A long time ago, cricket fighting caught on inthe imperial court, withthe emperor leading the fad. A local magistrate in Huayin, who wanted to winthe favor of the monarch, tried in every way to gethim the best fightingcrickets. He had a strategy for doing so: He managed to geta cricket thatwas very good at fighting. He then made his subordinates go to theheads of each village and force them to send in a constant supply of fightingcrickets. He would send to the imperial court the crickets that could beat the onehewas keeping. Theoretically, everything should have worked smoothly.
However, asthe magistrate was extremely zealous to please the emperor, hemeted outharsh punishment on any village heads who failed to accomplish theirtasks. The village heads in turn shifted the burden to the poor villagers, who hadtosearch for the crickets. If they failed to catch them, they had to purchasethemfrom someone else, or they had to pay a levy in cash. The small insectssuddenly became a rare commodity. Speculatorshoarded good crickets, buyingthem at a bargain and selling them for anexorbitant price. Many village headsworked hand in hand with thespeculators to make profits.
In so doing, theybankrupted many a family. Cheng Ming was one such villager. The head of hisvillage delegatedpart of his duties to him because he found Cheng Ming easy topush around. Cheng Ming did not want to bully his fellow villagers as the villagehead didhim, so he often had to pay cash out of his own pocket when he failedtocollect any competent crickets. Soon the little proper ties he had weredrainingaway, and he went into a severe depression. One day, he said to hiswife that hewanted to die. “Death is easy, but what will our son do without you? asked hiswife,glancing at their only son, sleeping on the kang. “Why can’t we look forthecrickets ourselves instead of buying them? Perhaps we’ll strike somegoodluck.”
Cheng Ming gave up the idea of suicide and went to searchforcrickets. Armed with a tiny basket of copper wires for catching crickets andanumber of small bamboo tubes for holding them, he went about thetedioustask. Each day he got up at dawn and did not return until late in theevening. He searched beneath brick debris, dike crevices, and in the weedsandbushes. Days went by, and he caught only a few mediocre crickets hatdidnot measure up to the magistrate’s standards. His worries increased asthedead line drew closer and closer. The day for cricket delivery finally came, butCheng Ming could notproduce any good ones. He was clubbed a hundred timeson the buttocks, aform of corporal punishment in the ancient Chinese judicialsystem. When hewas released the next day, he could barely walk. The wound onhis buttocksconfined him to bed for days and further delayed his search forcrickets. Hethought of committing suicide again. His wife did not know what todo.
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