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Lil’ Fighters

China’s most feared qu qu combatant dispatches yet another victim

Author Cain Nunns Illustration Peter Oumanski


SHANGHAI – Barely five feet tall, hobbled by an old industrial accident and decked out in an ill-fitting navy blue Mao jacket, 74-year-old Zhang Ying doesn’t look like a trainer of prizefighters. But appearances can be deceiving. The Shanghai native has produced hundreds of champions over a career that has spanned six decades.

When Zhang ducks into a doorway on a side street at the edge of Shanghai’s commercial district, his presence hushes the crowd inside, which has gathered to witness a favorite bloodsport in this region of China. At the periphery, stewards collect fistfuls of yuan. Bets at underground matches like these routinely run into the thousands of dollars.

The smart money is on Zhang’s fighter, Yellow Dragon, who has won 15 bouts in a row.  

It could be the result of the fish diet Zhang’s been feeding him, or the brutal workout regimen, but the champion is much broader than his opponent. There are whispers that Zhang’s also got him hopped up on some kind of herbal tea concoction.

Yellow Dragon, who stands about an inch high, is one of the stars (known as qu qu) of cricket fighting, a tradition that was once the domain of the gilded set but which is now played out in insect markets, like this one, across Shanghai. Each fight lasts no longer than 10 seconds or so, but in that time the crowd can be whipped into a fury of screeching and finger-pointing as combatants execute supposed kung fu maneuvers.

Zhang’s cricket is released from his bamboo cage, and the two foes eye each other warily across the Formica-topped table. The Dragon, however, hasn’t built his reputation by playing coy. Within seconds he is a blur of hurricane aggression and snapping limbs. Outmatched and outgunned, his opponent scurries back to the far side of the ring. He’s had enough.

“Pathetic,” spits one onlooker in disgust.

Zhang barely responds to the victory. He has seen it all, from the banning of the bourgeois sport during the Cultural Revolution, to intermittent police crackdowns on gambling, to its recent resurgence and the establishment of pro leagues across the Middle Kingdom. Few crickets would be a match for the Dragon, who, having dispatched another victim, continues his march to immortality.

“Don’t count on it,” Zhang sniffs. “Crickets don’t live very long. He’ll be dead within a month.”

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