Inside the jaw-clenching world of cricket fighting in China It's cricket fighting season in China, so NPR went ringside to learn about the centuries-old sport. Turns out, the bugs are really high maintenance, big money's involved and big mandibles matter.

Inside the jaw-clenching world of cricket fighting in China

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SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Tensions run high and the stakes are big in a sport that's gone on for hundreds of years in China. But the players are small - so small, in fact, they could fit in the palm of your hand.

NPR's Emily Feng saw a match herself and has the story.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: One rainy summer night, I get into my friend Jay's (ph) car. He's visibly excited as he drives me to an undisclosed location where we're quickly ushered into a smoky room, the window shades drawn.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: About three dozen mostly men are inside. Each carries a little shoulder bag full of round clay jars. Inside are chirping crickets - yes, crickets.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRICKETS CHIRPING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: The crickets are weighed like prizefighters and paired up.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: I notice some money changing hands surreptitiously. The referee signals go time. And then...

(SOUNDBITE OF CRICKETS CHIRPING)

FENG: ...Crickets - literally, it's a cricket match. And this is the first match of the Beijing cricket fighting season. Grown men nearly climb over each other to huddle over the table, where two tiny insects swipe at each other with their pincer-like mandibles. Their owners lightly brush their crickets with a reed to rile them up. The bugs lunge at each other.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: There's a quick tussle, but one of the crickets is not able to keep its grip on the other. They're put back into their protective clay jars. The men shake their heads. That cricket was too small, they mutter knowingly. Each of the men here - and again, it's virtually all men - has worked for weeks to get to this match. They've had to obtain, train and finesse their crickets.

That labor-intensive process starts here at the cricket market. Seller Yang Yu'ai shows me her catches of the year.

YANG YU'AI: (Through interpreter) My family has experience. They know to look for crickets with good-shaped heads and big mandibles - ones with a fighting spirit.

FENG: Every August, Ms. Yang's relatives fan out with nets and headlamps into the cornfields near her home in Shandong province. The place is famous for the fierceness of its six-legged fighters. The result from the backbreaking hunting expedition - about 100 male crickets a year. The most expensive one she's ever sold cost nearly $400.

YANG: (Through interpreter) This year's crickets have good, hard mandibles because it didn't rain too much. The rain produces crickets with soft mandibles.

FENG: My friend Jay is so committed to cricket fighting, he catches his own.

ZHAO JIULING: You're looking for good teeth, good mandibles, good head - big, broad head because you have jaw muscles. And the bigger the head, the better the muscle, right? - and also the size of the neck.

FENG: He then brings them back to Beijing to undergo elite training.

ZHAO: So I used to keep females in here, a couple of them in one jar. And then I had some fighters in here as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS CLINKING)

FENG: I'm helping Jay clean out cricket jars. They've been coated in a special tea...

ZHAO: Worm poop tea.

FENG: ...A tea made from the defecation of a specific type of moth in southwestern Guizhou province.

ZHAO: In Chinese medicine, this is - we think this material is cool. It's liang, right?

FENG: The bugs supposedly need more cooling elements during this particular week of China's lunar calendar. In each jar, we also add a little clay house for the cricket, the right mix of soils, and a carpet of rice paper.

ZHAO: They don't need the carpet. But, you know, I don't want them to walk around with bare feet because they have these tiny claws at the tip of their legs. When they're damaged, they cannot hold their ground when they're fighting, right?

FENG: Jay carefully cooks a nutritious meal of grain and bean powder for them every night.

ZHAO: Oh, they are very picky. They are very picky.

FENG: They're picky about their mates, too. The week before, Jay matched up his fighters with female crickets.

ZHAO: And then you pair them up. Sometimes, they don't like each other. They will fight. Domestic violence happens in both ways. Sometimes, the females eat the males.

FENG: A few of his male crickets won't mate, which diminishes their aggression and therefore their fighting abilities. Some of them have to have their bottoms washed in a special solution Jay concocts to unclog their private parts.

ZHAO: Because they have - their wings cover their butt, so they couldn't do it, right? You can't take off your pants, then that's going to be a problem.

FENG: Jay loves his crickets so much, it sometimes gets in the way of his own love life.

Do people ever tell you you're crazy?

ZHAO: Mostly girls.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Which is why Jay feels most comfortable here with his Beijing cricket team at these informal matches. Tonight's match is still going strong four hours later - about 20 pairs of crickets duking it out round after round. The losing cricket usually simply runs away from the victor. And given how precious the crickets are, their owners usually end each round before they can get injured. Jay's

team notches a big victory, and he goes out drinking. The next day, I ask him, what makes all this work worth it?

ZHAO: I have to articulate my thoughts because I'm still, like, hungover. I need some beer.

FENG: A can of beer later, he answers. It's the thrill of the competition, the glory of victory and a singular dream.

ZHAO: We always had this dream when we were a little child, when we could one day have the king of fighters. We've been searching for it for many, many, many years. We're going to go throughout all of our lives doing this year after year in the hope that we could have one.

FENG: So far, he's had some good fighters. He's even sold one for about $1,500 last month. But he's still looking for the one to beat them all.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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