Caged singers and fighters: crickets and locusts in China

Wednesday 18 September 2019: Caged singers and fighters: crickets and locusts in China, lecture by Michel Culas, former Cultural and Cooperation Attaché in various embassies of France (East Africa, Middle East and Asia).
The Chinese have always shown great interest in the infinitely small. Early on, insects figured prominently in legends, poetry, painting, crafts, gastronomy and medicine.
While some are part of the "four calamities" of agriculture (insects, floods, frost and drought) or classified in the "five poisonous" (centipedes, scorpion, spider), many carry a positive symbolism. The butterfly "wished honors and riches until 80 years" but was also the symbol of indissoluble loves. The cricket expressed courage, the cicada meant the resurrection, the praying mantis was an example of fierce tenacity, and the grasshopper symbolized a long and prolific lineage, and so on.
Crickets and locusts will first be appreciated for their melodious song and, under the Tang (618-907), they began to capture and caged them for the pleasure of hearing them at home. In the Kaiyuan Tianbao yi shi (events of the Tianbao era, 742-756) "When autumn arrives, the ladies of the palace catch locusts and keep them in small golden cages they place under their pillow to hear the singing during the night».

Early autumn. Qian Xuan (1235-1305) Detail of a horizontal roll. Ink and colors on paper.

Gourd and locust and loofah. Qi Baishi (1864-1957) Ink and colors on paper.

From the Song (960-1278), the upper class has been passionate about fighting insects and crickets in particular. It's 13th s. that Jia Setao, Minister of Emperor Lizong (1224-1264), writes the Zujijing (the book of crickets) which remains a reference in terms of classification of species and breeding advice. Liu Tong (1593-1637) wrote the Zujichi (the collection of crickets) under the Ming (1368-1644) and Fang Hu, the Zujipu (the treaty of crickets) under the Qing (1644-1912). The painter Qi Baishi (1864-1957) has painted the world of insects, especially crickets and grasshoppers.
These insects belong to the order Orthoptera (right wing) comprising 19 species, including several hundred in China, which is divided into two suborders. Ensifères which includes grasshoppers and crickets and Caelifera among which we find the locust, devastating host of Asia, Africa and southern Europe. The first group, despite varying shapes and sizes, is characterized by large antennae, a long auger in females, and only males sing. Locusts have short antennae and both males and females sing. In most Ensifera species, the adult measures 000-16 mm, wears a livery ranging from gray brown to reddish brown or black, sometimes tinged with yellow or black patterns on the head. The female can lay 27 to 10 eggs which she buries, thanks to her long auger, in the soil or plant tissue. Hatching occurs in the spring and their lifespan is about three hundred days up to two years depending on the species. The song of the cricket is obtained by the friction of the right elytron (provided with the bow) on the left elytron (where the scraper or chanterelle is located). If the cricket is right-handed, the male grasshopper is left-handed! We say that the cricket cracks, sizzles or sizzles. In China, the different species have pictorial names: youhulu (shiny gourd), jinbaoda (golden pagoda), jinzhong (golden bells), maling (horse bell), etc.
Acoustic studies show that the repertoire of crickets is neither learned nor improvised, it is innate. In addition, when they rub their elytra, these insects deactivate their hearing system. Reflex stridulation is a response to an external stimulus; indifferent stridulation is emitted without particular stimulation; painful stridulation expresses setbacks; Sexual stridulation is the most well-known case of rhythmic "phrases" by which males call out to females. This love song can last up to 190 minutes, can have a power of 40 to 110 decibels and carry up to 50 meters. Courtship always precedes copulation.

Panjiayuan Market in Beijing. This merchant is holding a gourd box from which a singer guoguo comes out.

Cricket fight.

Cricket fight. Caricature engraving. The owner excites his cricket with a fine brush.

The green cricket (guoguo) is also endowed with a beautiful strident organ. We are always amazed to see them evolve out of their box; it takes a month to teach them not to jump, but they have no fighting skills.
A male cricket that encounters a congener behaves in two ways, either he starts a courtship or he waves his antennae with sudden movements to induce the other male to escape or fight. The fighting takes place in six phases: fencing with the antennas, spacing of the mandibles, taking of mandibles, melee with bites, overthrow ... The outcome of the exchanges can be dramatic (tearing of a limb, bites to the head or to the abdomen) but also the flight. The fugitive will not resume the fight for several days. Stridulation called rivalry can be heard throughout the fight but, especially, when the winner emits a real "squeak" of victory that is expected by the punters. To test the abilities of crickets and to excite them in battle, owners use fine brushes with which they caress antennas, jaws or legs. Some of these brushes are made with horse hair, goat hair, hare and even rat mustache. The insects reach the majority in the summer and the fights take place at the end of the beautiful season or the autumn. The fighting takes place outside (public garden, market) or inside (tea house, private house, cricketer house). As for wrestlers, crickets can only fight in their category (heavy, medium or light) and, if possible, in the same color. The fight is preceded by a selection that begins with weighing. It takes place in an arena that is a wide shallow ceramic dish.
During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), raising crickets at home or having them fight was highly reprehensible because considered a bourgeois pastime. Since 1978, these rules have fallen into disuse except for the bets that remain officially prohibited. However, from North to South, we continue to bet in a frenzied way on cricket fights.
The Chinese classified the fighters according to their moral or morphological aptitudes:

  • the "strikers" with a strident song and a big head that are not necessarily big winners because they are too impulsive.
  • "Depressive" characterized by short limbs, slowness and high stability. Being more patient to seize the good opportunity, there are more winners than in the "attackers".
  • The "mixed" who combine courage and strategy, they are impulsive and patient. It is in this category that the dazhangjun (grand marshals), several times winners. They bring fortune and honors to their owner. One of these insects was sold for US $ 12 in 000. It is said that when they die they can be buried in a tiny silver coffin. In the absence of such splendor, they are granted a marked burial because the belief is that the following year, we will be able to capture good fighters there.

