and the practice of keeping cricket jars
Fig. 1 (above): Chinese Bamboo Cricket Box, Early 20th Century, 3 3/4 inches tall X 2 1/4 inches wide.
The practice of Cricket-keeping in China dates back as far as the 8th century and continued into the 20th century. The Affairs of the period Tsin-Tao (742–756) mention that "whenever the autumnal season arrives, the ladies of the palace catch crickets in small golden cages ... and during the night hearken to the voices of the insects. This custom was imitated by all the people." From small golden cages kept next to the beds of courtiers, the craze for listening to cricket-song led connoisseurs to hang prized insects in walnut cages around the neck for an on-the-go fix. The craze spread to the point that in 1924 Asian scholar Berthold Laufer (1874-1934) noted that in China especially “In passing men on the street you hear the shrill sound of the insect from its warm and safe place of refuge.”
Despite not living for more than a year, crickets demanded the highest standard of care. Published by Kia Se-Tao, a 13th century court official, the Tsu Chi King (Book of Crickets) suggested such lavish attention to the insects as offering up varied menus for changing seasons and suggestions on caring for a shy or sick insect. Professional cricket tenders could look after as many as hundreds of crickets for a single collector. During summers, the pampered insects lived in cool ceramic jars with tiny blue and white porcelain food dishes and little clay beds, while in winter they lived in carved or molded gourds with miniature cotton mattresses for cold nights. One aspect of cricket-keeping, that of growing molded gourds specifically destined to become cricket homes, was as an art form that was the exclusive monopoly of the Forbidden City. The royal gardeners would place an emerging gourd inside a clay mold, forcing the fruit to grow into the desired shape as it fills the mold.
A cricket cage from our March 2018 sale is of this type: beautifully shaped with its details accentuated with ink and dating from the 18th to the early 19th century. This piece brought $1,500 at auction, demonstrating the fine quality and painstaking craftsmanship that was devoted to housing these chirping friends.
Fig. 2: Detail of Chinese Bamboo Cricket Box, Early 20th Century, 3 3/4 inches tall X 2 1/4 inches wide.
Another example from our upcoming June 30th 2019 sale is simpler in construction, and rather than a shaped gourd it is a carved section of bamboo. This piece, from the early 20th century, represents the tail-end of the cricket craze. By the 19th century, the vogue for crickets was fading, as a taste for elaborately carved Baroque cages led some noblemen to bankruptcy, while others lost big on high-stakes cricket fights.
About the Author
Jennifer Clary joined Oakridge Auction Gallery in 2016, after pursuing both a Bachelor of Arts and a Master’s degree in Art History. She has extensive experience working hands-on with East Asian art with a specialization in Chinese art and antiques. Ms. Clary is currently pursuing a second Master's degree in Arts Management at George Mason University.
Hearn, Lafcadio. Exotics and Retrospectives, 1971.
Laufer, Bertold. Insect-Musicians and Cricket Companions of China, 1927.