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.


These men are called “impure silver buyers” in Chinese but “used” rather than “impure” conveys more to the foreign mind in trying to find a title for them. They buy where most peddlers sell but they obviously belong in the same category and play such an important part in Chinese life that they have been included.

Years ago they started out just to buy women’s silver or plated hair ornaments, rings, bracelets, etc. which might have been slightly broken, out of style or in need of rewashing with silver or gold. These bought, and still are, at twenty per cent off from the original value by weight.

As time went on these men gradually came to buy any sort of article, broken or worn out and also those in good condition. Now they will buy anything from rings to camphor wood chests, and even curios of all kinds.

There are two kinds of these “peddlers”, both being more often called “ta ku erh ti” – “small drum beaters” than by their real name given in the title. The first type hits a small drum about four inches in diameter. These men have no distinguishing call. They “t’iao” two bamboo baskets and will buy worn out and broken articles of all descriptions (except the broken bottles, rags, etc. desired by the match peddlers).

The second type hits a smaller drum – only about two inches in diameter which has but one covered head. This is held between the thumb and forefinger of the left hand and struck with a small reed stick held in the right hand.

Some of these men have a “t’iao tzu”, others carry a blue cloth bag in which they carry their scales for weighing silver articles. They call out –

“Ch’ao yin tzu, shou shih lai mai”
or approximately
“Come and sell your used silver and hair ornaments”.

This latter type does business on a much larger scale than the former and will buy not only the better class of broken articles but also those in good condition – books, chests, chairs, tables, metal articles, china, silverware and curios of all kinds. These men act as agents for the various curio stores when an article is worth more than ten or fifteen dollars and in that case get a commission on the transaction.