BY JARED MIRACLE
Full disclosure: I love Pokemon. For some people, being passionate about a topic invalidates research by destroying objectivity. I don’t find this particularly bothersome for two reasons: 1) I would rather be fully honest and open than worry about portraying myself as a sort of uber-professional and 2) the scholarly insight that one is supposed to gain by embedding with a community seems as if it would be hampered by ignoring the personal feelings to which participant observation naturally leads. After all, how can one hope to interpret a community predicated on an activity of enjoyment without, well, enjoying the activity? With that caveat, here is the story of a cultural phenomenon that people have been sharing with one another for over 1800 years, almost entirely because of personal enjoyment.
People in China have been keeping crickets as pets since before recorded history. Gourd cages for carrying around these musical companions have been found that predate most of the established ancient empires (see links below). The tale really begins in the Tang period (600-900 C.E.). At that time it became high fashion for courtiers to carry around decorative boxes and gourds with various species of cricket inside. The different species were prized for their songs and the more expensive containers were even shaped to optimize acoustics. This is a practice that continues today, in fact, as a great many people in China how been known to use recordings of insect songs as their ringtones.
To wit, you can’t fix a critter fight.
One of the distinguishing features of the Tang dynasty was the influence it had on surrounding cultures. China has gone through alternating phases of isolationism and extroversion (historian Valerie Hansen calls it the “open empire”), with the Tang being one of its most outgoing periods. At the same time, it’s often seen as a golden age for the creative arts and, thanks to some pretty savvy domestic policies and robust foreign trade, leisure activities flourished at all levels of society. Among these were pursuits that may strike modern Western readers as… distasteful. They included cockfighting, goose fighting, ram fighting, and, of course, cricket fighting. All of these were enjoyed by different classes of people, but it’s safe to say that three broad categories will suffice: men who looked to profit by gambling on the matches; upper class scholars and bureaucrats; and children. As will become important later, all of these people mixed together at the contests, which served as a social leveling mechanism since victory could never be fully assured for any given bout. To wit, you can’t fix a critter fight.