Victorious fighters are treated with the respect of sumo champions. A winning cricket is referred to as a general. Owners of such warrior crickets will often travel great distances to meet one another and to ensure that their heroes are well matched for another bout. The best crickets will fight as many as six times before they are retired or defeated.

A particularly noble fighter may be preserved under glass for eternity, or his likeness may be rendered in a painting. In 1999, in Shandong Province, one champion, dubbed King of the Insects, was valued at 100,000 yuan ($12,920) - a shocking amount, considering that the annual income in Beijing, one of the wealthiest urban centers, averages just 7,000 to 30,000 yuan ($904 to $3,876).

Commercial and residential expansion in China has led to the slow decline in the number of agricultural fields (where crickets originally were collected), so breeders now supply many of the country's crickets used for retail purposes. Yet there are still specific areas where champion crickets grow in the wild.

Many great cricket fighters come from Zhejiang Province, from a town called Yuhang, where the pepper fields are said to lend a fiery disposition and incredible strength. Crickets from Luhua's watermelon and soybean fields are also said to possess power and a hot temper.

But Shandong Province, south of Beijing, is still considered the ultimate birthplace for a fighting cricket. Folklore tells us that during an enemy invasion some 800 years ago, a Song dynasty emperor scattered his cricket collection at the foot of the sacred Mount Tai. The descendants of these crickets are said to be the world's best fighters. It's estimated that nearly half a million people travel to the county of Ningyang for crickets each year. Local farmers earn their main income just from plucking crickets from their fields and selling them to buyers from Singapore, Japan, and Hong Kong.

Demand for the insects is so high that many have been able to make a comfortable living as a cricket breeder in the big markets of major cities. One popular business model is to buy or capture young crickets, feed them special concoctions twice a day to increase their strength, and then resell them for profit.

It’s unlikely that citizens will once again send thousands of prized crickets to the emperor’s palace — nor will 3,000 concubines clasp a cricket to their bosom as they sleep in fitful loneliness — but it’s obvious that the hold this chirpy little insect has on this country is as strong as ever. And worth a buck or two.