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Brave bugs do battle

(Shanghai Daily)

09:16, September 16, 2011

Two cricket buffs "tease" crickets at a pet market in Shanghai. (Shanghai Daily Photo)

Cricket fighting has a long history in China, and this is the season when insect warriors slug it out. There's a match on October 1 in Qibao Town, chirps Hu Min.

This is the peak season of cricket fighting, a popular game in China for more than 1,000 years. Obsessed cricket lovers never stop searching for the fiercest fighters.

They share tips in cricket selection, breeding, diet and training; they pack the trains to Ningyang and Ningjin in Shandong Province, legendary home of China's most celebrated insect warriors. And they are overwhelmed by joy when their insect is victorious.

"It made me happier even than winning the first prize in a lottery," says 79-year-old Li Jiachun, known as Shanghai's guru of cricket fighting, with a broad smile.

He started fighting crickets when he was a boy. Revered in Shanghai and elsewhere, Li has published five books about fighting crickets and he has a number of disciples.

His mission in life is to promote cricket culture which, in addition to cricket fighting, also includes cricket-related painting, calligraphy, poetry and beautiful cricket cages (an art in themselves) and accessories. Of course, some love the music of chirping crickets, but those aren't the fighters.

Cricket fighting dates back to the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) and gained popularity during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). It is said that lonely imperial concubines kept crickets as pets, comforted by their chirping.

There's a lot of folklore surrounding cricket fighting. Part of its allure was the gambling and there were legendary high-stakes fights. Today, gambling is banned in China, but there are still cricket wagerers.

Jia Sidao (1213-1275), a Song Dynasty chancellor notorious for corruption and incompetence, was a passionate cricket fighter. He told his servants not to bother him, no matter what happened, when he with his crickets.

Legend has it that Jia ordered a neighbor's house to be demolished after one of his champion crickets fled there and had to be found. He even wrote a book about how to select and raise crickets.

There are around 150 species of crickets in China. Some are considered smarter and better tacticians than others, seemingly able to wear their rivals down with uncanny patience before delivering the fatal bite or devastating blow. Others are just fierce and ornery by nature and love to fight; they don't have battle tactics.

In Shanghai, one of the most famous cricket-fighting spot is Qibao Town in Minhang District. The ancient water town around 18 kilometers from downtown played a prominent role in the long history of cricket fighting. It has a reputation for having the fiercest fighters in the city.

According to legend, Qibao's crickets trace their ancestry back to prize crickets owned by Emperor Qianlong (1735-1796) of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). When his entourage passed through Qibao, some horses stumbled, the cricket cages fell and all the insects escaped to nearby fertile fields.

Tie sha qing (literally iron-sand blue) is the most famous species in Qibao, known for its aggressiveness; the name refers to its color.

Every year there's a local cricket match on October 1, the first day of the National Day holiday.

Guru Li no longer fights crickets but his disciples make the pilgrimage to his home in Xuhui District. And he is looking for more apostles.

He regularly visits Qibao Town's Cricket House (Xishuai Caotang) museum of cricket culture, which is steeped in the reverence of ancient literati for the insect. He's getting ready for the fight on October 1, but he's a spectator.

Chi Qiang, now in his 40s, and 20-something Wang Huan are quite different.

But when it comes to crickets, it's hard to tell the two apart.

Both men have been addicted to cricket fighting and breeding since they were boys. They and other cricket lovers recently donated cricket paraphernalia to the Cricket House.

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