Autumn Thoughts: Shanghai’s Underground Cricket Matches

Cricket Face-Off, Artist Unknown

Minus an occasional twitch of a dangling antennae, one would suspect the nocturnal creatures were in a state of dormancy. While in fact, head, thorax, and abdomen armored, spring-loaded on muscled hind legs, ready to launch forward, the tiny brown gladiators mentally prepared to battle in Shanghai’s underground cricket arenas!

With summer’s exit, autumn thoughts come into season, as a fighting cricket reaches the zenith of their one-hundred day existence. Far from the entrances of Xizang Road’s Wanshang Bird and Flower Market, where lighting is at its lowest, secreted from overly curious eyes of law enforcement, the illegal underworld of cricket fighting plays out. While the art isn’t in itself unlawful, the gambling that often accompanies the craft is.

Floral scents slightly mute the smell of animal feed and bird excrement. Amongst stalls of screeching songbirds and bubbling aquariums, the back aisles come alive with the hoots and hollers of greying men. Within bamboo woven baskets, singing grasshoppers chirp songs for their smaller, scrappy brethren. While gruesome images of the Roman Coliseum may come to mind, mutilated limbs strewn here and there, blood and tears coagulating in the dirt, this is nothing of the sort. At times classified with similar ranks of the military, from general to soldiers, these crickets are prized possessions if not brief companions. Rarely would a ‘cricketeer’ put it at risk of maiming or any real physical harm. Though it would be naive to admit that the occasional appendage — no bigger than an eyelash, is left behind.

Hovering over the miniature arena’s two-inch high clay walls, faces looming as large as celestial beings, personal trainers verbally spare with one another. A pit-faced oval moon, an unlit cigarette dangling from the side of a crooked mouth, barks with unmasked pride, “Bred on the plains of Ningyang, Shandong, head and thighs solid through and through! How could such specimen, the DNA of generations of purple-toothed champions coursing through its blood, possibly lose?”

Another, face glowing a bright red from a lunch heavy with sweet Shikumen rice wine retorts, “Northern crickets are as hardheaded as their handlers, powerful, but incapable of strategy.” Tweaking a lengthy clump of mole hair that sprouts from his neck, continues, “Look at this shining pearl, a true gem, fed with organic shrimp paste and a drop of morning dew. His stamina is such he is serviced by not one but two of the female species every eve!”

The banter continues, “Dog farts! Wanton waste of one’s Qi is nothing to brag of! Head shaped in the likeness of the God of Longevity, how could one dare to challenge? Simply a stunning form.” The other responds, “Country bumpkin, ours flutter as gracefully as the petals of a plum blossom!” In kind, “Glorified dandy! All cash, no class!”

The commentary dangerously turning personal, the neutral organizer and referee, reminds the spectators, “Quiet! Let the little warriors battle in an atmosphere of harmony!” Hair and shoulders as dusty as the back shop they are crouched within, eyes level with the top of the clay arena, he temporarily silences both coaches and those who have wages on the line. Cricket fighting was serious business, both in finance and face. All parties huddle in tight, angling for a better view.

Ticklers, one made of long blades of dried grass, the other rat whiskers, slip into the ring. As a coach massages his prize-winning pugilist’s shoulders one last time, the top of the insects’ helmets are gently tickled. Ancient meridians and the Qi they channel are stoked until the orthopteran is tight with energy. Antennae actively test the air. Sensing an unwelcome presence, three pairs of feet rotate one-hundred and eight degrees.

Separated by a glass partition, a pair of compound eyes lock upon a stranger, thousands of hexagonal lenses measuring its foe. Forewings flare, rubbing back and forth comblike bristles, releasing a warning. At times, all Jiminy Cricket, serenading a potential mate with a seductive song, this chirp had a single implication: “En garde!”

Cylindrical exoskeletons a brownish sheen, mandibles, a pair of jagged saws, snatch at the air. The glass barrier is raised and the match, once known as ‘rival love’ begins!

