In defense of the cicada
The east coast of the United States is currently witnessing the rise of Brood X, the largest brood of periodic cicadas in the region. After spending 17 years underground, billions of cicada nymphs have surfaced from their burrows, shed their skin, and traveled through 15 states to mate, lay eggs and die, all within a matter of weeks.
This noisy arthropod orgy has been described by various American media as “split head” And one “infestation”- a real biblical plague. Whether it’s being a deafening nuisance on a walk in the park or disrupting outdoor weddings, swarms of howling cicadas and the carcasses they leave behind threaten to ruin people’s plans for what might. be their first post-pandemic summer.
Their disgust is understandable. Although the emergence of Brood X is a regular occurrence, cicadas do not feature significantly in the American cultural imagination. As with most insects, they are treated as irritable pests and nothing more.
For someone who grew up in southern China, however, cicadas are so ubiquitous that they are hardly noticed. Their mating calls serve as background noise on summer days, and children climb trees to pick up the vibrant creatures for fun.
Cicada-shaped jade accessory from the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC-9 AD). From Xuzhou Museum
Besides being a source of fun, the cicada is one of the most familiar insects in Chinese culture and history. Jade cicada carvings have been found among artefacts from the Neolithic cultures of Liangzhu and Shijiahe, which date back over 4,000 years. Scholars have revered the cicada’s ability to rhythmically reappear in the world after spending seemingly dormant years underground. Their status was not that different from the mythical importance of scarabs in ancient Egypt, and the ancient Chinese attributed supernatural powers like resurrection and regeneration to cicadas.
For this reason, cicadas have played an important role in the funeral rituals of Chinese elites for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks placed coins in the mouths of their dead to help them pay the ferryman Charon to take them across the river to the underworld. Rather, the Chinese used jade cicadas, not to pay a toll, but because they believed that the cicadas would guide the dead in their process of rebirth to the world of the living.
As Chinese philosophy developed, the symbolism of the cicada evolved from purely physical to moral. Various aspects of their life cycle have been noted as embodiments of gentleman virtue. Sima Qian, one of the foremost historians of ancient China, used the cicada as a metaphor for poet Qu Yuan’s incorruptibility: to be defiled by the world. They are truly beings who can wallow in the mud and not be defiled. “Their diet, which consists only of tree sap, was taken by the 4th century historian Xu Guang as a sign that they do not participate in the tainted substances of the world:” The cicada takes what is pure. and righteous, for they neither drink dew nor consume anything else.
But perhaps the greatest use of the cicada as a metaphor for ideal moral conduct comes from fourth-century scholar Lu Yun: “The pattern on the head of the cicada signifies its scholarship; its regimen of air and dew signifies its purity; his refusal to consume the crops signifies his incorruptibility; its lack of nests signifies its frugality; its punctual reappearance signifies its reliability. We must certainly crown him and earn his blessings! “
Poets like Cao Zhi and Yu Shinan too drew the links between the cicadas and Confucian righteousness, but the popularity of the cicadas was not confined to elite circles. They appear in popular idioms and proverbs such as “(escape) like a cicada shedding its golden shell” or “be as silent as a cicada in winter”. And although not commonly eaten, cicadas are still considered a delicacy by many in China today. Only, compared to the ornamental cicadas used as jade tokens in the mouths of the dead, the mouths of the living prefer their sautéed nymphs. Cicada pods are even used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of conditions ranging from sore throat to tetanus.
More recently, the cicada has been the subject of public policy debates, with people either call to cut it down or to keep it. Due to the way cicadas damage the trees they feed on, in 2018, authorities in the eastern city of Hangzhou called on the public to hunt and eat them to reduce their numbers. Last year, complaints about noisy summer cicadas in urban areas of southwest Sichuan Province led Xinhua state media to publish an passionate defense of the insect. The article reminded readers of the importance of the cicada in traditional Chinese culture and made several ecological arguments for its appreciation.
Ignorance of the cicadas may have spawned some Americans’ contempt for the Brood X push, but while some modern Chinese have lost their mythical sense and respect for the insect, it is never far from the imagination. culture of China. Whether as a viaticum, aphorism, food or medicine, the cicada is and will forever remain on the tip of the tongues of the Chinese.
Editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait painter: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: detail of a 19th century painting showing a cicada on a willow. Heritage images / Visual of people)