the cult of the cricket

Royal courtiers in China kept singing crickets as early as the eighth century, housing the insects they’d caught in small golden cages next to their beds.

cricket cages found here

In their relations to crickets the Chinese have passed through three distinct periods : during the first period from early antiquity down to the T’ang dynasty, they merely appreciated the cricket’s powerful tunes; under the T’ang (A.D. 618-906) they began to keep crickets as interned prisoners in cages to be able to enjoy their concert at any time; finally, under the Sung (a.d. 960-1278) they developed the sport of cricket-fights and a regular cult of the cricket.

image found here

As happened in China frequently, a certain custom first originated in the palace, became fashionable, and then gradually spread among all classes of the populace. The women enshrined in the imperial seraglio found solace and diversion in the company of crickets during their lonesome nights. Instead of golden cages, the people availed themselves of small bamboo or wooden cages which they carried in their bosom or suspended from their girdles.

image found here

During the summer the insects were kept in circular pottery jars made of clay and covered with a flat lid. Many potters made a special business of these cricket houses, and impressed on them a seal with their names. The crickets were kept cool as the heat did not penetrate the thick clay walls. Tiny porcelain dishes decorated in blue and white contained food and water for the insects, and they were also provided with beds or sleeping boxes of clay. Jars of somewhat larger size served for holding the cricket-fights.

image found here

In summer the insects were generally fed on fresh cucumber, lettuce, and other greens. During their confinement in autumn and winter, they ate masticated chestnuts and yellow beans. In the south they were also fed on chopped fish and various kinds of insects, and even received honey as a tonic. It was quite a common sight to see idlers congregated in tea-houses laying their crickets out on the tablesTheir masters washed the gourds with hot tea and chewed chestnuts and beans to feed them. Then they listened to their songs and boasted of their grinding powers.

chestnut tree found here

The fighting crickets received particular attention and nourishment, a dish consisting of a bit of rice mixed with fresh cucumbers, boiled chestnuts, lotus seeds, and mosquitoes. When the time for the fight drew near, they were given a tonic of bouillon made from the root of a certain flower. Some fanciers allowed themselves to be stung by mosquitoes, and when those were full of blood, they were given to their favorite pupils. The good fighters were believed to be incarnations of great heroes of the past, and were treated in every respect like soldiers.

mosquito larvae found here

Those with black heads and gray hair in their bodies were considered best. Next in appreciation came those with yellow heads and gray hair, then those with white heads and gray hair.

The tournaments took place in an open space, on a public square, or in a special house termed Autumn Amusements. There were heavy-weight, middle and light-weight champions. The wranglers were always matched on equal terms according to size, weight, and color, and were carefully weighed on a pair of wee scales at the opening of each contest.

image found here

A tickler was used for stirring the crickets to incite them to sing or fight. In Peking fine hare or rat whiskers were inserted in a bone handle for this purpose; in Shanghai, a fine blade of crab or finger grass. 

A referee who was called “Army Commander” or “Director of the Battle”, announced the contestants, recited the history of their past performances, and spurred the two parties on to combat. For this purpose he availed himself of the tickler described above, stirring their heads and the ends of their tails, then finally their large hind legs.

image found here

The two combatants would fight each other mercilessly. The struggle usually ended in the death of one of them, and it occurred not infrequently that the more agile or stronger one pounced with its whole weight upon the body of its opponent, severing its head completely

The sum of money staked on the contest was lodged with a committee who retained ten per cent to cover expenses and handed over the balance to the owner of the winning cricket. The lucky winner was also presented with a roast pig, a piece of silk, and a gilded ornament resembling a bouquet of flowers. The names of the victorious champions were inscribed on an ivory tablet carved in the shape of a gourd and these tablets like diplomas were religiously kept in the houses of the fortunate owners. The victory was occasion for great rejoicing and jollification and the jubilant winner strutted in the procession of his overjoyed compatriots, carrying his victorious cricket home.

image found here

Published in: on October 23, 2011 at 8:04 am  Comments (57)  
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  1. a different game of cricket indeed. i prefer toad / frog noises at night after a rainy day. it used to put me to sleep when i was a kid at gran’s house which was by a pond.

    • Do you get cicadas in Malaysia? They make an almighty noise here

      • I don’t mind the normal Cicada. We get the 17 year ones here and it is deafening.

      • i hadn’t realised they lived that long, even if it is mostly underground

      • we have a few species. i’m not sure about their noise though because crickets are more common. my favourite insect is the dragonfly.

  2. Scary things, those crickets. Luckily they don’t grow much larger!

    • …unless an evil madman adds something to the drinking water….

