Ancient Pastimes

Background from A Better Guide to Běijīng

In a narrow grey-walled alley typical of Běijīng’s back streets, men are bunched together in tightly compressed groups arched over some invisible central point and wedged into immobility. There’s the same air of excitement, tension, and watchfulness as you might find at a boxing ring or race course.

Someone disengaging himself from a huddle notices the curious foreigner, a rare sight in this secluded place, and motion him closer before pressing him into the crush which is pungent with garlic and èrguōtóu (二锅头) — Chinese sorghum spirits.

In the centre, on a low table, stands a clear perspex enclosure in which two small dark insects, qūqur (蛐蛐儿, crickets), are being tickled with rats’ whiskers on slender sticks, encouraging them towards one another. Bets are called and money flashed discreetly, and the insects, catching sight of one another, lift their wings, chirrup piercingly, and lock mandibles, pushing each other to and fro as if filled with the same tension as the watchers.

When one runs away, the fight is over, ¥10 notes change hands swiftly, and the smug owner collects his champion by trapping it under a tiny wire-loop-handled net. When it climbs and holds on he lifts and deftly deposits it in a small ceramic jar with a metal lid, securing that with a rubber band.

One particularly aggressive frequent winner suddenly attracts an offer of ¥100 from the man in charge of the ring, who has brush cut hair and a rat’s-whisker stick behind his ear; then ¥200. But the owner and trainer is reluctant to sell. ‘Make it měiyuán,’ he says gruffly — US dollars: more than six times as much.

He should have taken the offer. The apparently invincible insect loses the next bout it fights, and potential purchasers correspondingly lose interest.

‘Do you do this in your country?’ they ask.

‘I think this kind of sport is special to China, and very lǎo Běijīng’ (old Beijing style).

‘No,’ says brush cut with confidence. They do it in Italy. The mafia do it.’

It’s a common saying among older Beijingers that China’s four great pastimes are huā, niǎo, , chóng (花鸟鱼虫; flowers, birds, fish, and insects). The Guānyuán Market had them all: peonies or chrysanthemums bright splashes of colour against the greyness of the road, birds fluttering and calling in delicate bamboo cages at the entrance to an alley that leads to two warehouses full of fish in brightly coloured buckets. Hidden behind these was a narrow lane lined with stalls selling crickets, large green grasshoppers, and the paraphernalia for pampering them as much as you might any Pekinese.

As the courtyard houses come down, there’s been a rise in the ‘four great pastimes’ as well as other traditional Běijīng hobbies, such as kite flying. The new commercialism may have brought the wrecker’s ball, but it’s also lifted fear of bourgeois possessions and provided the disposable income to fuel both demand for pets and playthings and the backyard businesses and petty traders to fill it. The hútòng’s occupants may find themselves exiled to not-quite-finished towers in the suburbs, but in the gusty spaces between them they’ve revived the tradition of walking their snuffling Pekinese.

Like many other long-standing traditional markets, the Guānyuán was recently tidied away, moved south and underground near the Shangri-La Hotel. Many of the vendors moved instead to the Shí Lǐ Hé Huáshēng Tiān Qiáo Shìchǎng (十里河华声天桥市场) a modern recreation of a hútòng market, cowering beneath the high-speed rail line to Tiānjīn. This also houses the vendors from a number of other markets all now closed down.

One section serves the new middle class with the equally new hobby of keeping creatures of tropical brilliance and the pipes, aerators, heaters, and tanks to keep their flashy fishes alive. But the true Běijīng pastime is the keeping of goldfish, and another section has narrow paths between areas of simple plastic troughs with infant slivers of plain orange in shoals — cǎoyú (草鱼) or ‘grass carp’ — and their mutant relatives, such as the lump-headed lóngjīngr (龙睛儿) or ‘dragon eyes’ and the wàngtiānr (望天儿) or ‘skygazers’, their eyes black dots in the very tops of their heads. Once common in courtyard cauldrons, gobbling up mosquito larvae, they are now taken home to tanks that suit the more enclosed living spaces of modern times.

