The Cricket in the Box

By Fr Warren Kinne

The author is an Australian Columban who worked in Mindanao in the 1970s. He is now based in Shanghai. He has some Chinese ancestry and during his years in China has come to know relatives there. He wrote this article shortly after the Chinese/Lunar New Year celebration on 8 February 2016.

Chinese Cricket Boxes  

There is a Chinese saying: ‘Huo dao lao, xue dao lao’ which loosely translated is ‘You are never too old to learn’.

A couple of nights ago a dentist friend here in China was driving me home on a cold winter’s night when I heard a chirping noise inside the car. It sounded like crickets but I presumed it was an electronic beep somewhere from the dashboard. At the intersection red light, Doctor Dong reached into his pocket and pulled out a small box, opened it, and there were two chirping crickets in two separate wee compartments.

Now the idea of grown men carrying around crickets in boxes, which has a long tradition in China, was something I could never really understand. These male crickets live for a few months and their food is there in a wad of something or other at the end of the box. All they seem to do is make summer noises and fight. You can also buy dried ones for eating.

Crickets for sale in China

Last night on Chinese New Year’s Eve in the beginning of the Year of the Monkey I was home alone and a friend from Australia emailed me and said that there was a good program on SBS (‘Australia’s multicultural and multilingual broadcaster’) that evening about the use of Jade in the Han dynasty. In the day of the VPN (‘virtual private network’) all things are possible and in order to escape the Great Firewall of China (a form of internet censorship), and to circumvent the message that ‘this program is not available in your country’ I put on the VPN for Sydney and started to watch the program.

Butterfly and Chinese wisteria, by Xü Xi. Early Song Dynasty, c. 970 [Wikipedia]

There for me was a moment of enlightenment: a key to understanding something of the mythology surrounding the humble cricket for the Chinese. Crickets were not mere pets for chirping or for fighting or for eating. There was also a deeper meaning, at the least for some Chinese. There seems to be something there akin to our metaphor of the butterfly that morphs from chrysalis with grub inside to winged beauty. The cricket lives underground and emerges from the earth resplendent with wings and a voice.

Jade burial suit, tomb of Liu Wu, a Han prince, c.144BC [Wikipedia]

Now what had this to do with jade and the ancient emperors? In unearthing ancient tombs the Chinese have found that their emperors were encased in suits made up of pieces of jade tied together with silver or gold thread. The Emperors were obsessed with immortality. If they had to die because they hadn’t yet found the elixir of eternal youth, at the least there could be life after death. They took with them into their elaborate tombs servants and wives and even soldiers. As time went by a humanism took over and the living were not killed to accompany the emperor into the future life but replicas of people molded in clay. Like the cricket under the earth, they believed that inside the life-giving jade they might rot, but eventually they would resurrect and come forth into the light.

It reminds me of our Easter celebrations of the resurrection of Jesus. In Shanghai this takes place just as the dead wood of winter starts to sprout green shoots. Whether emperor or knave, we all share that desperate search for immortality. For Christians, the elixir is not to be found in being buried in a jade suit but in being imbued with the grace of the risen Lord. From now on I will see that other dimension to the cricket in the box.

Fr Warren Kinne and Xiao Ai

Read Fr Kinne’s story about his young Chinese friend Xiao Ai: Courage to Live a Lent.