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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Published in: on October 23, 2011 at 8:04 am  Comments (57)  
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