Fore and mid-legs scramble ahead, assisting with a modest charge. Antennae jab, heads collide, as teeth are displayed and mandibles lock. Legs peddle back and forth, moving no more than a few centimeters. Hidden from the layman’s eye are suave feints, parries and riposte, echoing the pretense and civilities of the fencing class. One jumps back, hugging the wall. Its coach wastes little time, stirring it back into action with an incesstant tickler. Charge! They connect, using one’s weight against the other, rising simultaneously on hind-legs. A flurry of rabbit punches follow. Resembling the hands of a clock, first turning clockwise, then countering, they spin, they struggle. Ensnared, wanting to extinguish the other’s resolve, neither side willing to give ground, the challenge could stretch an eternity.

With the merest fumble of a step and slip of a pincer, the tides unbalance. The local competitor is lifted skywards, the rear of its abdomen pointing to the heavens. One! Two! Three! Its pleas to the gods unanswered, the fight is called. Fifteen seconds. The average length of a cricket match. Throwing in the proverbial towel, the loser’s adrenalin snuffed out, it faces the wall, dejected. The victor flaps the exterior shell on its back up and down, rubbing its wings together emitting the cry of victory.

The Shanghainese owner curses in the local dialect. The northerner smiles with a jeer, “History repeats itself. The north remains the grand champion of the cricket arena!”

To one, the cricket was the hero, offering regional pride; to the other, a shame. Their respective coaches quickly scoop up these miniature gladiators, returning them to solitary Spartan homes, one carved of wood, the other a hollowed gourd. The loser’s immediate fate may be a cruel one, tossed carelessly to the ground below. Perhaps it will live out its remaining days frolicking in a field, the fighting spirit forever broken. Or, if lame, fed to a hungry bird.

With little to no pomp or circumstance, the coaches and their crickets are replaced by the next round’s competitors. Crickets are weighed and separated into three weight classes. Utilizing a small scale made of bamboo, the insect is placed within a hallowed cylinder and they are measured. Electric ones assist with efficiency. Beyond offering a weight-class protection and varying colors, there is little else to separate the fighters. Of course, rumors often swirl, ‘Was the rice fortified with some strength enhancing hormone?’ ‘Was the little cricket expected to ‘throw’ the match, possibly even Shanghai’ed, dare they say drugged, a celebrated fighter swapped for an unsuspecting hack, allowing for a better return on one’s money?’ But, like every sport, that is a chance you take, and all is fair in mandible mania!

Over two-thousand five-hundred years ago, during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907), immortalized in Confucius’s The Book of Songs, a passion for crickets was shared by emperors and the gentry class. Then later in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279), a high-ranking official named Jia Sidao had created a written account, “The Book of Crickets”, which contained the Five Cricket Morals, anthropomorphizing their fighting spirit.

Over the centuries, the sport became mainstream and all walks of life took part in fighting crickets. After surviving multiple dynasties, during the chaotic sixties and the Cultural Revolution, the pastime was labeled a bourgeois activity, one of the “The Four Olds”. As one of the old customs, old cultures, old habits, and old ways, it was banned. In the ensuing decades, its popularity returned and is now as protected and respected as a cultural treasure as much as the Chinese tea ceremony.

Unfortunately, the Wanshang Bird and Flower Market is yet another memory of years past. Upon my last visit, the entrance was boarded over. Notifications informed us that another era has come to a closed. To the betterment of the animals it once housed? More than likely. Prime real-estate sold to the highest bidder? Not privy to the inside intel. Regardless, until regulated and fit for legal consumption, a culture has been pushed even further to the recesses of society, where if not protected, it will be lost to time.

In the closing scene of the “The Last Emperor,” the former boy-emperor, Puyi, presents a cricket (maybe grasshopper) that he was once gifted as a child outside The Hall of Supreme Harmony to a little boy. The creature was promptly released. Some say it symbolized liberation. Prohibited from leaving the Forbidden Palace, it had become his prison. A cricket, while fawned upon by its owner, is yet a captive; its gilded home, a cage, and nothing more. When an aging Puyi’s cricket was released, so was Puyi.

An American half-pat “half foreign, half domestic” writer living in Shanghai, China, who tries to say how it is with a side of whimsical to keep it light.

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