Street cries of the world

Street cries were once a popular subject of songs and literature in Britain, continental Europe and elsewhere. Each month from 2018 onwards I'll be scanning and transcribing publications to build this collection.



This peddler carries a small drum about six inches in diameter which is fastened to the end of a stick. When the stick is twirled in the fingers the drum is struck by two small knots or other small objects fastened to the sides of the drum with strings. On the top of the drum is fastened a small gong about three inches in diameter. This also has two leather thongs with knots or buttons tied on the ends. The stick is twirled with the right hand, drum and gong pointing downward and both sound at the same time.

On the peddler’s left shoulder is swung a box about two feet wide and three feet high containing his wares which are arranged on small shelves inside. This peddler sells combs, hair oil, tooth brushes, tongue scrapers, face powder, small scissors and thimbles. He also carries a small assortment of needles and thread but the articles first named are his main stock.

The thimbles sold are interesting. They are small circles of brass, more like a broad flat ring with dents in it to catch the head of the needle. Their use would present difficulties to the Occidental seamstress who is used to having a thimble which covers the whole tip of the finger.


This peddler carries a small gong about three inches in diameter fastened by three or four strings inside a metal ring which is on the end of a small stick. The stick is held up in the air about vertically and twisted with the fingers of the right hand.

Formerly these men carried a box with their wares but at the present time practically all have a small push cart on which are placed two wooden boxes. Various kinds of thread are carried – hemp, silk, cotton and embroidery threads. They also have needles of all kinds and sometimes a small assortment of face powder. Buttons will generally be found among the wares.


This peddler is called a Chinese doughnut or cruller peddler for lack of a better translation. The peddlers buy the crullers from the small shops that make them and peddle them from house to house. The “Yu cha kuei” is made of flour with a little soda and alum added. It is a small twisted cake which is fried in sesame oil so the inside becomes hollow.

These peddlers also sell a wheat cake with sesame seed pressed into the top as well as the crullers. Their call is –

“Shao ping, yu cha kuei”, “Wheat cakes and crullers”.

The shops which sell the wheat cakes and crullers to these peddlers have a rime which their cooks often chant. It is given below –

“Yu yu hsiang, mien yu pai,
Jeng ti kuo li, p’iao chi’i lai,
Sai kuo hsiao ch’uan erh ti yu cha kuei”.

Or approximately –

“The oil is fragrant, the flour is white
Throw it in the pot, it floats just right –
It is bigger than a small boat – this cruller!”


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.

There are two types of these fortune tellers who use their eyes as well as their wits. The first kind has no apparatus of any kind. He looks at the customer and asks the following information:

1. Year of birth.
2. Month of birth.
3. Day of birth.
4. Time of birth.

Then using this information based on his knowledge of the “Pa Kua” or “Eight Diagrams” he works out a fortune. Sometimes he refers to a fortune telling book or to a “huang li”, an almanac, for material.

The “Pa Kua” or “Eight Diagrams” are credited to the mythical Emperor Fu Hsi (B.C. 2852–2734) who saw them on the back of a supernatural “dragon horse” which emerged from the waters of the Yellow River. The “Pa Kua” consist of arrangements of divided and undivided lines in different combinations up to sixty-four. It is on the permutations of the sixty-four combinations that the classical “Book of Changes” – the I Ching – was founded. This was prepared by Wen Wang, father of the founder of the Chou Dynasty, B.C. 1300–1400. It is a book of divination, each diagram standing for some active or passive element or force in nature – heaven, earth, fire, water, etc.

The second type of fortune teller using his eyes carries a small bird in a cage. He also tells fortunes like the fortune teller just described but uses the bird as an additional aid. The bird is used in this manner: several piles of cards with Chinese characters written on them are placed near the bird cage. The bird is let out and picks out three or four cards with his beak from those scattered in front of him. The fortune teller uses these characters to aid in preparing a fortune for his customer.

The blind fortune tellers are formed into societies. Some of them live in groups at the headquarters of their organization. There are four types of blind fortune tellers:

1. Ta ku ti – drum beaters.
2. T’an hsien tzu ti – stringed instrument players.
3. Ch’ui ti tzu ti – flute players.
4. Ta tiang tiang erh ti – those who beat a sort of cymbal with a knob in the center. There is no character for the word “tiang” – it sounds like the sound made when the instrument is struck.

These four kinds of fortune tellers tell fortunes and also sing songs for entertainments. They go out singly to tell fortunes and sing songs but can be secured in groups to play and sing for entertainments.

