Fighting was at first a sport for the upper class, as a means to display wealth. The lower class was attracted to the gambling element, though, and eventually the sport became aligned with slackers and societal problems. When the government prohibited the fights, the sport went underground. Only in recent years has the sport of cricket fighting again been officially allowed, and then only if no gambling is involved - or discovered.
A cricket fight in China is as ritualistic as a bullfight is in Spain - and there is equal respect for both of the creatures involved. As has been the tradition for centuries, two crickets are weighed and then matched up according to size, weight, and color. Both combatants are placed in a small fighting arena, with walls high and thick enough to prevent desertion. The cricket trainers stimulate their charges with a straw or a fine-haired brush, and then the insect warriors go at each other, antennae waving and jaws snapping.
Over the years, experts have outlined three main fighting styles: A cricket might stalk his enemy slowly, in a strategy of "creep like a tiger, fight like a snake." Another cricket might lie in wait, attacking only when its opponent chirps, in the "listen for sound, look for the enemy" technique. A great fighter will use the "charge like the wind, valiantly forging straight ahead" method of champions.
Fights are usually face-to-face and eerily silent, except for the chirping and the scuttling of feet and wings, and they can be quite mesmerizing. A bout usually doesn't last long, and it's surprisingly PG, with minimal gore and carnage (a more fierce confrontation, though, might include one cricket flipping the other across the arena). The loser often runs away or simply stops fighting. Only occasionally does a match end in a fatality, with decapitation as the humiliating finale.
American expat journalist Aventurina King witnessed her first cricket match in the kitchen of a friend's home in Beijing.
"White-collar workers in their 20s generally don't participate in this activity," King explains. "I would say it's people [from] families that are still quite traditional who take this up as a hobby. On the weekends, they get together with their friends and see which one of their crickets is the best."
It was King's first cricket match, and her immediate impression was that, in China, having crickets as pets is nothing unusual at all. "It was cute. … Each cricket had its own water and food in a tiny bowl made of white-and-blue Chinese ceramic." After some friendly wagers were placed, the match began.
"My cricket, the one I had bet on, bared its fangs and made a lot of noise - it sounded like the opera star Renée Fleming when she reaches the high A. It turned the other cricket over once or twice. After that, it seemed like a game of cat and mouse, with the opponent running around the bowl as my cricket chased it." King's cricket ultimately was defeated, and both gladiators were returned to their respective containers and rewarded with food and water.
"[Since neither] of these was my cricket, there wasn't much emotion involved," she says. "But I can imagine that for someone who has spent a lot of time training a cricket, things [could] get pretty heated during fights."