A gaggle of men form a circle, sweat on their brows as they wave hundred yuan bills in the air in a darkly lit room in Beijing. Sure, gambling is illegal in China, but that won’t stop these blood-sport enthusiasts. The fight is on, and they wildly cheer on the two males in question. Adrenaline, tension, and expectation hang in the air. And, after just a few seconds, the slightly larger opponent has been pinned to the ground in defeat–the smaller insect is declared the victor before returning to his cage. China has indulged in blood sports for centuries, with some a bit less gruesome than others, namely, cricket fighting.
Typified by speed, strength, and ferocity, cricket fighting is an excellent, yet tense, spectator sport despite the small size of its competitors. In fact, cricket fighting bears a resemblance to boxing and wrestling. Before the match, fighters are weighed and categorized into different weight classes; the cricket combatants can only compete with fighters in the same weight division. The two are then moved into the ring, separated by a divider in the middle. When the fight officially begins, the divider is lifted. As soon as the two crickets sense each other’s presence, they immediately become alert and hostile, chirping their battle cries. Driven by their natural instincts, they engage in a duel for the privilege of mating. As with humans, males will go considerable lengths to secure some action.
Like two wrestlers, the crickets size each other up before locking into a war of strength and wit. They tackle, evade, break apart, and sound their fury like Spartan warriors. The difference is that a fight between two crickets, no matter how cruel or ferocious, never ends bloody. It is hard to imagine just how fierce a fight between two small insects can be, but their jaws are very powerful. Some crickets have been known to bite through human skin and flesh.
For over 3,000 years the Chinese have kept crickets as singing pets, but for those with fire in their blood, this wasn’t enough. Some people just want to watch a fight. Cricket fighting, 斗蟋蟀, has been a popular blood sport in China for centuries, originating in the Tang Dynasty (618-907). When ancient Chinese discovered that if you locked these wild insects in a closed space, they start attacking each other, they soon drowned themselves in this wild pleasure. Cricket fighting soon spread, and flourished during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Virtually all Chinese, no matter royal or common, indulged in cricket fighting recreationally. In the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911), cricket fighting was further developed as a serious blood sport, and theories on the selection of crickets expanded to better distinguish winners and losers. If you’re thinking of investing in you own stable of fighters, it’s important to remember this general rule: ““白不如黑，黑不如赤，赤不如黄” (white ones are inferior to black ones, black ones are inferior to red ones, and red ones are inferior to yellow ones).
Crickets, nicknamed 蛐蛐儿, are also called 促织(hasten weaving) because ancient Chinese thought the chirping of crickets resembled the sound of looms, believing that the crickets were telling women to weave more before winter arrives. Since they only live for about 100 days in autumn, they are also called 百日虫 (a hundred day insect).
For years, hundreds of years, crickets were a way of life, from big fights to fiction. In the story “The Cricket” (《促织》) in the Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio (《聊斋志异》), Pu Songlin (蒲松龄), who wrote mainly in the 17th century, begins with the unhealthy obsession with crickets in Ming (1368-1655) society: “Cricket fighting was very much in vogue at court, with levies of crickets being extracted from the people as a tax…The price of crickets rose very high; and when the beadle’s runners came to exact even a single one, it was enough to ruin several families.” The piece goes on to tell how a little boy was almost beaten to death for losing a cricket his father prepared to submit to the magistrate, and his soul morphed into a fierce cricket to help his family survive.
Nowadays, cricket fighting is mostly recreational and enjoys popularity in Beijing and Zhejiang Province. And, of course, there is some underground gambling. In underground casinos, the wager for a single fight can be as high as several thousand yuan, sometimes even tens of thousands. Zhao Boguang, owner of a cricket store in Beijing, is a cricket-fighting master. A professional cricket breeder, he has been in love with cricket fighting ever since he began cricket combating childhood friends in Beijing’s hutongs decades ago. “A cricket cannot be trained to be a good fighter. It is born a good fighter,” Zhao claims. This is why, although anyone can catch a cricket in the wild, crickets on the market can cost more than 10,000 RMB.
Although crickets cannot be trained to be good fighters, training is essential to raise the cricket’s morale, dexterity, and determination to win. The night before a big match, Zhao lets his mighty warrior indulge in an epic bout of love-making with its female partner. Stimulating and satisfying its sex drive are essential in maximizing the bug’s inherent “masculinity” and helps ensure dominance during the next day’s combat. During training sessions, he also uses a “探子” (a stick with rat whiskers or grass) to imitate his cricket’s opponent. Pretending to be a cricket is also an important step before the divider is lifted from the fighting ring in a match. An experienced and skilled trainer can lead a cricket into a most vicious frenzied state before the fight begins, and it will fight fearlessly against its opponent.
Crickets fight by instinct, but their techniques are ingenious. Some of the most classic finishing moves include:霸王举鼎 (overlord lift the ding, an ancient sacrificial vessel), where the winning cricket hoists the other one up and keeps its body in the air by locking with the opponent’s jaws; 仙人夺影 (immortal tricks the shadow), a move that tricks the spectators where one cricket is lying on top of the other, yet the one that is on the bottom wins the fight; and 狗掐鸡 (dog pinches the rooster), which is very similar to professional wrestler John Cena’s signature move, where the winning cricket uses its jaw strength to flip its opponent over.
There is one important rule in cricket fighting: a cricket that has lost never fights again. Master Zhao believes that crickets serve as the perfect example of a Chinese saying: 胜者为王，败者为寇, meaning winners are crowned, and losers are outcast. In the world of cricket fighting, once a loser, always a loser.