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.


This peddler has any number of calls and is heard in the cold weather. He calls in a very high voice and generally says –

“Sai li (lei), la la huan”
“Compare with pears, if bitter I will exchange”,
“Lo po, sai li, la la huan”
“Turnips comparable with pears, if bitter I will exchange”.

In the first call the sound shown as (lei) has no meaning. In the second call the words “lo po” meaning turnip mist be explained. The characters for this actually read “lo fu” but are always spoken as “lo po”.

These peddlers either carry a basket or a “t’siao tzu”. The basket carrier is seen and heard at night. He also carries a lantern. His basket is oblong in shape and made from “ching t’iao” or thorn bushes. This makes a very strong basket such as used to carry coal and other heavy articles. In this basket he puts his turnips and radishes, covering them with a thick cloth. The Chinese radishes grow very large like turnips in size.

The peddler with the “t’iao tzu” carries a round wooden tray slung from one end of the pole and a “ching t’iao k’uang” or thorn bush basket on the other. He keeps most of his wares in the basket, only taking out a few to put on the tray. This peddler considers himself considerably above his brother who carries the basket. He does most of his business in the day time but at New Year’s time he is seen out after dark also because he is especially clever at cutting the turnips and radishes into flower designs.

The common design is to cut the turnip or radish like a lotus flower. The peddler places the turnip in his hand with the top (where leaves sprout) down. He then cuts off the point and rotates the turnip in his hand at the same time slicing the skin almost off. He next cuts the inside with parallel slices one way and then the other. The parts of the turnip open out to look quite like a flower.

Naturally some peddlers are more expert than others and the ones having a “t’iao tzu” are supposed to be the most skillful of all. Some of them have a very special ability to cut a turnip or radish into a “lo po teng” or turnip lantern. This is done by hollowing out the turnip until there is only a thin shell left. Then designs are made by carefully cutting off the skin in the desired pattern. When a light is placed inside it will of course shine through the white shell of the turnip where the skin has been removed.

The Chinese believe that the turnip has the ability to absorb poisons. It is popular in the winter because it seems to cure persons from the effects of coal gas. The Chinese coal balls made from coal dust and clay give off a lot of carbon monoxide. In small quantities this is very unpleasant and in large quantities often fatal. The turnip is supposed to cure headache and other ill effects of the coal gas.