In another alley vendors squat next to piles of gourds, hollowed out and fitted with perforated wooden caps. These are portable grasshopper living quarters, to be slipped inside a jacket to keep the insects alive during walks in Beijing’s chilly winter. The perforations allow air in and let the metallic chirping of their song out.

Antennae poke inquisitively from more elaborate samples on neighbouring tables, finely carved with scenes from myth and legend, next to small glass-fronted metal canisters. These, together with simpler plastic versions, are used to house smaller creatures also kept solely for their song. Vendors work steadily down lines of matchbox-sized transparent containers, pushing rations of apple flesh into small holes in their sides. They contain species of tiny crickets, smaller than a house fly, so valued for their disproportionately loud singing that they are given names such as jīnzhōngr (金钟儿), ’golden bells’.

The canisters are placed in the breast pocket to hold a pair of imprisoned singers comfortably in earshot of the owner. The Chinese are taught that their ancestors invented gunpowder, paper, and moveable-type printing, but they should also lay claim to having developed the first portable music player.

Clouds of acrid smoke from kebab vendors drifted through the shoppers, some negotiating for miniature spoons and tiny delicately patterned ceramic food dishes for their little friends, some squatting in front of towers of jars, stacking and restacking them as they open them one by one to inspect their occupants. Gaudy grasshoppers sat in miniature bird cages of bamboo, inspected by aficionados discussing the use of ant eggs in diets. Vendors claim loudly their crickets are from distant Shāndōng, traditionally the home of the best fighters, although they probably came from no further than the Western Hills just outside Běijīng. Carved gourds are given fantastic pedigrees, and pig’s bristle sticks are passed off as rat’s whisker ones.

As the sun shifts across the narrow modern hútòng, vendors swap sides to keep their stock from direct sunlight. Older men frown in concentration as they write their insects’ individual and suitably martial names on the lids of their prisons: Golden Headed Emperor, Black Dragon with Open Wings. Others sell inch-long yóuhulǔ (油葫芦,‘oil gourd’) crickets, from polystyrene chests topped with sheets of glass. Famed by ancient poets for their mournful song, the crickets are also offered unsentimentally as a body-building bird food. Customers help vendors round up the occasional mass escape.

Bird keeping almost disappeared during the 1966–76 Cultural Revolution but by the ’80s had already made a comeback, and now after only a few steps of a random stroll in the remaining areas of hútòng you’ll encounter men in singlets and shorts sitting beneath trees hung with bird cages. As they did for centuries, enthusiasts for song birds again make expeditions to the Inner Mongolian grasslands to find lark chicks, some of which will turn into avian Pavarottis while others will be far less ambitious. Newcomers are hung next to seasoned singers to learn from them how it should be done.

Often, decaying homes are topped with makeshift pigeon lofts, full of the throbbing and whirring of dozens of birds. Some are bred for racing, others trained to fly in formations called pánr (盘儿) or ‘plates’, with small flutes attached to their tails that produce an eerie humming as they pass overhead. Poor navigators are given away, or disappear into the pot.

The best selection of birds can also be found at Shí Lǐ Hé. Here pigeon sellers gather, their bicyccles loaded with wire cages in which their charges strut and and coo. Many of these, such as the popular fèngtóu (凤头) or ‘phoenix head’, marked by a pointless puff of feathers just above its beak, are merely for display.

Inside, rows of stalls sell every kind of songbird from tiny shrill tropical flutterers to morose hill mynahs that make sudden pronouncements in Mandarin. Vendors of training tapes, quite impervious to the bedlam, add to it by playing their maddeningly repetitious wares at high volume: ‘Qǐng jìn. Qǐng jìn. Qǐng jìn.’ and ‘Qǐng zuò. Qǐng zuò. Qǐng zuò.’ Even the casual browser will come out knowing the Mandarin for ‘Please come in’ and ‘Please take a seat,’ although, like the mynahs, not knowing they know it.

