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In the depths of a northern Chinese December, as ice seals the lakes and cold winds numb faces and fingertips, Wang Chuang carries the spirit of autumn close to his heart.

Tucked inside the driver's jacket, it reminds him of warmer times and passes unnoticed by friends and passengers at least until its loud creaks erupt. His nameless friend, two inches long with a pale green abdomen and vicious-looking mandibles, serenades him through long days for a simple supper of carrot. "During the winter it is dry and cold and you cannot hear any birdsong. The sound of bush crickets makes me happier," said Wang, 31.

China has a long history of cherishing insects for their voices and fighting abilities, immortalising crickets and bush crickets in poetry and paintings. After falling out of favour when the Communists came to power in 1949, the pastime re-emerged in the 1990s as people grew wealthier and renewed their interest in Chinese traditions.

"It is such fun it is the sound of nature. Can any musical instrument compare?" said Zhao Boguang, deputy director of the Capital sound-producing insect specialist committee, who sells about 1,000 such pets each year.

"In winter, if you have some flowers and keep a bush cricket singing in your room, how elegant it is!"

Writers celebrated cricket song as early as 500BC, experts say. Later, the wealthy began to keep them in cages.

"As early as the Tang dynasty, in the palaces, the concubines fed those sound-producing insects to kill time when they felt lonely," said Yin Haisheng, director of the Shanghai Entomological Museum, which will soon hold an exhibition on the subject. "Gradually, it became popular among normal people."

Selling crickets has become a lucrative industry for farmers from Shandong, in the north-east, which is said to produce the best. In the summer, you can buy one for 10 yuan (£1), said Wang. But in winter, their scarcity sends the price shooting up. A specimen with a particularly fine song might cost 400 yuan. The most exquisite and melodic can command five times that.

Volume is most important, but tone matters, too. There have even been cricket singing competitions.

Historically, cricket lovers kept their pets in specially moulded gourds or elaborately wrought bamboo or metal cages. Some commissioned elaborate sandalwood cases inlaid with mother of pearl. Wang keeps his pet in a see-through tube with breathing grids at the end, but cricket houses can sell for hundreds of pounds.

Dedicated fanciers can buy special long-handled sponges for bathing the insects and spoons to feed them titbits of vegetables or tofu. Most are middle-aged men who remember playing with the insects as children.

The strongest cricket cultures are found in Beijing, Xi'an and Hangzhou because they were ancient capitals, said Zhao, reflecting the noble origins of the hobby. Other areas near the latter city took it up because of their relative wealth and love of betting, added Yin; gambling is banned but widespread on the mainland. Cricket fighting is an even more addictive pursuit than rearing the insects for their song.

China's notorious 13th-century "cricket minister" was accused of neglecting duties due to his obsession. These days contenders are sorted into weight classes and champions change hands for thousands of pounds. Yin said some owners cross-breed them with other species to produce tougher fighters or resort to doping them.

Even the hardiest do not survive for long. Their feistiness is part of their appeal; but their short lives, and their deaths in the cruel winter frosts, have greater cultural resonance.

"As a symbol of autumn, they have become associated with loneliness, sadness, pity for the fate of mankind and are thus used prolifically in Chinese poems," wrote entomologist Jin Xingbao in an essay.

Wang watched helplessly as his first neared its end: "The body was green, and gradually turned to black. You knew it was going to die. Of course, I felt very bad when it did. "The second one was a sad story: my children took it out from the cage, and played with it."

This one, his third, is doubly cherished as a gift from a friend. Their time together is brief, he acknowledged; normally they die in the new year.

"If you are a good foster father, your bush cricket can live until April," he said hopefully.
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