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.


The kinfe sharpeners call –

“Mo chien tzu lieh ao
Ch’iang t’i t’ou tao tzu”.

In addition to having a call these men are divided into two classes, one blowing a long horn and the other clanking several flat pieces of metal together. The latter is the more ancient sign of the knife sharpener.

The long horn is about four feet long and made in three sections which slide one inside the other. It is supposed to have come from “Kuei Tzu Kuo”, a small country near Tibet. Just how it came to be used by the knife sharpeners is not clear but they have blown it for many years. They usually blow three blasts changing the note in the middle of each.

About 1895 this type of horn was adopted by the Manchu Banner troops in place of the conch shell horn which they used as a bugle. After the Boxer trouble, however, Yuan Shih-k’ai started to organize his troops along foreign lines and discarded these long brass horns for the more up to date bugle.

The pieces of metal which the majority of the knife sharpeners use instead of a horn are called “ching kuei yeh” or “leaves used to startle the women’s rooms”. These flat pieces of iron – generally four in number – are about four to five inches and about two or three inches wide. In the top end which is slightly narrower than the bottom are two holes by which each slab is slung slightly lower than the other. The series is fastened to a piece of wood which serves as a handle. The knife sharpener walks along with this in his hand and clanks the flat pieces of iron together.

The “ching kuei yeh” is spoken of in Ming Dynasty books. The idea of “startling the women’s rooms” was to remind the women that they should sharpen their scissors and get to work on their sewing.

There are many theories as to the origin of the “ching kuei yeh”. Some say that they may have been old mirrors as the knife sharpener polished the metal mirrors in olden days and perhaps sold new or traded broken mirrors as well.

Another version is that the metal slabs came from “t’ieh pan” – an ancient musical instrument. In this however the iron plates were strung parallel and not offset as are the ones used by the knife sharpener.

Some people say that the iron slabs are very much like the shape of a very ancient knife used in prehistoric times. This is supposed to have had a round blade like the knife used by makers of “lung t’i”. This “lung t’i” is a sieve like arrangement made of a circular willow strip about four inches wide. Across the bottom of this are fastened bamboo slats. The Chinese use the “lung t’i” to steam bread and for many other things in the kitchen.

The Chinese say the most likely story is that the “ching kuei yeh” were old iron plates from the armor used in ancient times. The knife sharpeners of olden days sharpened swords, axes and other weapons, and cleaned the rust off the armor plates. They of course also repaired broken armor and replaced worn out pieces. The work of keeping the iron plates sewed to the cloth underneath – which was silk or similar strong material – was in the hands of the women of the household. Hence it seems most likely that the sound of the clanking armor plates would “startle the women’s room” and remind them that their lord and master’s armor must be cleaned, repaired and put in condition for use at any time.