Migratory birds passing down China’s east coast in the autumn have long been prized not for their song, but for their intelligence. In one corner of the market stand artificial trees on whose neatly horizontal branches sit patient, amiable, grey-bodied, black-headed, yellow-beaked birds, at what is a kind of circus school. These birds are partway through their training.

Within a week or two of being caught, the birds are perfectly tame and sit quietly on their owners’ hands, at least until asked to perform. A bead the size of a pea is tossed into the air, which the bird performs a sudden steep climb to retrieve, while the owner, quickly pressing a blowpipe to his lips, fires another to a far higher altitude. The bird streaks aerobatically to collect this, too, returning to deposit both in his master’s palm and receive a reward, paid in flax seed.

The trick is called dǎ dànr (打弹, fetch pellets), and is said to have been a pastime popular with imperial eunuchs; and the amiable bird is commonly called a wútóng (鹀同, the Chinese or yellow-billed grosbeak, or more correctly 黑尾蜡嘴雀, hēiwěi làzuǐ què).

The waxwing (太平鸟, tàipíng niǎo), with a go-faster striped head and handsome red- and green-flecked chest, is taught the same trick, while the orthodontically challenged crossbill (交嘴雀, jiāozuǐ què) is taught to fetch a tossed coin, its lopsided beak, designed for cracking large seeds, also making it able to carry larger loads. Autumn days are devoted to training, since while a newly-caught bird can be sold for perhaps ¥30–50, a well-trained one can fetch several hundred yuán.

It’s not all exotica, although amidst the trills and inventions of the song specialists the domestic call of a cockerel seems bizarre, as does a sudden escape of ducklings, rounded up and given a shower.

The market is also well-stocked with kites, reels, fishing line, and a special translucent paper called wúfǎngbù (无纺布), for Běijīng enthusiasts have returned to making their own kites. When the midday heat has died away, retired men in old blue cotton jackets and black cotton shoes gather on bridges over the Second Ring Road, which follows the route of the long-vanished city walls, manipulating lines that disappear to distant dots.

Beijing’s traditional favourite is the shāyànr (沙燕儿) or ‘sand swallow’, a two-dimensional kite with stubby wings, head, and tail, painted with an image of the bird long associated with the city. It still occasionally nests in ancient halls and can sometimes be seen weaving at ankle level along the remaining hútòng.

One man lowers the first of a dozen connected small shāyànr gently from the parapet, waits as the airstream gradually pulls the string horizontal, and then with a rapid succession of sharp tugs pulls it suddenly up through the area of shelter behind the parapet until it climbs sinuously into the sky.
Advice is freely dispensed to onlookers curious enough to ask for it: ‘Buy point six gauge line, and don’t pay more than ¥85 per 8 liáng’ (about four tenths of a kilometre). The proper distance between swallows? ‘Three times the wingspan,’ says one man authoritatively. ‘No, anything up to two metres is fine,’ says another.

An old man flies his string of black-and-white shāyànr from the driver’s seat of a three-wheeled vehicle, his grandson watching wide-eyed from the back. But this ancient sport hasn’t been revived only by older Běijīngrén. One trendy young punk in wrap-around sunglasses arrives on a mountain bike, with a pair of large shāyànr of his own making. Everywhere there are signs of modern times: in the high-tech reels and nylon line, and in the website address stitched on the back of one man’s baseball cap. when reeled in, much of the airborne bestiary of fish, butterflies, and dragons with revolving mirrored eyes prove to owe their brilliant colours to the plastic shopping bags of which they are made.

As a reminder of just how medieval Beijing can be, a horse and cart laden with melons clatters past. It’s being harried by a 21st-century police car, as it shouldn’t be this far inside the city before 9pm.

But however superficially modern Běijīng becomes, the old ways will never entirely be chased out.

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