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October 16, 2009

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Cricket culture festival celebrates warrior insects and their songs

HANGZHOU will hold its first National Cricket Fighting Match and Cricket Culture Festival from next Monday through Wednesday in Yuewang Art Gallery.

Since it's a Hangzhou first, most competitors this year are from Hangzhou, though many have bought crickets from Shandong Province which is legendary for its mighty warrior insects.

Crickets fight and sing in the autumn - they are in their prime now - and die in the winter.

Cricket fighting goes back more than 2,000 years in China where it has been popular with emperors, cricket masters and ordinary citizens. There's a whole cricket folk culture around the fighting insects, as well as those that are kept for their singing abilities and charming company.

Artwork, painting, literature and poetry are inspired by crickets. Cricket houses or cases can be works of art; slain heroes, with titles, of course, have been buried in elaborate caskets. There are still ceremonies to honor valiant deceased crickets.

Special cricket fighting diets keep them in trim. It is said that victors have been rewarded with female crickets.

Eight cricket fighting teams will compete in the Hangzhou contest.

The festival is sponsored by the Hangzhou Cricket Culture Assn, a folk culture organization.

To attract spectators and players, the Hangzhou District Cricket Fighting Match in end of last month awarded 10,000 yuan (US$1,464) as first prize in the event in Wushan Square. It was telecast on a huge screen in the square.

Cricket fighting for sport (and betting, which is illegal today) goes back at least to the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). The sport blossomed in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) because the prime minister, Jia Sidao, was obsessed with cricket fighting. Rules were developed.

Hangzhou, as the capital of Southern Song Dynasty, was a center of cricket culture because of the region's large aggressive crickets.

Crickets from what is now Shandong Province were also famous warriors and for years the two cities were running neck and neck in producing the biggest toughest Chinese crickets.

But the encroachment of human habitat and use of pesticides over the years resulted in smaller and weaker Hangzhou crickets. Thus, Shandong crickets from more rural and less polluted areas were the most prized.

Today, after hundreds of years, cricket fighting is still popular, especially in eastern China. Though gambling is officially banned, fighting flourishes and cricket culture is increasingly appreciated.

More people are getting to know about the art, literature and poetry surrounding crickets, as well as the insects themselves, their habits and habitat.

Shen Lishun is the official photographer of the Hangzhou Cricket Culture Association, The gentleman, now in his 60s, used his own funds to make a short documentary about the cricket's life cycle, from egg to fighting arena.

"Playing with my crickets has been a daily morning leisure activity for me for 40 years," says Shen.

"Watching crickets always calms me down," he says. "Years ago when I ran a factory, I decided at night to fire a worker but after playing with my crickets the next morning, I changed my mind and gave him another chance."

Crickets lay eggs in the soil in the autumn and the eggs hatch in summer. Thus, adult crickets are mostly caught, not raised. Professional cricket catchers in Shandong Province sell them for as little as 10 yuan (US$1.47) to tens of thousands of yuan.

"The most expensive cricket I ever sold was more than 40,000 yuan," says a cricket seller surnamed Li from Shandong. "It was a constant winner."

Based on catching and selling crickets, the economies of several Shandong counties have developed rapidly.

"Many new villas have been built there, and the whole province has earned an estimated 6 billion yuan since they started selling crickets all over the country in the past 20 years," says Wang Fahua, a member of the association.

"Prices vary and so do the players, from common people to billionaires, every Tom, Dick and Harry can sit down together for matches," says Wang.

Cricket food can be as simple as rice and corn, or as expensive as scallops. Cricket houses can be rough clay or valuable antiques.

Cricket players/fighters need tools: a cricket house as small as 10 centimeters in diameter, a tiny bowl of water, a net and a hollow tube to catch the cricket, and a small furry ball attached to a bamboo stick. This is used to prod the fighter into a tube and then into a transparent plastic box - the actual battlefield. The crickets are spurred on with pieces of straw.

In the upcoming contest, every team chooses 20 crickets and substitutes.

Bad mood, hunger, a bad scent and many other factors can discourage a cricket from fighting, so substitutes can be used if a cricket flees the match.

Each cricket is to be handed over to the organizer 24 hours before the game, to prevent use of any stimulant and to classify them into three groups by weight, as in boxing.

An electronic scale measures weight in dian units; 40 dian is about the weight of a Chinese fen coin (100 fen equals 1 yuan). A cricket weighing less than 25 dian is a lightweight, up to 35 dian a middleweight, and 35 and above a heavyweight.

"Cricket fighting is a childhood memory for many people, and we love this game because we always want to find a better one or a king-level cricket," says Wang. "Winning is a supreme honor."

For the cricket association, the fighting is the first step.

"Our next goal is to make a cartoon image of this insect and to protect, promote and develop cricket culture," says Lu Jun, the associate secretary-general of the cricket lovers.

Cricket fighting

Date: October 19-21, 1:30pm

Venue: 3/F, Yuewang Art Gallery, 11 Renhe Rd

Admission: Free


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