They of course use the “Pa Kua” or “Eight Diagrams”. The knowledge is passed on by word of mouth. This is very complicated as explained above and the fact that these blind men remember such a complicated system shows the remarkable memory of the Chinese.


The flower peddler appears on the streets in the spring and it is in this season that he does the largest business, though he sells flowers on a smaller scale throughout the year. He has no special cry but calls out whatever kind of flowers he has for sale.

This peddler has two large trays on which he places his flowers and plants. Some of these are in small clay pots and others have their roots bound up in lumps of damp clay. In buying flowers one must be exact in telling the peddlers how many are wanted as otherwise they will crowd as many as possible in the customer’s plot of ground in order to sell more plants.


The English translation of the name for these peddlers is again inadequate to describe them and what they sell. These peddlers are seen from the first to the fifth day of the fifth moon – “wu yueu wu”. They come out from the large cake stores with a “t’iao tzu” on one end of which is hung a willow wood box (“yuan lung”) and the other a wooden tray.

They call out “chaing mi ti, chung tzu ai” or “Here are chung tzu made of glutinous rice”.

The “chung tzu” is a doughy article composed of glutinous rice, fruit or dates and a little bacon. A small pyramid shaped lump of glutinous rice is taken a hole made in it. Into the hole is placed a little fruit or dates and the small piece of bacon. The whole is then wrapped in reed leaves (bamboo leaves in South China), tied with string and boiled in a large vessel of water. After being cooked about an hour the bundles are taken out and cooled. Then they are ready for sale.

The “chung tzu”, or “tseng tzu” as it is known in the South, looks like a small four pointed bundle of reed leaves when sold. Of course the leaves are unwrapped and the small pyramid-like mass is eaten.

The origin of the “chung tzu” is connected with Ch’u Yuan, a loyal minister of the Kingdom of Ch’u, now Hunan and Hupeh Provinces. He was a great favourite until displayed by an unworthy rival. After this he wrote a poem called “Li Sao” to warn his ruler. The warning was disregarded and the Prince Ch’u captured in the war ensuing with the Kingdom of Ch’in. Ch’u Yuan lost favor with the next ruler and, clasping a large stone, jumped into the Mi Lo River, B.C. 295.

In after years in memory of this loyal minister the people took to wrapping up food and dropping it into the river in the place where Ch’u Yuan drowned himself. This custom led to the making of the “chung tzu” or food bundle cakes for the Dragon Boat Festival held on the fifth day of the fifth moon to commemorate the death of Ch’u Yuan.


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 cooler weather these peddlers make a specialty of selling “t’ang hu lu erh”. These are sticks of wood on which are stuck pieces of fruit and other articles that have been covered with a thick sugar syrup which has crystalized. At this time of the year the peddler wears heavier clothing and this enables him to carry on his person a “chien t’ung” for gambling. This article is a short piece of hollow bamboo about two inches in diameter and nine inches long over one end of which is stretched a piece of leather or horsehair. Inside are thirty-two small sticks each having a certain number of dots on them in the same manner as do the “ku p’ai”, explained under the heading of the “Jew’s harp peddler”.

The peddler shakes the tube and the sticks jump around. Formerly leather was used on the bottom of the tube and the sound of the sticks brought other customers. Whenever the police make one of their periodic drives against gambling the leather is replaced with a piece of horsehair which serves the same purpose of making the sticks jump up and down but is noiseless.

There are many ways of gambling with this device and one is described below:

The customer places a bet of five double coppers – each piece being worth two coppers. He then announces that he will draw “pan t’ung” – half tube or “man t’ung” – whole tube. Suppose the first method is used then the customer draws three sticks at each draw for four draws and four sticks for one draw. This makes a total of sixteen sticks or “pan t’ung”. After each draw the dots on the end of the sticks are compared and if three pairs appear then the remaining dots are counted. If these total from ten to thirteen and it was agreed that “hsiao tien erh” was to be used, the customer wins. If the dots total fourteen or above and it was previously agreed that “ta tien erh” was to be used, the customer also wins. In each case a win entitles the customer to one “t’ang hu lu (erh)”. The maximum he can win is five “t’ang hu lu” which are worth five double coppers, but of course it is very rare that the customer wins every time. The odds are on the side of the peddler.

This method of gambling for the “t’ang hu lu” has become an established custom and while gambling for other articles the peddler sells is sometimes done, one always thinks of it in connection with the former. The children enjoy this game and learn it at an early age, thus getting an introduction into the art of gambling which is so much a part of Chinese life. All things in China are a matter of chance and this little game with the sticks in a bamboo tube is typical of the entire outlook on life of the Chinese people.