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 barber carries his shop with him on a “t’iao tzu”. To one end of the pole is fastened a stool like seat and to the other a round rack holding a bowl, water container and small charcoal stove. From this rack projects a pole near the top of which is a small square object like a cup. This pole looks like the flag poles seen outside of the “yamen” or official buildings of the Manchus. As a matter of fact it is just that – a miniature “ch’i kan” or flag pole. Thw square cup like object is a model of the “tou” or peck measure used by the Chinese.

The pole and peck measure are called “tiao tou ch’i kan”. This flag pole and peck measure were found on either side of the gates of homes and offices of important officials of the former Manchu regime and were the sign that these officials could speak directly to the Emperor. It was the symbol of executive power. It will be noted that the temples have the flag pole but no “tou”. A “Living Buddha” could have the “tou”, however, as he exercised temporal as well as spiritual power.

The idea of the peck measure came from the “pei tou” or “northern peck measure” which foreigners call the “Dipper”. The Dipper is a symbol of exactness as it moves in a prescribed manner and is much revered by the Chinese. The use of the peck measure therefore is a reminder that the words and actions of the officials could not be wrong.

How the “tiao tou ch’i kan” came to be used by the barber is an interesting story. Prior to and during the Ming Dynasty men wore their hair like the Taoist priest of to-day and did not shave their faces. It is interesting to note that this accounts for the fact that actors in Chinese plays use the old style hair dress and have beards as this was the custom in those days. It was during this period that the Chinese theater flourished and many of the old plays originated. Of course the theater is supposed to have started in the T’ang Dynasty but to have reached its greatest heights in the time of the Ming Emperors.

When the Manchus came through the Great Wall at Shanhaikwan and conquered China, they wished to make the people of China follow their customs. Now the Manchus and mongols had shaved their faces and worn queues for many generations. The first Emperor of the Manchus is supposed to have announced that his method of insuring the prosperity of his country, according to the historical phrase, was to “hsiao p’ing ssu wei, liu shou chung yuan”. This means to conquer the countries on all sides of him and to leave his own standing out in the center.

So one the queue became the symbol of this as the hair on all sides was shaved off leaving only the queue in the center. The hairs of this were braided together as a symbol of a united country.

Hence when the Manchus conquered China they wished all Chinese to wear the queue as a sign that they submitted to Manchu rule and followed Manchu customs.

Many Chinese refused to cut their hair and this added to the troubles of the Manchus. Finally an Imperial Edict was issued requiring the wearing of the queue. All barbers were paid by the government and given a small yamen pole – “tiao tou ch’i kan” to which was fastened the Edict. Thereafter the barbers could go along the street and compel people to kneel before the Imperial Edict and have their head prepared with a queue.

Since barbers were paid by the government they could not charge for their services but were often given a tip. This led to there being no fixed charge for the barbers’ services after they ceased to be paid by the government as the custom of giving tips still prevailed. At present there has grown up a customary scale of charges for barbering for Peiping and the same sort of system is in evidence in other towns.

From about 1910 the small mat sheds “t’i t’ou p’eng” began to be used and these have gradually been replaced by the more modern barber shop or “li fa kuan”. Street barbers still cater to the majority of the Chinese people and to this day have the traditional “tiao tou ch’i kan” on their barber’s kit but without any signs of an Imperial Edict hanging thereon.

The barber has a very characteristic sound which is much like that given by a tuning fork. This made by an instrument called a “huan t’ou” which is an iron fork like article having two prongs which barely touch. This is held by a short rod base in the left hand using the third and fourth finger. The first and second finger and thumb are used to make a cup to help amplify the sound made when a small iron rod is drawn quickly between the prongs of the fork. These vibrate together and give off a ringing sound which carries quite a distance and announces that the barber is coming. The name of the instrument “huan t’ou” comes from the fact that it “chiao huan jen lai t’i t’ou”, “calls people to come and have their hair dressed”.

The origin of the “huan t’ou” cannot be traced. Some say it was once a form of knife used by barbers, others say it came from the barbers’ tweezers used to pull hair – certainly it looks more like the latter. However, the Peking Barbers’ Guild does not know its origin and no better authority is available.