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Calls and sounds of the Peking street peddlers

Paintings of street sellers and descriptions of their cries and jingles from Samuel Victor Constant's Calls, Sounds and Merchandise of the Peking Street Peddlers, written in 1936 as a master's thesis at the College of Chinese Studies.

INTRODUCTION

China is a nation of walls within walls. They vary in size from the famous Great Wall of China some fifteen hundred miles in length to the humble mud walls of the country farmer. The first was commenced in about 240 B.C. as a defense against the Tartars and is called as one of the Wonders of the World. The latter are built every day by the country people to protect their small compounds and meager belongings from wandering man or beast.

In between these two extremes we find every sort of wall – city walls, palace walls, yamen walls and walls of the rich and poor. There is no doubt that these walls have profoundly affected China’s history and the psychology of her people. In addition to this they caused the Chinese family to build for itself a small feudal castle, so to speak, into which the family or clan withdraw and closes the gates.

Within the many walls of China have been enacted its greatness and tragedy for centuries. So on a lesser scale the average Chinese family in their small walled compound is a fair cross section and example of the great nation they represent. The compound is their world to a large extent, certainly to the women folks, to whom going outside its confines is quite an event.

So because of the feudal nature of Chinese life the peddler became an institution. The women could not leave their homes to visit the shops or market places except on rare occasions such as temple fairs. In fact all custom and tradition – to say nothing of their bound feet – made it difficult for the Chinese women to leave their own walls in search of the necessities of life. Hence came the peddlers of all kinds who play a most important part in the scheme of Chinese life. Their number is legion – they sell, buy, exchange, mend, entertain and cater to the personal wants of man in almost every conceivable manner.

The fact that people live behind walls has caused these various peddlers each to have a call or sound by which his presence may be announced. It is their only method of advertising. The calls or sounds are as varied as the peddlers themselves, each type having a characteristic method. Each locality has its customs in this regard, some dating back hundreds of years. It is interesting to note that many of the instruments used will be found common to the same type of peddler in various parts of China. The vocal calls, cries or shrieks are more susceptible of change and vary greatly in different sections of the country.

The peddlers have many ways of bringing their audible advertising to the attention of the people who live behind the walls. Some call out their wares in a musical voice or song calculated to please the hearer. Others have a loud or discordant cry which grates on the nerves as though the devil himself had something to sell, while a very few have no sound or call at all, and one wonders how they exist. Perhaps the most interesting are the ones who have instruments of one kind or another which vary from Buddhist temple horns of Tibetan origin to the sound made by striking with a stick the kettle, gourd or other article which the peddler has for sale. But whether vocal or instrumental the peddlers’ advertising is full of audible color and is one of the outstanding features of life in the Peking “hu t’ung” as the small lanes and alleys are called in Chinese.

The subject of this study is “Calls, Sounds and Merchandise of the Peking Street Peddlers”. All the peddlers are not included as their number seems endless but the important and most common are described. They give an insight into the life, habits and psychology of the Chinese people which no other field reaches.

About sixty of these peddlers are presented in the following pages and a description is given of their calls, characteristic sounds and what they have to sell, buy, exchange or what service they offer to their customers that live behind the walls of old Peking. Peking, the former capital of China and the residence of many Emperors, has a charm and tradition all its own. No little part in it is played by the street peddlers who cater to the wants of the seven hundred thousand people who live inside the city walls and again inside the walls of their own compounds.

In describing the street peddlers they have been arranged under the four seasons of the year for convenience. Some of the peddlers sell seasonable articles while some are seen the year round. The former are listened under their proper season and the latter will be found under the season in which they are particularly in evidence.

The Wade system of Romanization has been used and the small figures indicate the tones in the “Mandarin” dialect as spoken in Peking. The “Mandarin” dialect, thus called because it was the one used by the Imperial Court, is for all practical purposes the one now known as “Kuo Yu” or “National Language”. Under this guide it is taught in all the schools under National Government supervision throughout China. There are four tones to this dialect which may be described as follows:–

1st tone: This is a high, even tone, higher than a foreigner is accustomed to use. It is short and cut off without a change in pitch. It is something like the sound used in a foreign exclamation.

2nd tone: This is a tone which starts a little lower than the 1st tone and rises before being cut off. It is something like the sound used when a foreigner asks a question. It is a short tone.

3rd tone: This tone starts lower than either of the first two described, drops slightly and then rises again. It is held longer than any of the four tones, and sounds something like the tone used by foreigners to express surprise.

4th tone: This tone starts about the level of the third tone and drops, sounding something like the tone used by foreigners to end a sentence. It is not as long as the third tone but held longer than the first or second.

This information about the street peddlers was originally prepared as partial requirement for the degree of Master of Arts at the College of Chinese Studies in Peking and is published with the permission of the authorities of that institution. The author’s thanks are particularly due to Dr. W. B. Pettus, President of the College, for his assistance and guidance in the matter of language study, and to the author’s friend and teacher, Mr. Chin Yueh-p’o.

Samuel Victor Constant