Edited on 25 May 2012: Added video and image.
Edited on 22 May 2012: Refactored last sections as collapsable.
Shanghai is a vital place, but I find I have to dig to tap the spine of real history that makes this city important.
The excuse I have to be here is to visit my grandson — revealing horizons instead of fences — spending what may be the last full month that I can dedicate exclusively to him away from my new family.
But my secret self is here to recalibrate the flows I can see in preparation for a rebooting of the kutachi project. Last year, we dug into an understanding of how calligraphic styles — particularly those of ancient Chinese and Japanese poets — do much of what we intend with kutachi. No opportunity opens to deepen those insights this trip, at least directly.
My effort this time is on discovering the shapes of sounds. There are dozens of dialects spoken here in Shanghai, including the universal Mandarin and the local Shanghaiese. To a non-speaker of any of them, the differences are not so much in the words or grammar — all the dialects refer to the same Hanzi characters. Chinese is a language where inflections are primary conveyers of information.
With the written language, you have some canonical shapes of characters, and the poet-calligrapher bends those shapes in her art, conveying additional, situated information folded onto the words. In the spoken language, however, the inflections are intrinsic to the primary meaning of the word. Two sounds that seem identical to me have completely independent meanings, based on subtle singing built into the language.
While the written language is permanent, these sounds are transitory and it takes 15 million people in one place to maintain the pleasant din that keeps the world in balance. Despite the upheavals in China in the last century, there seems no natural way this language can be perverted; it just seems intrinsically beautiful to me, as do most of the native faces I swim through.
So I sought out the cricket market. During the heyday of calligraphic expression and experimentation, it was fashionable to have crickets as pets, bred and selected for their song. Now these were individual creatures, separated out so that the strokes could be serially appreciated. These animals have wings, which eons ago allowed them to fly like my beloved dragonflies. Paths of insects through the air differ from those of birds in essential ways, determined by the physics and kinematics of the wings. I imagine these wings to have once supported long graceful swoops with hooked inflections at the end, three dimensional calligraphy.
But evolution has adapted these wings to send song instead of body. The sound is created by wing against wing and modulated/directed by shaping the wings. I imagine these songs as between the strokes of characters and the inflections of speech.
The high art of cricketology combined a single singer with an engineered container to shape and amplify the sound. Crickets live only one season, so the rich and presumably sensitive owners would have to replace the containers — often specially molded gourds with resonant liners — to be tuned to each generation.
It is a lovely idea, and one I chased to the market. Shanghai is the center of cricket culture in China, with millions of insects moving through a channel of peasant collectors, probably-dishonest brokers and street merchants. These merchants themselves are largely collected in a three block area, anchored in a single covered warren of booths selling birds and other pets.
My first visit was at 9:30 am, before any customers are expected but after the keepers have arrived to tend to feeding, cleaning and repackaging their wares. My impression is a bit of surprise, because everyone I see and hear is Shanghaiese. This makes sense in retrospect: this sort of husbandry takes generations to master, not to speak of the supply chains and the retail spaces themselves that I suppose to be passed through deaths in city-established families. I could have stayed for hours, just appreciating the purity of the people in this city of immigrants. Every man naturally has a cigarette, or the fresh smell of one ritually discarded, and carries an air of supervisory oversight.
Every woman has chores. Now I know I am comically romantic, but the small motions of the women — usually young women with open faces — seemed to me intensely beautiful in the small. Since there were hundreds of these women and motions within a moment’s stroll, and since I can recall graceful form, I found myself in blizzard of tiny pleasures.
Oh and the hundred thousand crickets singing too.
The Market Tour
There seem to be about four major types being sold, ranging from green quarter inch jumpers to lumbering 2 1/2 inch beasts, each type packaged differently so that a potential buyer could evaluate them appropriately. I stayed and chatted, not a soul understanding my queries. I wandered so repetitively that you could see surrounding curiosity morphing into paranoia. But I have to admit that though I found beauty in the human seas, I found none in the insects and their sounds.
Crickets sing four songs; only the males chirp. The most common is a hybrid of bravado: a combination of announcement for female ears and threat for males. If a male (by sensitive smell) is detected nearby, this morphs into macho fight of shouts.
The others are more delicate. When a male detects a nearby female he begins a courtship song that can only be described as foreplay. This can go on for hours, with multiple males seducing a female. After copulation, there is a short satisfied song. I know these from my home in Virginia where during the summers we fight airconditioning when the crickets are mating, so we can share the seduction. My ecosphere seems to provide a good balance where love overwhelms war. So I know the surrounding sounds of tens of thousands of these ancient creatures having sex.
The Discomfort of the Masses
But alas, this moist happiness was not the backdrop of my morning visit. All I heard was combat. Only males are sold here. They are uncomfortably confined in close quarters with their sexual competitors, so they exhaust themselves with sonic combat that they cannot escape. It is a sad song, one of the inevitability of social upheaval by simple instincts. I feel some of this among the people on the busy streets when I am in Shanghai — a continuous impatient honking over the existence of the soul in the way. Beautiful people turned into competitors.
This is not a sound, either human or insect, I want children to know.
Worse, the art of sonic architecture, of merging physical form and animal for sweet sounds seems to have been lost. Nowhere among the several hundred stalls here did I find a genuine cricket house — even an antique — that would have been used this way. I fear that the critical mass of this art may have been lost in the disasters of the Cultural Revolution — yet another depressing reminder of how helpless we are as animals.
The Crickethouse Stall
Even worse still, virtually all the insects I saw were classified not as beacons of beautiful sonic architecture, but as expected victors in the one-on-one combat that forms the basis of a massive gambling economy here.
All in all, I still value this day, if only for the memory of what I could have found physically and did find emotionally, sent to me from many now-dead crickets, over eons; shapes written in space.