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.


There are two classes of wandering street fortune tellers – those who have their eyesight and those who are blind. The latter are much more numerous. Neither of these types should be confused with the fortune teller who has a booth in a bazaar or along the street. The type under discussion goes from house to house and along the hutungs like any other street peddler, but sells fortunes instead of goods or entertainment.

Fortune tellers who have their eyesight announce their presence by striking a bamboo bar with a small bamboo stick. The bar is about two inches wide, six inches long and half an inch thick. It is held loosely between the thumb and fingers of the left hand and struck on the top and twice with the small stick held in the right hand. As the bar is struck it slips down through the left hand and must be pushed up again by use of the right hand after each two taps.

The sound made by the striking of the sticks is surprisingly clear and can be heard for some distance. These sticks are known as “pao chun chih” which means “to announce you”. The use of the sticks by this type of fortune teller has caused these men to be known in the Peking colloquial as “ta pan erh ti hsien sheng” or “stick beaters”. These sticks are a very ancient instrument and date from the time of Confucius, about five hundred B.C. in the days of the “Ch’in ch’iu Chan kuo”.

Fortune telling in China must have had its origin many years ago. The particular type of travelling street fortune teller who has his eyes cannot be tied to any date but the first known record of looking at a person and telling his fortune is credited to a man called Kuei Ku Tzu who lived in a place called Kuei Ku in Wu Kuo (State of Wu) which is now Kiangsu Province.

This man had two pupils, P’ang Chuan and Sun Pin. When they went forth to seek their fortunes he forecast that one would reach prominence but have unfortunate ending while the other would be equally famous but lose some part of his body. In some way the two friends were to be the cause of each other’s misfortunes.

In later years the two friends prospered and P’ang Chuan became a great official in Ch’in Kuo (now Shansi Province). Sun Pin lost his feet due to the jealousy of P’ang Chuan and so offered his services to the enemy country of Ch’i Kuo (or what is now parts of Shantung, Honan and Anhwei). His strategy was successful and caused the downfall of Ch’in Kuo and the death of P’ang Chuan. Thus the prophecy or fortune told be Kuei Ku was fulfilled and his reputation as a fortune teller went down in history.