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 man says –

“Kuo tru kan erh lai, mei kuei tsao erh ai.”
“Fruit paste and stuffed dates have arrived.”

He may push a small cart or “t’saio” two containers. He not only calls out as above but also makes his characteristic noise with two small brass bowls, one inside the other. These he holds in one hand and allows one to fall into the other making a ringing sound.

In the cool weather he sells –

(1) “Mei kuei tsao erh” – a date stuffed with a paste made of dried rose petals and sugar.

(2) “Shan li hung t’ang” – a cold drink made from the “hung kuo erh”, a small red fruit – something like a crab apple.

(3) “T’ang hu lu erh” – these are sticks on which are grapes, pieces of apple or sweet and white potato, almond, and walnuts – all covered with a thick crystalized sugar syrup.

(4) “Kan kuo tzu” – all kinds of seeds and nuts.

(5) “Mi chien kuo tzu” – all kinds of dried fruit preserved in sugar.

In the warmer weather he sells the following:

(1) “Kuo tzu erh kan erh” – which is a fruit paste made from dried persimmon (shih ping erh), almond shells (hsing kan erh) and lotus root (ao).

(2) “Suan mei t’ang” – a cool drink made from a sort of sour prune (suan mei) which has been sweetened with a lot of sugar and to which has been added the flowers of the cinnamon tree. This made up with boiling water and then cooled by having the vessel surrounded by ice.

(3) “Kan kuo tzu” – all kinds of seeds and nuts.

(4) “Mi chien kuo tzu” – all kinds of dried fruit preserved in sugar.

As noted above this peddler may “t’iao” or push a small cart. In the first instance he is called “Kuo tzu kan erh t’iao tzu”; in the second a “t’ang hu lu erh ch’e tzu”. They sell the same articles, have the same call and use the two small brass bowls called “ping chan erh” or “ice bowls”, so called because their sound when hit together resembles breaking ice and calls attention to the fact that the peddler sells cold drinks.

The use of the two small bowls to give the characteristic sound of this peddler dates back to the time of Chu Hung-wu, the first Emperor of the Ming Dynasty. His soldiers ate from iron bowls and when on the march the advance rationing parties would set up their kitchens and clink the bowls to let the soldiers know where to get food and a cool drink. From this time on the clinking of the bowls has been the sign of a cold drink.

Some of these peddlers have stalls on the street. Here can be seen a small brass half moon fastened to their box or container holding the “suan mei t’ang”. The legend connected with this is that Chu Hung-wu, prior to his being emperor, was a Buddhist priest. All priests formerly carried a “Yueh Ya Ch’an” or a “half moon shovel”. This implement has a knife edge like a half moon, to the middle of which is fastened a stick about five feet long. This could be used as a weapon of defense, to carry articles on – “t’iao tzu” – and was very handy for the country priests in olden days as a walking stick or cane.

Because Chu Hung-wu gave his soldiers “suan mei t’ang” and other cool drinks and by reason of his formerly being a priest, the legends have so connected the use of the half moon with the seller of “suan mei t’ang”.

Another legend connects the use of the half moon symbol with Yao Wang, the deity of medicine. Before being deified Yao Wang’s name was Ssu T’u Kung and he lived in the south of China. He was very learned in medical matters. One year the cholera epidemic was very serious and Ssu T’u (one of the unusual surnames which have two characters) thought of using “suan mei t’ang” to cure it. In making this drink he used the dew which fell at night when the moon was out. This was said to be “yueh kung ch’u shui” – the water obtained from the “yueh kung” or Hall of the Moon.

He was very successful in curing cholera and after his death temples were erected in his memory and he was deified as Yao Wang – the God of Medicine. From this legend comes another version of why the half moon symbol is used by sellers of “suan mei t’ang”.

The common belief that the half moon shows the vendor to be a Hui Hui – Mohammedan – and hence to have clean wares is believed to have no foundation whatever.