The man who plays killer cricket

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The Independent Online
"HERE IN China, the cricket culture is deep-rooted and very popular," said Wu Jichuan. At which point, sitting in a Peking branch of McDonald's, the 61-year-old delved into his bag and brought out a small, gilded pot. Slowly he removed the lid. "This one is a black field cricket," he said admiringly.

Mr Wu, author of The Science of Chinese Crickets and half a dozen other key books on the subject, is China's "Mr Cricket" - the insect variety, that is. Now retired from the Chinese Academy of Science, he devotes much of his time to the insects and to organising cricket competitions. At these bizarre contests, the tiny competitors first get classified into either heavyweight, middleweight or lightweight. Matched-up pairs are then placed in the fighting arena and set about trying to bite each other's heads off.

"Cricket culture is mainly an urban phenomenon," Mr Wu said . "The insects are kept for the fighting season which takes place in the autumn. But they also have a role in the winter. People revere them and keep them because their chirping reminds them of the summer."

According to Mr Wu, China's indigenous "cricket culture" dates back 1,000 years to the Tang dynasty, and peaked during the Ming and Qing dynasties. "We should develop the cricket culture and let everyone know about the wonderful world of Chinese crickets," he said.

There are more than 40 types of cricket in China. In the countryside, peasants can sell a promising fighter to dealers in the city for more than 1,000 yuan (pounds 75). An article in a Chinese newspaper claimed that a cricket from Ningyang county, in Shandong province, recently fetched a record 9,800 yuan. "In terms of weight, crickets are more expensive than gold," Mr Wu said.

Gambling over the outcome of fights bumps up the value of top crickets. "The authorities want to put a stop to it," Mr Wu added. "They are trying to destroy cricket culture. They do not appreciate the glamour that is attached to it. There is no gambling in any of the competitions that I take part in."

At the moment it is not the breeding season, so Mr Wu has only 40 or 50 crickets sitting around at home. "In the autumn I have several hundred." In natural surroundings the cricket is normally born in August but is dead by October. In captivity it can live for six or seven months. Mr Wu feeds his little fellows on potato, cabbage and minced meat. "You need knowledge of nutrition to feed a cricket well and to make them strong," he said.

Mr Wu claimed there were millions of cricket fans in Shanghai, and "tens of thousands" in Peking. One of his cricket books has been pirated and 100,000 illicit copies made, he said. There are four national cricket competitions each autumn, as well as local contests. In October, Mr Wu captained the Peking team which was awarded first place nationally after 400 crickets had slugged it out over three days.

Is the sport cruel? "Some crickets get killed on the spot," said Mr Wu. "A good fighter can use its front incisors to finish off an opponent with just one bite." And a good cricket would rather die than give up. "Others run away if they're losing."

The best - and usually largest - fighters come from Ningyang and Ningjin counties in Shandong. A heavyweight weighs in at more than 0.8 grams.

Mr Wu believes China has the best crickets in the world, and would like Peking to set up a holiday village of cricket culture to attract tourists.

Any emotional tie with such a short-lived pet as a cricket must be quickly forged. "Over the years I have built up some affection for crickets. I'm going to publish a collection of my poems about insects that make a noise," Mr Wu said. He has produced a calendar for 1999 which features an oil painting he has done of two crickets confronting each other. And it includes one of his poems:

The chirping of Chinese insects is an ancient musical sound,

Cricket fighting goes back to ancient times in the land of the dragon,

For a thousand years, though the sound of autumn fades with the season,

The cricket culture will exist through time.