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October 16, 2009

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The real game of cricket is a fight to the death with brave bugs

CRICKET culture springs to life in autumn when crickets are captured for fights or cherished for their chirps during brief lives that end in winter.

Li Shijun's life these days revolves around the insects, which he catches, breeds and fights. The 66-year-old photography professor is a storehouse of knowledge about cricket entomology, competition, lore and culture.

He keeps hundreds of crickets at his suburban home in Shanghai's Fengxian District, which is filled with paintings, calligraphy and all things cricket - such as elaborate cricket houses.

Chirps fill his house and he calls the music "the greatest sound of nature."

Li is admittedly addicted to the creatures that can "both sing and fight."

He has been enamored of crickets since he was a child.

Each day on his way home from school he used to pass the City God's Temple in the Old Town area, which used to be a major market and fighting venue in Shanghai in the old days.

Once it was crowded, filled with vendors selling crickets and touting their talents and music, and with people shouting and cheering fighting crickets on. Gambling flourished, the stakes were often high.

Today, gambling is illegal in China, and that includes betting on crickets.

But people still get excited by cricket fights in which aggressive males duel to the death and the victor lives to fight another day.

"I was brought up during a craze for cricket fighting," says Li. "We had cricket fights in the old lanes just for fun. Sometimes we staked a cigarette on a cricket."

He deplores gambling on crickets. "Some players staked everything they owned on a cricket fight. That's what I don't want to see.

"The insect is for entertainment, not gambling and making money."

Every year, usually in July or August, Li goes to Shandong Province - the acknowledged home of the biggest, toughest fighters - and buys specimens. He often goes to Sidian Town in Yanzhou, a county-level city.

"It feels like a 'finding crickets' campaign," he says. "Farmers of all ages go out into the fields to look for insects to sell. For many, what they earn in a month of cricket sales covers the expenses for a whole year."

Prices vary greatly, depending on size and weight, species and anatomy. Some crickets are worthless. Some - the biggest and most aggressive, with a family track record of victory - can sell for 10,000 yuan (US$1,465) or more.

According to Li, a good fighter needs a big head with big jaws and hard teeth, strong legs and a smooth back.

"But it's not as simple as a checklist of characteristics," he says. "A cricket's life span is really short and sometimes a strong fighter can decline and fade in a week. In practice, it's more complicated to find and raise a good fighter and there are few fixed rules."

Once a likely cricket is caught, its raising, diet and training are crucial.

Li feeds his crickets a special combination of corn flour, wheat flour and apple.

"For especially excellent crickets, calcium tablets and ginseng might be added to strengthen their bodies and hone their fighting abilities," he says.

Training involves rousing males to fight, prodding them gently with a piece of grass and encouraging their territorial instincts.

The 7th Shanghai Luhua National Cricket Competition was recently held in Chongming County and Li was one of the judges.

The competition attracted 17 teams from six provinces and cities such as Beijing and Liaoning, Shandong, Jiangsu and Guangdong provinces. Around 3,000 crickets took part.

Before the competition begins, teams send their contestants to the organizing committee where they are fed the same diet for a week - to level the playing field and prevent cheating by feeding stimulants to the insects.

By the time they compete, crickets fed calcium, ginseng and lots of nutrients should already be strong.

Before putting two insects in one transparent plastic boxing ring, they are weighed to ensure they are of equal weight and it's a fair fight. It may end in death or a defeated cricket may flee.

A match with silent combatants usually ends in a few minutes, the insects biting each other with their powerful jaws, sometimes dismembering each other.

Connoisseurs have identified three fighting styles. Some may stalk their opponent slowly and they strike, another may lie in wait and pounce, another may charge ahead and attack straight on.

Xu Moxiao, another cricket fanatic, is one of Li's best friends. They talk shop about cricket selection, breeding, training and fighting.

Xu graduated in law from Shanghai Jiao Tong Universit, but he unexpectedly decided to go into business raising fighting crickets.

In Luodian Town, Baoshan District, he has a 2,000-square-meter breeding area.

In a controlled environment, Xu provides warmth, food and water and a good place to lay eggs. He is open to various breeding techniques.

He hopes to develop the area for cricket tourism and culture.

"I'd like to add tourist elements, like salons and cricket fights for kids," Xu says. "I want this to become a noble game, not something evil like gambling in which people can lose all their wealth."

Although Xu is not yet 30, he already has 20 years' experience with crickets.

"I have been fascinated since childhood," he says. "It's too bad that fewer and fewer young people, especially teenagers, can see cricket matches and I hope they can get better access."

Cricket fighting and appreciation date back to the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). It is said that lonely imperial concubines kept chirping crickets for company.

They placed them on their pillow, kept them in their bosom or carried them in cages on their belts. Palaces were filled with chirping.

Li and Xu are trying to promote cricket culture. They note it involves entomology, biology, ecology, nutrition, medicine, history, archeology, art, literature, calligraphy and more.


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