The Cricket En­ters Un­der Our Beds

Beijing (English) - - POEM - Trans­lated by Feng Tiejun Edited by David Ball

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.

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