How cricket fighting has entertained Chinese for many centuries – and how to tell whether your cricket will be a champion.
No self-respecting Chinese mandarin or would-be upwardly mobile gentleman would be without his fighting cricket or, even, cricket team. The little chaps, which are any of a variety of leaping insects from the order Orthoptera, can be aggressive and provoked into fighting, for the pleasure of the watching crowd and their owners.
First there was the pleasure of ownership – after all, someone had to go out into the fields to catch the crickets and to bring particularly fine specimens to city markets and a rich Chinese could demonstrate both his wealth and his leisure by buying in the marketplace.
Second, there was the pleasure of the song, as some male crickets rub together a scraper on one forewing along the teeth of the opposite forewing in a number of different ways. The crickets can chirp in a variety of styles: there is the calling song, which is used to attract females crickets; the mating song, when the male cricket is feeling amorous and wishes to encourage the female cricket to feel the same; the fighting chirp is to warn off other males and, if necessary, serve as a precursor to violence.
These songs vary according to the size of the cricket and according to the temperature and other aspects of the surrounding environment. A connoisseur can derive great pleasure from contemplating the different pitches and styles of song and how they subtly modulate over time.
However, the main pleasure was to be had from the fighting itself, inevitably heightened by the spice of a little gambling. Some say that the , Emperor Xuan Zong himself of the Tang Dynasty was an aficionado, although it is not until the Southern Song Dynasty of the 12th century that official records detail exactly how it all took place.
All sections of society could participate, as long as they stayed in their proper station – well, that would be men, of course as women were generally expected to stay out of the public eye.
The home town of the cricket was particularly important as most experts agreed that the best crickets came from only certain areas – Pudong to the east of Shanghai, for example, was a known hotbed of demonic cricket fighting champions.
But woe betide the cricket seller who tried to pass off a common or garden cricket for a Pudong champion. Careful scrutiny of the creatures revealed as many as 140 distinct pinzhong: each one an individual stance, appearance and fighting style and each one with serious implications for the odds to be set for gambling.
The well-known fighting records of the different pinzhong, together with the colour of the cricket and the evidence of its training all combined to give, so experts felt, an accurate prediction of how the little champion would perform. Of course, in more recent years (the practice has persisted down the centuries to the modern day), Mafia involvement is often used to correct defeats which were not predicted by this scientific method.