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Original Issue


Your chances of seeing a show of cricket cages and other cricketing paraphernalia are apparently slight. The Asian Gallery on East 80th Street in New York claims its current exhibit (running through Oct. 26) is the first in the U.S. to feature "the unique art forms associated with the ancient Chinese sport of cricket-fighting."

I don't know much about art but I know one form of cricket-fighting. Nearly every time I go fishing with crickets someone turns over the tricky wire bait box they are kept in, and in a flash everyone in the boat is covered with crickets. Fishing is relaxing but wrestling with crickets is exercise. My friend Vereen Bell once came home from a fishing trip, sat down at the table, and a cricket hopped out of his shirt pocket into his chicken gumbo soup. The Bells' Siamese cat Beep saw the cricket jump and went after it. A cricket can add a lot of shouting and grappling to your life.

The Chinese fought crickets, however, in the sense that the Vanderbilts race horses. According to Insect-Musicians and Cricket Champions of China, a 1927 pamphlet by Berthold Laufer, which Richard Ravenal of the Asian Gallery showed me, it was a peculiarity of the ancient Chinese that they "were more interested in the class of insects than in all other groups of animals combined." Hence, silk; and hence also the great enthusiasm, as early as the 10th century, for watching prized crickets fight each other in a pottery jar. As late as 1927 the sport was so big that wagering on a single cricket match in Canton might go as high as $100,000 and a national shou lip (winning or victorious cricket) would bring his home village as much honor as Johnny Bench brings to Binger, Okla.

I am not making this up. Crickets with black heads and gray body hair, Laufer says, were held to be the best fighters. Next were those with yellow heads and gray hair. The trainer of a first-class cricket would keep the temperature in its cage just right. If the cricket's mustache started to droop, it was too warm. Fighting crickets were fed rice mixed with fresh cucumbers, boiled chestnuts, lotus seeds and mosquitoes. Sometimes a cricket fancier would allow himself to be bitten by mosquitoes, which he would then feed to his cricket. When time for a fight drew near, the cricket might be deprived of food for a while, until its movements became slow, whereupon it would be fed small red insects in water. A cricket enthusiast might carry a caged favorite around in his breast pocket so that the fighter could keep warm and all the world could hear it sing. A strong chirping voice was an attribute of the best cricket gladiators.

How it was possible for more than a few fans to watch a big cricket bout Laufer does not explain, but the event would take place in a demijohn-sized jar placed in the middle of a public square. Opponents were matched according to size, weight and color. Before each set-to they were carefully weighed on a pair of tiny scales.

Crickets are natural fighters in defense of their own turf, but in the ring, or rather the jar, they had to be provoked. The referee, using a device made of hare or rat whiskers inserted into a reed or bone handle, would twiddle first the contestants" heads, then the ends of their tails and finally their large hind legs. Then the crickets would stretch out their antennae and jump at each other's heads. An antenna would break off, then a leg. Usually the struggle would end in the death of one fighter; often the winner would manage to land with its full weight on the other's body and sever its head.

The sport has died out, at least on the mainland, since the revolution banned gambling; who wants to watch crickets fight if you can't bet on them? But in the old days emperors and other high officials put a lot of money and artistry into cricket cages and accouterments, and these are the objets that the Asian Gallery is showing. In winter the crickets were kept in cages made of gourds that were about the size of a swallow. The beauty of these cages resides in their perforated tops and in the designs on the gourds themselves. The caps were carved into flowers or dragons or intricate vinelike tangles, from sandalwood, elephant or walrus ivory, coconut shell, green jade, white jade, ebony, bamboo or tortoise shell. Some of the designs on the bodies of the cages were etched, but most were raised. Molds with inner indentations were fastened around gourds while they were still on the stalk, so that the gourds would grow into patterns.

Some of these gourd cages were exquisite antiques, and more interesting to explain to guests than, say, a Tiffany lamp. Their prices range from $250 to $550, and the gallery will continue to sell the objets after the exhibit closes. Ravenal implied that he might well throw in one of the cricket ticklers, cricket water bowls, cricket beds (singles), porcelain cricket-bout scorecards or hard-to-describe small decorative items (apparently trophies or memorials to cricket champions) that are also part of the collection. Another interesting piece is a sash worn by a cricket-fight referee. Evidently, judging from the size of this sash, the referee was a man. I had hoped he was a field mouse.