The methods of capture are numerous and different according to the regions. In the North, we wait for the night and we place a candle at the entrance of the burrows, in the South we use a small brazier. Some hunters do not hesitate to drown the burrows. Children continue to use the traditional straw that they shake in the hole. The cricket intrigued, goes back to the surface and is captured. In the country the farmers reserve a special chamber where the temperature is relatively constant and the insects are placed in individual pots with lid.

Cricket box decorated with peonies. Porcelain with blue decoration under cover. Jingdezhen. Mark of Xuande (1426-1436). Dyn Ming. Suzhou Museum.

Cricket box with lid and cups for water and food. Porcelain with white-beige glaze and antique motifs. Dated 1889. Dyn. Qing.

Cricket box with openwork lid of sapec motifs and a golden decoration of pine branches. Porcelain. 19th s. Dyn. Qing.

The manufacturer prints his mark, sometimes the name of the owner can also be printed on it, and an unglaciated space can be named after the cricket written in Indian ink. In Jingdezhen, pots with blue and white decor from the Ming period have been found. Inside these pots we place a small tunnel (Guolong) curved ceramic which will serve as a bridal or resting chamber and Lilliputian dishes for food and water. Some boxes are used for transport: smaller, they have an elongated and rounded or diamond shape and the lid is pierced with holes.
The summer diet includes green vegetables, in the fall, chestnuts or beans chewed with fish or larvae. A drop of honey has a tonic effect before competitions and fighters have a special menu based on rice mixed with cucumbers, lotus seeds and mosquitoes. It is necessary to monitor the health of the residents, to separate the males from the females before the fighting, to treat the wounds. To increase the power of their singing, some deposit a drop of wax on the tympanum of the cricket singer.
During the warm season, adult crickets are raised in cylindrical pots (ququguan), about 15 cm in diameter, molded in ceramic or porcelain. The bottom of the container is covered with a thin layer of soil.

Lagenaria vulgaris.

Official mold in 4 parts, in terracotta lacquered on the outside. 19th c. Dyn. Qing.

Matrix in pearwood for official mold in 6 parts. 19th c. Dyn. Qing.

In the cold season, crickets and locusts are transferred into gourds or gourds (hulu). These smaller and lighter containers are convenient for transport as they were once slipped into the big sleeves and now in a pocket. In contact with human warmth, the passenger begins to sing for the pleasure of its owner. The gourds used are the fruits of lagenaria vulgaris, from the family Cucurbitaceae. Specialists introduce the young fruit into a mold whose walls can be carved. In developing the gourd will marry the shape and reliefs of the mold. These mussels are usually broken but there were official glazed ceramic molds that were reusable from one year to the next. To create these molds we use wooden dies that can be removed thanks to an ingenious system. Patterns printed in the surface can be of all kinds, auspicious or prophylactic symbols, mythical animals, landscapes, flowers, scenes, etc. Other times, the surface is pyrographed to accentuate the reliefs or simply to decorate a gourd without decor. The container will be equipped with a slightly sloping base made of lime and a plant decoction for the comfort of the occupant. Depending on the type of singer the general form will be different: in the form of shells for guoguo, bottle with a long collar for bang'ertoustubborn for jinzhongetc. In modern times, other materials have been used such as glass, metal, horn, bone.

Cricket box for guoguo. Gourd, ivory, metal spiral. 20th s. Dyn. Qing.

Cricket box for guoguo decorated with one hundred characters of longevity molded. Gourd, wood, ivory and metal spiral. 19eme-20th s. Dyn. Qing.

Cricket box for Jinzhong. Gourd and ivory. 19th s. Dyn. Qing.

For grasshoppers green (guoguo), the boxes are provided with simple stoppers usually made of wood or calabash and pierced with five or seven holes. For the other species, the refinement reaches tops with the caps which are made of three parts: a ring which encloses the opening, the stopper proper which comprises a shutter end and an ornate openwork dome (Mengxin). Materials such as precious woods, ivory and tortoiseshell are used to make these corks. The ring and the cap can be made of ivory and the grid and the Mengxin  in tortoiseshell. In addition, a thin metal spiral is introduced under the opening to amplify the resident's song.

Cricket box for Cuzhi. The body of the molded gourd is decorated with a "pressed" decor representing a landscape. Wood, grid and mengxin shell. 19eme-20th s. Dyn. Qing.

Bone cricket cage. 20th s. Dyn. Qing.

Cricket cage made of wood, bamboo and iron. 19eme-20th s. Dyn. Qing.

Small cages of metal, bamboo, wood or ivory are also used for singers; they can be transported, hung or placed. For one or more guests, they open through gallows doors that slide upwards.

Today, insect markets are often close to those of birds. While strolling one can feel the passion of the amateurs for these tiny singers or combatants but you will also be tempted by skewers of insects. Fortunately, crickets are held in high esteem for cooking despite their high protein content (62% versus 23% for chicken, 20% for beef or 17% for pork).
Amateur associations still exist, for both singers and fighters. The small farmers of today continue to share the same simple joys and the same passion as those of yesterday for these endearing insects.


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