delivering the fatal bite or devastating blow. Others are just fierce and ornery by nature and love to fight; they don't have battle tactics.

In Shanghai, one of the most famous cricket-fighting spot is Qibao Town in Minhang District. The ancient water town around 18 kilometers from downtown played a prominent role in the long history of cricket fighting. It has a reputation for having the fiercest fighters in the city.

According to legend, Qibao's crickets trace their ancestry back to prize crickets owned by Emperor Qianlong (1735-1796) of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). When his entourage passed through Qibao, some horses stumbled, the cricket cages fell and all the insects escaped to nearby fertile fields.

Tie sha qing (literally iron-sand blue) is the most famous species in Qibao, known for its aggressiveness; the name refers to its color.

Every year there's a local cricket match on October 1, the first day of the National Day holiday.

Guru Li no longer fights crickets but his disciples make the pilgrimage to his home in Xuhui District. And he is looking for more apostles.

He regularly visits Qibao Town's Cricket House (Xishuai Caotang) museum of cricket culture, which is steeped in the reverence of ancient literati for the insect. He's getting ready for the fight on October 1, but he's a spectator.

Chi Qiang, now in his 40s, and 20-something Wang Huan are quite different.

But when it comes to crickets, it's hard to tell the two apart.

Both men have been addicted to cricket fighting and breeding since they were boys. They and other cricket lovers recently donated cricket paraphernalia to the Cricket House.

The pavilion at 37 Fuqiang Street houses about 400 ceramic cricket pots, cricket-breeding containers and cricket houses.

It is a must-see exhibition for those obsessed with cricket fighting and an interesting stop for people just curious to see what all the fuss is about.

The pots have intricate designs featuring patterns of bamboo, chrysanthemum and plum blossoms - beloved subjects of Chinese poets and painters. Most of the pots date back to the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties. The oldest piece is from the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).

Pots made in northern China are thicker than those produced in southern regions because temperature usually differs greatly between day and night in northern regions, says Wang. The best temperature for crickets is about 26 degrees Celsius, and they like a dry environment, he states.

Extroverted and enthusiastic Wang, who works in information technology, and quiet Chi, who works at an engineering machinery agency, handle most of the operations and maintenance of the pavilion on a volunteer basis.

Like master Li, they are only too happy to share their love of cricket gladiators.

Li remembers he fought crickets with Peking Opera masters Mei Lanfang and Li Shaochun when he was only 12 years old. There was a big stage in what is now the Yifu Theater on Fuzhou Road and only upper classes were admitted, but Li's family was wealthy, so the boy was welcomed.

"The competition was fun, and my rivals didn't care about the outcome. Even if they lost, they laughed because having fun was most important," he recalls.

Li's grandfather once raised crickets for emperors of the Qing Dynasty. "I consider cricket breeding and fighting a cultural gem because it is profound and subtle, and I hope it can be listed as part of China's intangible cultural heritage," he says, comparing cricket strategies to kung fu.

In 1957 Li passed into a stall selling old items in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province. He bought a book written by painter Xiao Yuncong (1596-1673), describing cricket selection and breeding. He then became a cricket lover and disciple of Wang Qingren, a famed cricket breeder.

Li spent three years practicing using tiny blades of grass to "tickle" the crickets and stimulate the combatants' territorial instincts. To train his own hands in delicate cricket work, he placed a tiny mung bean on the table and used a piece of grass to roll the bean about.

"Mastering the delicate manual manipulation skill is of great significance and it can turn your cricket into the fiercest fighter, sometimes deciding the result of the competition," he says.

Some cricket lovers hired others to do the painstaking work of stimulating and training their crickets. Those were the days before gambling was banned.

Thanks to the training, Li's hands are still dextrous, despite his age, and he has raised and fought legions of crickets.

"I lost some matches, but most of the time I won," he says. He competed in Shanghai and neighboring Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces.

Li is in search of new disciples because he wants to revive what he calls the glory of cricket fighting and cricket culture.

"It is difficult because my ideal disciples should have talents in the field and have good morals because many people just want to learn the skills to make money," he says.

Of course, Li has a lot of stories.

Once a cricket trader in Hangzhou, capital city of Zhejiang Province, heard two children talking about an insect that bit and killed many bugs. When he saw the fighter, Li was astonished that it was one of the rarist and most superb fighting species, zi huang (meaning "purple and yellow" for its color.)

It had a purple head, a blue neck, yellow wings, a gold back and white legs. He immediately bought the cricket.

"He was very lucky that he got the 'general' of crickets by chance," says Li who is sad that he himself has never seen a zi huang.

Then the man with the "general" rushed to the home of Tan Jing (1911-1991), a famous cricket master. He proposed a match, saying that if his zi huang lost the fight, he would give it to Tan, but if Tan's cricket lost, he would forfeit his Raleigh bicycle, which was very expensive at the time.

Tan accepted the offer and put up his best fighter. It was dramatic - there was no fight. Tan's cricket immediately fled upon touching zi huang's teeth.

"Tan's insect was smart and knew if it resisted that it would die," Li says.

Tan exchanged the bicycle for the insect and kept it in his own room, like a treasure, not in the garden with the other crickets. For two months, the zi huang won every match.

The creature's career ended when its leg was broken in a net used for breeding.

Breedingis a very technical and complicated. Crickets thrive on rice, beans and small insects.

"You should carefully monitor changes such as color, food intake and excretion and use different tactics based on different solar terms (times in the lunar calendar) to make it grow healthy," says Li.

Ten terms from Li Qiu (Beginning of Autumn) to Dong Zhi (Winter Solstice) are involved.

Some connoisseurs feed their "pets" a bit of shrimp or even celery juice to strengthen their bodies and improve their fighting ability.

Some collect dew between 4am and 5am to feed their crickets.

The more ardent of aficionados even bathe their crickets. Both females and males are put in the same wash tub. The males seem to prefer conjugal bathing. Crickets are allergic to perfume, and floral-scented water makes them get dizzy.

Li says it's a misunderstanding that crickets should be fed highly nutritious food. Vegetarian food like rice and corn is recommended, because too much protein can impede a cricket's growth, impair fighting ability and shorten the lift span. Shrimp and crab can be fed a few times during the Han Lu (Cold Dew), around October 8 and 9, to keep it warm.

Cricket fighting

Before two combatants are let loose in a transparent plastic boxing ring, each is weighed to ensure an equal fight. Sometimes the match organizer takes custody of crickets for a few days before the match and feeds them an identical diet, so they can't be doped.

In the ring, there's a one-minute warm-up exercise, then the crickets start chirping to signal that the battle is engaged. The fight begins and they bite with their powerful jaws.

The fight usually lasts three rounds, each one lasting a minute or two. A defeated cricket may flee or retreat. If both refuse to admit defeat, the victor is the one with the loudest chirp.

Male crickets are usually priced from 10 yuan (US$1.50) to 100 yuan, depending on size and weight, species and anatomy. The most expensive known price last year was 40,000 yuan for one insect.

How to select crickets

Sometimes the one with loudest chirp is not the fiercest fighter. A good fighter has a prominent forehead, a wide and thick neck, long and flat wings, a brilliant eye, a big jaw, strong legs and a long and narrow tail.

One of the most important features is the antenna - it should be thick, black, long and flexible.

Each species is a bit different. Some are considered smarter than others and seem able to wear their rivals' energy down with uncanny patience before delivering a fatal blow.

Other more ornery cusses are just very fierce by nature and don't rely on tricks or strategy in combat.

The cemetery is a good place to find fierce crickets "because crickets who live in cemeteries are bolder than others," Li says revealing a bit of superstitious lore.


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