Big Red Belly, his thick limbs nourished by a strict liver-tofu-ginger diet, should have been a contender. Instead, as his trainer watched in dismay, the young fighter nervously circled his more menacing adversary and then skittered to a corner of the ring, prompting jeers from a half-dozen spectators.
“Worthless,” his patron, Chang Hongwei, a retired mechanical engineer, growled as he yanked Big Red Belly from the arena and unceremoniously ended his brief fighting career. “Next!”
Countless members of the Gryllus bimaculatus clan, also known as field crickets, have faced off in the capital’s narrow alleys this fall in a uniquely Chinese blood sport whose provenance extends back more than 1,000 years. Nurtured by Tang Dynasty emperors and later popularized by commoners outside the palace gates, cricket fighting was banned as a bourgeois predilection during the decade-long Cultural Revolution, which ended in 1976.
But like many once-suppressed traditions, among them Confucianism, mah-jongg and pigeon raising, cricket fighting is undergoing a revival here, spurred on by a younger generation — well, mostly young men — eager to embrace genuinely Chinese pastimes.
Cricket-fighting associations have sprung up across the country, as have more than 20 Web sites devoted to the minutiae of raising critters whose daily needs can rival those of an Arabian steed. Last year, more than 400 million renminbi, or about $63 million, were spent on cricket sales and upkeep, according to the Ningyang Cricket Research Institute in Shandong Province. Shanghai now has more than a dozen cricket markets, and several cities, including Beijing, stage public bouts where the Lilliputian action is blown up and projected on to giant screens. (A related activity, competitive cricket singing, draws the affections of those inclined to more pacific pursuits.)