Some are lauded for singing. Some are lauded for fighting. (A few are lauded for both.) Some tell you the temperature. As a collective bunch, they indicate when it's time to plow a field. Talk about a wonder bug. Maybe that's why the right cricket in China can fetch nearly $13,000.
Construction for the 2008 Summer Olympics is only one of the many signs of modernity in China's second-largest city. Today, not only is Beijing home to traditional cultural sites like the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, but it's also increasingly an international hub for the high-tech, pharmaceutical, and electronics industries.
Outside the city's Central Business District, however, a much older industry is still very much alive. A visitor strolling through Guanyuan Market might initially linger to take in the wondrous variety of rare flowers, birds, and reptiles. It's the crazy noise, though, that will eventually win the spectator's attention. A cacophony of incessant chirping carries over the hum of the crowd. It's a familiar sound amplified to a deafening level - and it beckons everyone walking by to come and check out the crickets.
The merchants here display hundreds of their chirping wares right on the street, each inside a bamboo cage or a plastic container. Some crickets are for singing, others are for fighting - and all are for sale. Prices can reach the equivalent of several thousand U.S. dollars, an astonishing amount for an insect that will live only two to three months.
For centuries, China has regarded a cricket chirping around the house as good luck; a deluge of crickets means wealth will come to the family.
Under the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD), the Chinese began keeping crickets as musical pets. "Ladies of the palace" would catch crickets and carry them either in their bosom or suspended from their girdle. At night, the women would place the crickets near their pillow to provide solace during moments of loneliness. It's said that the cricket's song mirrored the concubine's own sadness. With as many as 3,000 women per emperor - each hanging out with her own cricket - this made for very noisy evenings at the palace.
As the pastime grew more popular, citizens began sending thousands of their best crickets to the capital each year as gifts for the emperor. Then painters, poets, musicians, and politicians alike followed the emperor's lead and began to keep crickets as pets, storing them in containers developed specifically for the little songmakers - containers that ranged from tiny cages wrought of bamboo and fish bones to clay pots, beautifully carved wooden boxes, and decorative gourds inlaid with ivory and gold. Eventually, cricket societies and clubs grew, encompassing all levels of hobbyists. Thus this appreciation, as with so many other customs throughout the world, began in the palaces but soon spread to the lower classes and to the villages.
In ancient Chinese agricultural societies, however, crickets were appreciated for an entirely different reason - their chirping was a crucial indicator of climate change. When farmers heard the Jingzhe (the waking of the insects) in spring, they knew that the time was right to begin plowing the fields. To pay tribute, farmers wrote proverbs and songs about the insects, artists rendered paintings of them, and children were told cricket fables. There was even the belief that, because crickets lay hundreds of eggs, the key to success in life was to have as many children as possible.