The Caged Cricket Sings (and Scuffles)

A 20th-century object reveals an age-old Chinese pastime

Cricket Cage.

This cricket cage is on view at the UB Anderson Gallery, along with dozens of other artifacts from the Cravens World collection.  

By Rebecca Rudell | Photographs by Douglas Levere

The Chinese love their crickets, both for their song and, less obviously, for their fighting prowess. Cricket fighting emerged during the 12th century, at which point the Chinese had already been keeping crickets in cages for a few hundred years. The example here is from Cravens World, a collection of cultural objects donated to the UB Anderson Gallery by Annette Cravens (MSW ’68) in 2008. Smaller than 10 cm across and dating back to the early 1900s, this cage would have been used just decades before the communist regime banned cricket fighting and other “bourgeois entertainment.” Today, keeping the little buggers as pets for song and sport is back and bigger than ever. 

Tiny ivory tower
Cricket cages come in a variety of shapes and designs, and are constructed from a range of materials, including jade, metal and wood. As with most objects, the material and ornateness of the cage reflect the wealth of the owner. This ivory specimen has two carvings of traditional Chinese motifs: A fisherman scene on top and a seated Buddha on the bottom alongside the artist’s signature.

Prize Fighters
There are dozens of markets in China today dedicated to the sale of fighting crickets. While most go for around $2 to $8—still a lot for a bug you might run over with your lawnmower—others sell for more than $1,000. Loud chirping supposedly indicates a good fighter, as does originating from the province of Shandong, where crickets are large, noisy and ferocious. But the big money is in gambling (illegal but common), with people laying down tens of thousands of dollars per match. 

And in this corner...
Before the battle begins, crickets are weighed; they only fight within their weight class, just like human wrestlers. Next, two crickets are put into a ring and their owners poke their antennae to annoy them. After they’re riled up, the crickets go at it. Some cower immediately; others spar off, grappling and biting with their enormous mandibles. Fights usually end without “bloodshed,” but occasionally a leg—or six—is lost. Today, fights are so popular that some are shown on huge screens so crowds can catch the teeny yet ferocious action. 

Did you know?

Only male crickets “sing.”
One section of each wing, called the file, is covered with between 50 and 300 ridges. Another area—the scraper—is, well, scraped against the file to create the chirping sound we associate with crickets, aka stridulation. Chirps are used to both attract females and repel other males.