Beijing, 16 August 2013

Another phenomenon of this hot and muggy season is the crickets. Every tree, every bush, every blade of grass seems to host a multitude of crickets chirping like crazy. “Chirping” does not adequately describe the thunderous noise the crickets are making. Indeed, last weekend, when my wife and I were walking along a tree-shaded street, the noise in the foliage above our heads was so loud that we both instinctively looked up, half expecting to see a giant, four-foot cricket come tumbling down onto our heads.

A little navigation around my favourite fact-checking site – Wikipedia – has informed me that only male crickets chirp – or stridulate if one wants to be formally correct. They do so for one of four reasons: to attract females (“fairly loud”); to court a nearby female (“very quiet”); to chase off other males hanging around (“aggressive”); and to celebrate a bout of successful copulation (noise levels not defined). Since the noise they are currently making is so deafening, I presume we are witnessing either the first or the third of these stridulatory chants (I sort of assume – by extension of human behaviour – that post-copulatory stridulation will be merely a contented buzz). Not surprising, really, since Wikipedia informs me that crickets mate in the late summer. I presume that every male cricket in Beijing is currently hot under the collar and on the prowl.

Wikipedia has also corrected a fundamental misunderstanding on my part. I had always thought that crickets chirp – sorry, stridulate – by rubbing their legs together. Not so! They rub their wings together. One wing has a large vein – the “stridulatory organ” – which runs along the bottom of it and is covered with teeth. By rubbing the other wing along the teeth, our friend Cricket gets his chirp. And by holding his wings up and open when he does this, he gets a loudspeaker effect. Very clever.

I am moved at this point to insert a few photos of crickets, even though I know that my wife will not appreciate them much. Creepy-crawlies are not her thing and these close-ups of crickets make them out to be quite creepy-crawly.



I suppose one of the things that foreigners – or at least Western foreigners – in China find odd is the important role which crickets have played, and continue to play,  in China as pets.  To be honest, I personally find it very strange that anyone would want a cricket as a pet. Don’t get me wrong, I find it admirable for people to have small pets – I think it’s ridiculous, even cruel, to have large dogs as pets in a crowded city, for instance – but I think mice is about the smallest one should reasonably go. Having an insect as a pet seems frankly contrarian, especially since their life expectancy is low to very low: for instance, an adult cricket lives about a month before it kicks the bucket, shuffles off its mortal coil, runs down the curtain, and joins the choir invisible (as John Cleese memorably put it in the Monty Python skit about the dead Norwegian parrot).

But important they have been. Over the centuries, Chinese have lovingly built cages for their cricket pets, using materials which go from the most precious to the most humble:


cricket cage-3-jade


cricket cage-9-ivory

Ceramic (this particular version has some rather naughty pictures on it):

cricket cage-12-ceramic

Ox bone:

cricket cage-6-ox bone


cricket cage-11-zicha


cricket cage-1-bamboo

There was even a cottage industry – controlled by the Emperor’s household, presumably because it was so lucrative – in growing special gourds to be used as cricket cages:

cricket cage-10-gourd

And of course crickets have graced Chinese scrolls:

scroll with cricket-1

scroll with cricket-3

The extraordinary thing is that crickets still play a role in Chinese life. Here is a picture I took outside some pet shops in Shanghai. This is a string of cricket cages, made of humble raffia or something similar

cricket cages Shanghai 001

while this is a close-up of another string, in even humbler plastic, where you can see the crickets inside, waiting for their new masters.

cricket cages Shanghai 002

The Chinese even used crickets to hold cricket fights.  They still do.

cricket fighting

This I have not seen yet. I wonder if English bookies could get into this game.

english bookies-2

And with that, I wish you goodnight through the most famous cricket of all, Jiminy Cricket:

Jiminy Cricket


Green cricket:
Brown cricket:
Cricket cages-jade:
Cricket cage-9:
Cricket cage-ceramic:
Cricket cage-ox-bone:
Cricket cage-metal:
Cricket cage-bamboo:
Cricket cage-gourd:
Scroll with cricket-1:
Scroll with cricket-3:
Cricket fighting:
English bookies:
Jiminy Cricket:×576.jpg