‘I can hear them chirruping,’ I say to Mr Liu as we get ready formy crash course in his hutong menagerie. ‘No you can’t. That’s not the crickets – that’s the katydids.’ Okay, so there’s a lot to learn.
After a presentation of his celebrity credentials while surrounded by dogs, rabbits, lizards, fish and ‘ni hao’-shouting mynah birds, we get down to business. ‘They’re from Shandong because they need to be robust, like Shandong people,’ explains Mr Liu of his fighting crickets. He doesn’t go down to Shandong himself to buy them, but his buyers know what to look for.
He takes the lid off the round, metal ‘guanr’ and inside is a pair of rather unassuming crickets. The male has two tail prongs, the female three. On closer inspection, the male has larger mandibles. I’m somewhat disappointed as I thought they’d be massive and equipped with weapons. They’re small and plain, despite being from Shandong.
Then the tools to care for them come out, and I’m right back on it. It’s basically the doll’s house I’ve always wanted. They have miniature porcelain food and water bowls and a special bedroom compartment called a sanyuan. I lower the furnishings carefully into their container and the female scampers straight into the bedroom, curved to be flush with the wall of the guanr.
There’s a suite of accessories for nurturing your crickets: a tiny spoon on a paintbrush-type handle for feeding, a tiny spade for ‘doing the hygiene’, various brushes for separating the warriors and what looks like a cotton ball on a stick.
‘What do you think this is for?’ asks Mr Liu.
‘Cleaning the crickets?’
‘No. It’s for guiding them into this,’ he says, showing me a curved compartment, open at both ends. I lower the box into the guanr and gently guide the female inside it.
‘And we have to use these sticks as you can’t pick them up with your hands as they’re so easy to injure – their legs come off.’
Sure enough, once airborne, she’s not budging. When we try getting her into the weighing cylinder, she makes a bid for freedom across the table. Hanging the weighing cylinder on the miniature scales we learn she’s just over four li. Though as she’s female, she’s not going pro.
‘They can fight, but it’s like ladies’ sports – no one really wants to watch, and because their teeth are so much smaller, they look more like they’re kissing.’
‘It’s more about how you care for them,’ Mr Liu tells me when I ask about training regimes. You simply need to feed them well – on caterpillar fungus and ginseng soup. But not too much before a fight. ‘If their bellies are too full, they won’t fight well.’
He tells me the male weighs about four-and-a-half li. As crickets compete within their weight categories, you don’t actually want a big one. Anything over seven li and you’re not going to find an opponent.
One month every autumn is the the annual fighting season. There’s big money at stake, with prizes going up to 100,000RMB. The bouts take place behind closed doors as people bet tens of thousands of RMB.
The fight is not necessarily to the death. The crickets grapple then one tends to pull away. If he withdraws three times, he’s the loser. However, with doping going on and people cheating by attaching metal to the crickets’ teeth, it’s a sport in need of regulation.
Mr Liu has a couple more tiny wooden boxes with sliding covers. They turn out to be coffins for the champions, so they receive burials to match their reputations and earnings. He then brings out the enormous longhorned grasshoppers, but as they compete by singing, that’s a whole new ball game.
Beijing-based travel company Bespoke Beijing introduced us to Mr Liu.