The Cricket Enters Under Our Beds
As autumn comes around, the chirping of crickets can once again be heard at night. This insect has been written about by numerous poets, first appearing in the poem “July” in the Book of Songs.
“In the fifth month, the locust moves its legs; / In the sixth month, the spinner sounds its wings. / In the seventh month, in the fields; / In the eighth month, under the eaves; / In the ninth month, about the doors; / In the tenth month, the cricket / Enters under our beds. / Gaps are filled up, and rats are smoked out; / The windows that face the north are stopped up; / And the doors are plastered. / Ah! our wives and children, / Changing the year requires this: / Enter here and dwell.“
The poem “July” describes agricultural activities during ancient times, creating vivid images of the months one by one. At the centre of the fifth scene is a quick-witted cricket. In ancient times, people often used the responses of insects to seasonal changes to represent time. Crickets are sensitive to changes in the weather and prefer to live in holes. In summer, they live under stones in the fields or in cracks in walls; then, when autumn comes and the temperature falls, they move into people’s homes in search of warmth. For this reason, crickets were first used to show the seasonal changes and help people in the countryside with agricultural activities.
Afterwards, the cricket was not merely considered as a kind of “seasonal insect.” They also became popular with the ancient people and so a form of “cricket culture” began to take shape.
In ancient China, people believed that keeping crickets helped build character and develop a pleasant disposition, as shown by the old saying: “Listening to their chirping makes you forget your tiredness; watching them fight makes you feel relaxed.” Therefore, cricket fighting became considered an “elegant hobby” similar to growing chrysanthemums. The pleasant sound of crickets chirping led to them being called “the singers of the field.” People’s interest in crickets first originated from listening to them—their rhythmic chirping indicating that autumn was on its way, which saddened the ancients. The 12th poem in the Nineteen Old Poems expresses the ancients’ sadness over how fast time flew when listening to the chirping of crickets at the end of summer. “Ke Si” ( Travellers’ Thoughts), written by poet Jia Dao (AD 779–843), compared the chirping of crickets to needles piercing the hearts of those who lived far from home.
Due to crickets’ solitary nature, good fighting abilities and crisp chirping, fighting these insects became a popular pastime amongst the aristocracy and common people during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907). The most influential proponents of cricket fighting in Chinese history were Jia Sidao (1231–1275), prime minister of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279); and Zhu Zhanji (1398–1435), Emperor Xuan of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). In addition to ambitiously seeking power, Jia Sidao was adept at carving insects. He also compiled a book named About Crickets, so was known as the Cricket Minister; whilst Zhu Zhanji, the fifth emperor of the Ming Dynasty, was famous for his fondness of cricket fighting, and so became known as the “Cricket Emperor.”
According to historical records, countless people lost their fortunes, committed suicide by drowning or hanging themselves, or abandoned their studies in their raising of crickets and indulging in cricket fighting. Wang Anshi (1021– 86), a scholar during the Northern Song Dynasty (AD 960– 1127), expressed his indignation at the aristocracy’s obsession with cricket fighting and sympathy with poor people in his poem “Crickets.”
Wang Shixiang (1914–2009), a famous scholar known as the “No. 1 Player in Beijing,” wrote a book entitled A Collection of Works on Crickets, which contained selected works from 17 books on crickets from the Song Dynasty to the Republic of China period (1911–49). The profound impact of cricket culture in the past is evident from these works.
Over the past 2,000 years, the cricket has transformed from a symbol of the changing seasons to a plaything of the aristocracy. The meaning of “crickets” may have changed dramatically in writing, but that has not prevented later generations from pursuing its origins. “In the seventh month, in the fields; / In the eighth month, under the eaves; / In the ninth month, about the doors; / In the tenth month, the cricket / Enters under our beds.” This verse has been chanted for thousands of years and still manages to capture the original beauty of this musical insect.