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The Big-Money World of Underground Cricket Fighting

Could we learn something about human aggression from China’s tiniest champions? One scientist believes so

“His head is big, his teeth are big, his neck is fast, he has long legs — this is a good guy. He has six legs. So this is a great fighting cricket,” the Western journalist says, interpreting for the Chinese cricket master who’s selling her a fighting cricket. 

The journalist listens as the cricket master explains in Chinese that all good fighting crickets have bright eyes, strong jaws and a thick neck. He tells her that you can also easily sort out the males from the females. You just have to count their tails: Males have two, females have one. Only males are selected for cricket fighting. They’re nothing special per se, they’re just common field crickets, from the species Gryllus bimaculatus. But a cricket master can still spot a champion.

Known in China as “The 100 Day Insect,” crickets on average live for, you guessed it, 100 days. This means they start competitively fighting when they’re just a month old and endure a rather short two-month-long fighting career. “These crickets are inherently born to fight. When these bugs fight, they’re not like any other insect. They’re great fighters and have tremendous competitive spirit,” Mr. Fu, another cricket master in China, explains in the video below.

Cricket fighting is a 1,500-year-old tradition in China, and it was once the sport of emperors. According to the New York Times, the rules for cricket fighting were “laid out in a 13th-century how-to guide written by Jia Sidao, the Southern Song prime minister whose obsession with crickets supposedly led to the dissolution of the empire.” Today, every autumn after the equinox, hordes of crickets gathered primarily from the Shandong Province are brought to Beijing for the Cricket Fighting World Championship. But while that’s the sport’s Super Bowl, there are sanctioned cricket-fighting events in at least 25 other Chinese cities, and underground cricket fighting exists all over the country.

Standard fighting crickets range in cost from $1 to $10. To care for them, though, isn’t cheap, averaging $1,500 to $2,000 per month. There’s a lot to buy — food obviously, but also tiny plates, tiny bowls and tiny beds for the cricket’s tiny apartments. The big money in the sport comes from gambling. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are often bet at an underground cricket fight on any given night. 

In the Vice Sports video above, a young cricket master says, “I bet on my crickets. Twenty grand, U.S. dollars, on one cricket fight — that’s the most I won this year. But it’s against the law. So you won’t see it here [at the Cricket Fighting World Championship]. You don’t see it everywhere. You don’t know the place, only the guy who knows the place knows the place. It’s insiders. It’s like a hundred guys. Every day it’s about 20 to 40 games. It might take like three hours, or four hours. It depends. The fight is really short.” 

To his point, a cricket fight is a rather simple form of combat. It’s like the lite beer of blood sports. (Along those lines, unlike dog-, cock- or bullfighting, a cricket fight isn’t a fight to the death; after a match, the losing crickets are often set free and re-released into the wild.) “The cricket fight itself requires the handlers to poke and prod at the insects with a piece of hay or small stick to irritate them,” this YouTube overview explains, although Mr. Liu, a champion cricket trainer, adds, “A bit of chili pepper will make them especially ferocious.” “A judge then removes a divider between the two crickets from the ring and the insects are free to fight each other. Judges follow strict guidelines and rules, most of which date back to the 13th century, for determining match points.”

In fact, over the centuries, the cricket masters have distilled a cricket’s fighting spirit down to a science:

  • Level 1: Pre-established dominance
  • Level 2: “Antenna fencing”
  • Level 3: Unilateral mandible spreading
  • Level 4: Bilateral mandible spreading
  • Level 5: Mandible engagement
  • Level 6: Wrestling
  • Level 7: Determine winner and loser

“Why do we do cricket fighting in China?” asks Mr. Liu. “About 1,500 years of history. The U.S. only has about 300 years of history. There is a sentence you may have heard of: ‘Pursuit of petty pleasures thwarts high aims.’ That’s from cricket fighting. Chinese emperors ignored politics and continued cricket fighting, and ultimately, that led to their demise.”

Not that Mr. Liu necessarily heeds this advice — or maybe cricket fighting is just his high aim. Either way, his crickets are well-kept. He dotes on them, giving them each a small enclave of their own inside of a clay jar. “A really formidable fighter can be worth more than a horse. And they eat better than you and I do,” he told the Times in 2011. (Champion crickets have been known to sell for a few thousand dollars.) He rewards his winning crickets with five wives. He claims he can even tell if one of them has a bad relationship with his wife. If he detects such discord, Mr. Liu will switch out the cricket wife. “You’ll see it obviously,” he explains. “We know what crickets want just by listening to their voice. If they’re hungry, thirsty, lonely or looking for a partner, we would know.”

For many decades, however, Mr. Liu was forbidden from cricket fighting. The sport was banned during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. It was viewed as a bourgeois activity, especially since cricket fighting was associated with the emperors and their wanton ways. But after the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, the Communist Party allowed the people to once again hold cricket fights, so long as there was no gambling. Although that promise hasn’t really held, the authorities typically now look the other way. 

It’s impact has been wide-ranging. For starters, cricket fighting is growing in popularity throughout the rest of Asia, where you can find it popping off in places like Vietnam and Bali. (Its hold is steadily growing in Asian diaspora communities in Canada and the U.S. as well.) But more importantly, for all the insect fisticuffs, there’s a school of thought that it makes the men behind the sport less aggressive. “Could cricket fighting be a cure for human depression?” is a legit question that Stanford researchers have actually looked into. 

To that end, German biologist Paul A. Stevenson has studied cricket fights from a scientific standpoint. His research suggests that perhaps there are motor-activity triggers that cause male cricket aggression to fall away. If so, that could help human men contend with their own aggression and violence if we can figure out how that trigger operates. “Loser crickets need about three hours to recover their aggressiveness,” he explains in the description of his research video. “This is typical for the ‘loser-effect’ or post-conflict depression, which is known in practically all animal species that compete aggressively. The mechanisms which control how animals ‘decide’ to retreat from a conflict, and how this leads to post-conflict depression is not known.”

All of this rings true for Zhang Zheng, a nascent cricket master in Beijing who also spoke with the Times back in 2011. “It’s in our nature to be aggressive, but fighting is illegal,” he explained. “So we project our emotions onto crickets, and when they win, we feel proud, but then perhaps we become a little less aggressive.”

Maybe, then, it’s the best kind of bloodlust — exactly because there’s no blood at all.