Catch­ing Ci­cadas

A Ru­ral Chi­nese Pas­time

That's China - - Contents - Text by Dun­can J. Poupard

捉知了

The ci­cadas are of course renowned in China for evad­ing their would-be cap­tors, as the Chi­nese say­ing goes: “the golden ci­cada sloughs off its shell”, es­cap­ing to live another day. There’s a cer­tain pas­toral de­light to romp­ing around a Chi­nese vil­lage with a long stick, hunt­ing for ci­cadas. Lis­ten­ing to the screams and whoops of the chil­dren as they catch the in­sects, or let them es­cape, has its own unique charm.

As the cold grip of win­ter be­gins to tighten across the coun­try, sum­mer seems ever more like a dis­tant dream of warmer days to come. Hud­dled up in lay­ers of cloth­ing, nos­tal­gia for the sights and sounds of the sum­mertime sets in. We may think about sun­bathing on the grass, cool drinks on the ter­race, or balmy evening strolls around the neigh­bour­hood. But what about the ci­cadas? The ca­co­phonic cho­rus of the ci­cadas, who sing with rhyth­mic click­ing of their ab­domens, is a hall­mark of swel­ter­ing sum­mer days. At noon on a sunny day, when the ci­cadas sing at their loud­est, peo­ple in China tra­di­tion­ally nap away the hottest hours, avoid­ing the scorch­ing sun un­til it loses some of its lus­tre. While the ci­cada’s song is a po­tent sym­bol of mid­sum­mer, it’s not just their singing for which they are notable. They ac­tu­ally make for a rather tasty Chi­nese del­i­cacy. Deep fried, they are a pop­u­lar night­time snack, es­pe­cially in Shan­dong, home of Lu cui­sine. But be­fore you can fry them up and serve them as a plate­ful of bulging-eyed in­sects, you need to catch them. Catch­ing ci­cadas – zhuo zhil­iao (捉知了 ) in Chi­nese – is some­thing of a coun­try pas­time in ru­ral China. It’s a fun thing to do for kids of all ages, and there’s def­i­nitely a cer­tain amount of skill to it. The ba­sic premise is this: the in­trepid ci­cada hunter (usu­ally a small child) will equip them­selves with the ap­pro­pri­ate tools (a long stick, about three me­tres or so) with some ad­he­sive on one end. Then they will prowl the vil­lage streets, per­haps ven­tur­ing out into the fields, any­where there are trees to be found, lis­ten­ing in­tently for the dis­tinc­tive ci­cada click­ing. The ci­cadas feed on tree limbs, and can be found on branches of trees, usu­ally sev­eral me­tres off the ground. They

nd have nat­u­ral cam­ou­flage, so you need to look care­fully to see one. Once a ci­cada hunter has spot­ted their prey, they will – oh-so care­fully, mind – lift up their ci­cada­catch­ing stick and at­tempt to touch the ad­he­sive end onto the ci­cadas back, where its wings can be found. The ad­he­sive will stick onto the wings, and the ci­cada will be stuck fast onto the end of the stick. The trick is, of course, not to star­tle the ci­cada so much as to make it fly away, and when you’re wield­ing a long, wob­bly stick, this can be quite the chal­lenge. The ci­cadas are of course renowned in China for evad­ing their would-be cap­tors, as the Chi­nese say­ing goes: “the golden ci­cada sloughs off its shell”, es­cap­ing to live another day. Once caught how­ever, the ci­cada’s wings are re­moved (of­ten­times by chil­dren per­haps dis­play­ing a lit­tle too much glee) so that it can­not es­cape and, if it is to be eaten, put into the fridge in a big bowl full of fel­low cap­tives. Ci­cadas can be sold to far flung re­gions of China where they are not na­tive, so chil­dren do not just catch them for fun. As is per­haps all too com­mon here, even the game of ci­cada catch­ing can be mon­e­tised. The ci­cadas are deep fried, and make for a crispy, pro­tein-rich dish that comes highly rec­om­mended. There’s a cer­tain pas­toral de­light to romp­ing around a Chi­nese vil­lage with a long stick, hunt­ing for ci­cadas. Lis­ten­ing to the screams and whoops of the chil­dren as they catch the in­sects, or let them es­cape, has its own unique charm. Next time you see a tiny four-year old trail­ing a long stick be­hind him on a dirt path, squint­ing up at the branches, you’ll know he is in search of a soon-to-be din­ner­time treat.

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