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A grown boys memories of cricket fighting in China

By Peter Zhao

On my way out to throw out the garbage today, I caught a movement in my periphery. I immediately looked down and there it was, a field cricket.

I know there are hundreds of crickets in my backyard singing all night long and some all day long.  I also know there are thousands of other types of six legged grasshoppers like true bugs, some are bush crickets and some are Katydids hopping from branch to branch, singing together in their harmonious summer insect orchestra.

I don’t think anyone can just see what I see.  At full maturity, the average male field cricket reaches a little over an inch.  At under 6 feet away, I think a tiny black dot on the ground dimly lit by the  porch light wasn’t easy to spot.  

But you see I’m different because I am equipped with knowledge gathered since when I was a boy in China.  Back when I was my kid’s age, catching crickets in the fall was my favorite pastime.  My father got me into it. He told me this is what boys always did in China. We catch the male crickets and we make them fight.  I was 6 at the time living in Nanjing,China and today I am 41 and a New Yorker.

Here in Long Island, whenever I talk about crickets, people will almost always assume I’m talking about those scary looking wingless big crickets with hairs and spots like a big spider.

These are the spider crickets or cave crickets or camelback crickets or whatever other nicknames people gave them. The invasive camelback crickets are often found in our Long Island basements.  They seem to replace other vermin like cockroaches and these cave crickets are just as omnivorous.

They eat almost anything, including themselves. The best way to catch these invasive jumping nightmares is to stick one cricket in the middle of a glue trap and leave it in the basement and just let the cricket cannibalism take over.  They will come and swarm the bait, but only to get stuck and become the traps for the next wave of hungry crickets.  A week later you would have caught a dozen or more crickets on one single trap. 

But I’m not talking about these scary crickets. Even back in China we shunned them and placed them on the bottom of the cricket hierarchies.  

The sport of cricket fighting has a history that dates back 1000 years to the Tang dynasty. There is also cricket fighting culture in other parts of Asia like Vietnam.  

Cricket fighting was so popular this form of sport was even banned by the Chinese communist party during the cultural revolution between 1966-1976 because they feared this type of bourgeois capitalism middle class leisure game would pollute our minds. 

Today cricket fighting culture is on a decline and one of the reasons is blamed on pesticides reducing cricket population. Although to gamble in cricket fighting is illegal in China, that doesn’t prevent local cricket’s fights with their high priced fighters which can cost as much as $2500 per cricket.  

By Peter Zhao

Pitting two male crickets to fight head on could draw imagery of other types of animal fighting like a cock fight or dog fight.  However watching two insects no more than an inch long showing “teeth” and fighting each other where there is no screaming and no blood takes on a whole new meaning to violence.

Occasionally the insects will lose a wing, a leg, or worse a head but these pests that feed on everything from garbage to plants and vegetables are not quite beneficial like the warm blooded rooster or dogs. 

Crickets don’t have teeth, but they have powerful jaws called mandibles which cut and chew food.  These jaws are their primary weapon and depending on the type and the size of the crickets the mandible varies in sizes.   Some crickets are large enough to possess mandibles powerful enough to draw blood but crickets are not venomous.  

To make them fight we put two male crickets into a deep bowl and we separate the two with a barrier. We use a long strand of hay to provoke the male cricket by harassing it’s head to make it irritated and mad.  It won’t take long to make them open up it’s mandibles to bite.

Once we got the bugs prepped, we opened the barrier and let the wrestling begin. Sometimes the two go right at it and quickly the weak gets pinned down and the unlucky ones sometimes lose it’s heads. But very often nothing happens. 

The two crickets ended up sniffing each other and walking away.  Historically, Chinese love to gamble and yes we even gambled on fighting insects.

As a kid living in Nanjing, China we enjoyed hot summers and mild autumns- kind of like New York.  At around mid-August that’s when all the cricket activities kick into high gears. 

Besides fighting cricket, Chinese have also developed hobbies to admire larger species of crickets like guo guo which is an Asian bush cricket or a Katydid the size of an adult human palm. People feed them with fresh cucumbers and hot peppers to make them sing their summer songs. 

All crickets create sound by flapping their inner wings and like Cicadas they have these drums that help amplify the sound.  Crickets communicate with each other by using their chemical senses. They also sense the surroundings using their long twin antennas as well as the hairs on their legs. 

Crickets create songs to attract lovers.  From mid August through late October, Crickets sing songs to find mates so the next generation will emerge from their dampy homes underneath bricks and logs and sometimes they dig and make dens.

Before there were computers and videogames, before there was cable TV and high speed internet,  this was what we did in late summer and early fall in China.  This nostalgic hobby has been enjoyed by little boys and big boys for thousands of years.

I think this is truly a Chinese gentlemen’s sport.  Many cultures and traditions were carried over from China to America, but I hardly ever ran into another fellow Chinese who still enjoys catching crickets and reminiscing about the good old days fighting crickets. 

Maybe there are more of us out there. I haven’t really been actively searching for another cricket fighting nerd, but I hope this story will catch your attention and take you back to those simple times of flipping bricks under falling leaves. We are always in search of that rare red headed champion to take it home for nurturing with the finest cucumbers and the hottest peppers to make it sing the song of the night. 

When I caught the hopping cricket in my periphery, I immediately put down my chores and went to cup the cricket with my right hand. I carefully handled it fearing I might break a leg or tear a wing. 

I put the cricket into a deep bucket to admire it.  It’s mostly petroleum black with a shiny lustery coating and the wings are dark brown.  I recognize this is not European field cricket because the North American ones have slender heads.  These are also called fall field crickets. 

I can tell the sex of the bug by recognizing it’s tail. There are two or three back antennae structures called cersi on the tail end of the cricket. The male has two but the female has three because the third or the middle is not a cersi but a reproductive organ used for depositing eggs. 

By Peter Zhao

I walked over to the living room to find my boys,3 and 7 fixated on their tablets and video games. I shouted at them like the oldest boy in the room.

“Come quickly guys, look at what daddy caught.”  

They both came as I started to fall into my own little trance.  I felt like I was in a scientific documentary making my narratives on the fascinating insect world. I also felt like a kid trying to explain to my own kids about what daddy liked to do when was a boy , but also emphasize this is a Chinese tradition. 

After I finally finished telling my lifelong explanation to my kids ,I realized I had been talking to a wall the whole time.  I think I was boring my kids to death with all these facts I liked about the crickets. They cared a lot more about their videogames and TV.  

My 7 year old walked down the stairs at 1030 p.m.  I thought he already went to sleep, but no, my boy complained to me that he couldn’t sleep because the crickets outside were too loud. I impatiently closed the windows and then turned on the air conditioner. I told my kid, you know son, when your daddy was your age in 2nd grade I loved to fall asleep to the songs of the bugs, so much I even wrote an essay about it.  

The title of that essay was called 

昆虫交响乐 Insect Orchestra.  

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