People assemble on Sundays, at the Chaoyang Gate park in Beijing to watch a cricket match of a different kind. Expectation flickers on their faces as Guan Cai Tou and Guan Tou Xi, both coffin-headed crickets, face off in a blood sport whose provenance goes back at least 1,000 years.

In his essay The Insect Musicians, Lafcadio Hearn explains that while many insects make sounds, the Japanese consider cicadas and katydids to be chatterers – not worthy of too much attention. Crickets, on the other hand, occupy a very special place in the East-Asian cultures of Japan and China. The process from appreciating crickets in the wilderness – singing, courting and breeding – to their being captured, bred, and reared has been immortalised in several stories, poetry and art.

Between 500 BCE and 618 CE, crickets were singing nomads, loved by emperors and common folk. Later, captured and imprisoned in gilded cages, they became singing pets. The Song, Ming and a few other dynasties then began to pit their crickets against one another – but the fights were carefully moderated to ensure that the loser was removed, and not allowed to get injured or killed.

People loved crickets and would not sacrifice them so easily.

Enthusiasts watch a cricket fight during a competition in Beijing. Credit: Liu Jin/AFP

The sport became so popular – even the Emperor loved it deeply – that a cricket minister was appointed to oversee it. Minister Kia Se-tao, who lived in the first part of the 13th century, wrote a book called Tsu chi king or Book of Crickets, considered one of the most extensive works about crickets.

Fighting crickets were carefully selected, as Kia Se-tao records in his book. “Rearing crickets is like rearing soldiers,” he wrote. There were seven preferred varieties which were ranked Generals, Marshals and so on based on their fighting skills. Loud chirping was one of the desired qualities of a good fighter, others being the size of their heads and legs.

Extensive details of what they should be fed, when crickets became ill or overate were documented with the same obsessive devotion of modern-day cat or dog owners. Normally, crickets were bred on a diet which ranged from rice mixed with fresh cucumbers, boiled chestnuts, lotus seeds, and mosquitoes to chopped fish worm wood, melon pulp and honey, used as a tonic. Some went to the extent of allowing themselves to be bitten by mosquitoes, then feeding crickets with bloody mosquitoes. Others chewed chestnuts and beans to feed half-masticated food to their crickets.

During summers, crickets were kept in specially made clay pots and in winters, they were transferred to specially designed pots made from gourds. Such was the variety that the exquisitely designed gourd homes for crickets are still on display in several Chinese museums.

A set of tube-like cages for fighting crickets. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
A pet cricket and its container made of a gourd. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Like boxers, crickets were weighed before a match and categorised into heavy-, middle- and light-weight groups. Cricket-ticklers were made of whiskers of rats or hares, sometimes grass, mounted on a bone or ivory handle. Crickets are instinctive fighters and experts agreed that not much could be done by way of additional training. But a skilled trainer could work their cricket up into a frenzied state, before the fight.

Cricket ticklers and a bowl in which crickets were introduced to fight.

The fight ended when a cricket managed to flip its opponent over, when it lay down with the loser held over its body, or held the loser in its jaw, raised high. The cardinal rule in all these matches was that a losing cricket would not be allowed to fight again – people loved crickets too much to risk permanently damaging them.

Entomologist Jin Xing-Bao, in her book Chinese Cricket Culture, writes about an incident recorded in the minor history of the Ming dynasty or Ming Chao Xiao Shi: once an officer in charge of the granary came across a fighting-fit cricket and exchanged it for his horse. While he was away, his wife opened the pot to look at the cricket. The insect saw a chance for escape and jumped out of the pot, landing right next to the lady’s pet dog – who, startled, promptly ate the cricket. Petrified of what her husband would say, the woman committed suicide. Upon discovering his dead wife and missing cricket, the husband too took his life.

Whereas the Chinese moved away from singing to fighting crickets, the musical tradition of crickets continues to be alive in Japan. The festival of singing insects is an autumn event held by the Tama Zoological Park in Tokyo. Tourists throng the Suzumushi temple in Kyoto to hear the bell crickets sing.

Mole cricket. Credit: Geetha Iyer.

India does not seek after crickets as passionately as East Asian cultures. There are, however, communities in its south that consider the presence of crickets, or their call, symbolic of fertility – in these cultures, if a household is expecting, or desiring, a child, its members will not kill crickets.

Crickets are abundant in the tropics and India too has several species. One of them, the mole cricket, gets its name because of the similarities it shares with moles that live in burrows. Its first pair of legs is very un-cricket-like: they are powerful and flattened like a shovel. The tunnels they dig are different, each meant for a separate function such as feeding, mating, egg-laying, raising the young or escaping enemies, especially toads, spiders and beetles. When necessary the mole cricket can move backwards or forwards within these tunnels. Their calls are quite loud.

Tree crickets are omnivorous insects that feed on fungi, plants and some insects. Their antennae are nearly twice the length of the body, because of which they are often mistaken for long-horned grasshoppers. To the uninitiated, their calls may sound like a cicada’s call.

Tree cricket. Credit: Geetha Iyer.