Of all the sports in the world, cricket fighting may seem like the least likely candidate for mass acceptance. To the untrained eye, the sight of grown men gathered around a clear plastic ‘ring’, cheering on their favourite chirruping insect tussling with another for a few seconds at a time may look like a parody from a comedy show.
But look again: this isn’t just a case of kids sticking some animals in a bottle and shaking it until they bite each other’s heads off; this sport – yes, it is a sport – has been refined, shaped and analysed over 1,000 years to something close to an art form. Just as boxing coaches must consider the psychology and physical well-being of their charges, so too must cricket trainers carefully monitor and treat their star players.
'Through playing with crickets, you can get to know a wide range of knowledge, like history, pottery, art, physics, geography and geology,' says Zhao Boguang, secretary for the China Singing Insects Association and the owner of Chong You Tang (literally 'Hall for Insect Lovers'), a cricket supply shop. Hyperbole? Possibly, but looking after a cricket for the duration of its 100-day lifespan does require an extraordinary amount of planning, effort and knowledge.
It begins with the search for the right cricket. The colour isn’t important, says Zhao. What matters is that it has big jaws to maintain a strong grip on its opponent, a strong neck to apply force and long legs to stand its ground. But that’s just the beginning; from there, trainers must feed and water their crickets and help clean them as they shed their skins. They must even find them mates: being loved-up might reduce hostility in humans, but a cricket that’s cosying up to its lover’s thorax of an evening becomes even more territorial and aggressive.
But all of this care – and the small mountain of equipment it requires, from holding jars to tiny food bowls – is only a prelude to the fights. It’s surprising, then, that the battles themselves only last a few minutes at most. The crickets are weighed to ensure a fair fight then placed in a transparent box divided into two halves. The squat, brown mini-beasts are riled up with a thin fibre, which is brushed over their antennae, before the divider is lifted and they clash. Rounds are usually over in seconds; the insects grapple, separate and turn away. The one still baring its ‘teeth’ and ready to fight is the winner; if both are still ready to rumble, a new round begins.
It’s not as sustained, nor as gruesome, as you might expect; Zhao says that deaths, or even severe injury, are incredibly rare, although the insects have been known to faint from time to time. After a winner is declared, the combatants are returned to their jars and new contenders are introduced.
The brevity of the bouts mean that cricket fighting is no replacement for football, or even human boxing – but the build-up of anticipation, rush of exhilaration and thrill of winning (or dismay at losing) loop around fast enough that it’s hard to tear yourself away. The quick turnover has also made it a popular focus for illegal gambling, which is a shame as it detracts from the genuine love of the sport that the trainers exhibit. Zhao smiles as he recalls some of his long-gone prize crickets, including one that would win every battle in a single bite, and adds that trainers see very little money from the sport. 'Crickets can cost from 10RMB to 10,000RMB according to their size,' he says. 'In fact, only cricket sellers can actually make a profit from this game. We spend money and the gamblers' profits disappear with their luck.' And Zhao, with his happy memories of crickets from times past, seems just fine with that.
For gear, visit Chong You Tang
. It should cost around 25RMB for a full set of equipment; you can buy crickets from the shop opposite.
Three cricket lovers get ready to rumble.
Yu Wei, 29
'I started when I was six, when I found a cricket that defeated almost all the others in our building. There is a Chinese idiom, “diao chong xiao ji” (“insignificant skill of an insect”), which refers to crickets, but I don’t think that’s fair. We should actually learn from their spirit of bravery and competition, I believe.'
Feng Guangsheng, 62
'Cricket fighting is an endless discipline. It’s an elegant sport and a great way to socialise, exercise and cultivate the mind. I started playing when I was in elementary school and would travel 20km to the suburbs to catch new crickets. There’s no feeling like seeing your cricket win.'
Nie Fu, 39
'I have lived in Germany for 20 years but I still come back to China during cricket-fighting season. Back in Germany, I raise horses, and here I raise crickets. Crickets only live 100 days, but raising them is intensive – you have to feed, mate and bathe them.'