A Rural Chinese Pastime
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.