  3. Bizarre & fascinating. My eldest used to buy crickets to feed his – lizard? turtle? toad? (Can’t remember – this place used to be a menagerie.) I stayed clear of them – no cages around my bosom!

    • Have you got any pets at home now Elisabeth?

      • Just the occasional mouse. 😉
        And I “dog-sit” for my sons’ dogs. After our last dog died, I vowed – no more dog ownership for me.

  4. Not much of a fan our our tiny winged friends, but I can’t help but admire how they went all out for the crickets well being 🙂

    • Furniture and masticated food……. 😉

      • “Masticate” That word makes me laugh.

      • Why am I not surprised?

    • Putting them in cages and making them fight is hardly good for them, though, is it?

  5. Cricket tickler…now THERE’s an occupation you don’t hear much about.

    • When I was a sweet little girl (read:brat) some of us used to tease weta to get them riled-up, then flick them at each other. Even better? Getting one down your pal’s shirt.
      Guess I was a weta tickler. Who knew?

      • Eeek! Wetas are really creepy, especially those big ones

  6. Suddenly my nocturnal searches for the cricket in the hall that is keeping me awake takes on a different aspect.

    My house wolf spider frequently dines on cricket. I know this because I find the husks of them discarded summarily in the hall or kitchen following the repast.

    • I’d rather have a cricket living in my hall than a spider

      • Or a weta. A wolfie was in my laundry bucket yesterday and The Man had to save me. Yes, I’m a wimp.

  7. Those Chinese folks are always doing odd and sometimes misunderstood things.

    • They probably say the same about us

  8. Reading The Cricket in Times Square to my children is a favorite memory.

    • Mine is reading them Jabberwocky

  9. Crikey!

    • you sound just like an Aussie!!

  10. Wow – to have so much money and free time to indulge in cricket collecting and fighting. Just like those loons who collect stamps.
    Oh, and my husky collection agrees with my, just so you know. 😉

    • I would be concerned if you and your huskies disagreed

      • Most of them agree with me most of the time. We have had some spirited disagreements. Trust me, a pissed-off Husky can REALLY carry a grudge! 😀

  11. We had gilded cricket boxes at school for the lads who kept rubbing their hind legs together.

  12. Does anyone get to shout Owzat! during these tournaments

    • Doubtful. It is China after all….

  13. I wonder how they got from “gee, these guys make beautiful sounds” to “hey! we should make them fight each other”.

    • a few hundred years smoking opium may have had something to do with it

      • I doubt an opium smoker could care less about crickets or much else for that matter. Very peaceable those opium smokers.

      • I think they started to produce opium on a wide scale only in the 19th century, ti become independent from the forced British imports. As I read somewhere they used poppy flowers for health, as medicine and maybe as anaesthetic, and the cultivation started in the 12th century, in the late Sung periode. Would be interesting to know whether they already used tabacco at tthis time.

  14. By Jiminy you come up with some interesting posts!

    The King

    • I prefer his Italian name…. “Il Grillo Parlante”

  15. Cricket Wrangler. i’m adding that to my ‘potential future jobs’ list. When they fail to perform, i can feed them to snakes…

  16. “carefully weighed on a pair of wee scales at the opening of each contest”

    I’ve never heard of wee scales before! Isn’t wee usually measured in a jug or something?

  17. This post reminds me of a Fast Show sketch…

    • Carl Hooper sounds more South African than Australian 😉

  18. Is it sad that I read this whole post while thinking “crickets in cages – just like in Mulan!” – yes?

    • we all have our cultural references…..

  19. The ancient Chinese must have really good eyesight. Since all of my Chinese friends wear glasses, I’m thinking those good ol’ days have gone. Maybe that’s why cricket fighting went out of vogue!

  20. White blood cells fighting alien microbes will be next

  21. Now I wonder if they had an annual Cricket Day?

  22. Amazing! When they laid out their crickets on the table, how do they avoid getting them mixed up? They all look the same.

  23. We have a local variant – maggot racing. There’s a contest each year in the pub and the winner receives a trophy. Not sure what post-race retirement is planned for the winning maggot but I doubt whether it’s quite as luxurious as that accorded the mellifluous crickets.

  24. I thought cricket boxes were something else entirely…

  25. um. we certainly get cicaidas in Illinois and they suck.

    um, those guys at the top look like my uncle. he may or may not have started Hells Angels in my hometown. He may or may not have tattoos from his neck to his feet.

    Just sayin.

    • Blunt- Do you mind if I ask where in Illinois? I’m a former Chicagoan, late of the suburbs just west of O’Hare. I’m just curious, feel free to refuse me. 🙂

  26. I never boast of my grinding powers. Because I’m modest.

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