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 one says –

“Men shen lai
Kua ch’ien erh”


“Gate gods have arrived, and money to hang up!”

He sells pictures of the two gate gods which are pasted one on either side of the outer gates to Chinese compounds and also the doors to buildings inside the main gates. In addition, he sells “kua ch’ien erh” which are paper hangings cut in filigree desihns and hung from the tops of doors of the stores and small houses.

The gate gods used on the majority of outer gates are Ch’in Ch’iung and Ching Tei (actual character Te). These are two famous warriors of the the T’ang Dynasty. The story is that T’ang Ming Huang, one of the famous emperors of the T’ang Dynasty, had two dreams in which he visited the moon and also the 18 Buddhist Hells. At the latter place he saw the two officers Ch’in Ch’iung and Ching Tei guarding one of the gates. He asked them what they were doing and they said they were to prevent the very bad spirits from entering. When the emperor awoke he gave instructions to have pictures of these two officials pasted on the gates. The meaning of this custom is of course to keep evil from entering the compound.

On of the gates of the Princes and Dukes of the Manchu regume (Fu) the gate gods are two pictures of Chung K’uei, a scholar of the Han Dynasty who lived in Chung Nan Shan in Shensi. One night while T’ang Ming Huang, the famous T’ang Dynasty emperor, was sleeping he dreamed of seeing Chung K’uei and asking his name. When the emperor awoke he ordered a well known artist called Wu Tao-Tzu to paint Chung K’uei’s picture. From this time on gates of “Fu” had a picture of Chung K’uei pasted on each part of the divided doors. The figure on the right side was dressed in a red robe and the one on the left in a blue robe.

It is interesting to note here that the red robe (hung p’ao) was the color worn by a “chuang yuan” or scholar of the first grade. Blue was worn by scholars of the second grade or “chin shih” and also by those of the second grade or “chu jen”.

Other pictures which are used to paste on the doors of rooms inside the gates are of “T’ien Kuan”, the deity supposed to look after all the literary officials.

The “Kua ch’ien erh” (hanging money) are oblong sheets of very thin red or green paper cut into filigree designs which are hung from the door sills of stores and small residences. Either one of these or five are used depending on the space available. The origin of this “Kua ch’ien erh” must have come from the old feeling that like attracts like and to hang paper money over the door would bring in more money.


This man calls –

“Shih liu hua erh lai, chien yang erh t’iao”.
“Pomegranate blossoms have arrived, choose your own kind!”

This peddler, most frequently an elderly woman, carries one or more paper boxes of artificial pomegranate blossoms on her back. These flowers are made of paper or silk and sold in single blossoms with two green leaves fastened to a metal pin. The paper ones usually have an iron pin, the silk ones a brass pin. At New Year’s time every woman and girl puts one of these pomegranate blossoms in their hair, and also places five of them, one on each of the top five bread dumplings which are placed on the family altar at New Year’s time. These dumplings are placed on five plates, each having five dumplings, which are placed in a pyramid. The five dumplings of the top plate have the five pomegranate blossoms stuck in them.

The pomegranate blossom peddler also sells sets of small pictures used in the altars at New Year’s time. Each set consists of five colored pictures of the Eight Immortals, or similar subjects with a pin for attaching the picture to fruit or other food on the altar. These pictures are called “kung hua” or picture used for worship.

The use of five blossoms, five pictures, etc. in altar articles and in fact the common use of the numeral five in all things Chinese has its origin in the five elements &ndash “chin, mu shui, huo, t’u” or metal, wood, water, fire and earth and the “wu hsing” – or five planets:

Chin (metal) Venus.
Mu (wood) Mercury.
Shui (water) Mars.
Huo (fire) Jupiter.
Y’u (earth) Saturn.


The pudding man calls –

“Chiang mi ti je ninen kao”
“Hot glutinous rice pudding”.

This man pushes a small cart on which is a stove, iron bowl for cooking, and other necessities. The pudding is made elsewhere in the form of dumplings or cut into squares. It is then placed in a wooden basket having several tiers (lung t’i). This basket is placed over the iron bowl in which there is water and the steam keeps the pudding hot. The wood used for this basket and for practically all of the wooden containers of the peddlers is willow (liu shu).


This man calls –

“Shu teng chih wan erh lai yo”
“Numerous lamp bowls have come!”

This peddler sells small bowls made of clay, baked and painted yellow. These are about an inch and a half in diameter and have a small depression in the bottom. In this depression is placed a small wick made from “teng hua erh chih”, a kind of yellow paper. This wick is dipped in sesame oil (hsiang yu), placed in the bowl and lighted when incense is burned on the family altar.

The word “shu” is used because a number of these bowls are always purchased, generally 48 or 108 – these figures taken from the number of important stars in the heavens (2 x 48 + 12, one for each month). The “lamp bowls” are placed on a table or whatever is used as an altar. They are just behind the altar vessels or “wu kung”. These vessels are – (1) incense burner in the center; (2) one candlestick on either side; (3) one flower vase on either side of the candlesticks. Anyone particularly interested in the use of these small lights and their connection with the stars may look up “shun hsing”.

The peddler carries a “t’iao tzu” with two large shallow baskets in which are piled the small bowls. These are sold the first eight days of the New Year and used on the eight nights as noted above.

The first day is given to worshipping Yu Huang, the God of the Heavens, and all the lesser deities (“ch’uan fo”). The second day, Ts’ai Shen Yeh (the God of Wealth) is worshipped. The third day or perhaps the fourth, fifth, sixth or seventh are used to worship one or more of the deities according to whichever ones are popular in that particular section of the country.

From the 1st until the 15th of the New Year the worship of the ancestors and the various members of the Buddhist pantheon is customary.


This peddler calls out –

“Chih ma chirh erh lai,
Sung mu chih”.
“Sesame stalks have come and also pine branches”.

These peddlers are seen and heard only around Chinese New Year. They sell the stalks of the sesame plant (sesamum indicum) and pine or fir tree branches. These articles are carried by a “t’iao tzu” as are the wares of so many street peddlers.

The sesame stalks are about five feet in length and fifteen or twenty are done up in a bundle which is about six inches in diameter. Each household buys four or five bunches, and scatters the stalks about the compound or yard on the evening of the last day of the year. This is called “t’sai sui”.

In olden times the compound gates were never closed on New Year’s Eve. With the stalks scattered in the yard it was always possible for the people merry making inside the houses to tell when callers entered the compound due to the crackling of the sesame stalks under the guests’ feet.

The pine or fir branches are used an ornament and also a small amount is burned to give the rooms a pleasant odor.


The kinfe sharpeners call –

“Mo chien tzu lieh ao
Ch’iang t’i t’ou tao tzu”.

In addition to having a call these men are divided into two classes, one blowing a long horn and the other clanking several flat pieces of metal together. The latter is the more ancient sign of the knife sharpener.

The long horn is about four feet long and made in three sections which slide one inside the other. It is supposed to have come from “Kuei Tzu Kuo”, a small country near Tibet. Just how it came to be used by the knife sharpeners is not clear but they have blown it for many years. They usually blow three blasts changing the note in the middle of each.

About 1895 this type of horn was adopted by the Manchu Banner troops in place of the conch shell horn which they used as a bugle. After the Boxer trouble, however, Yuan Shih-k’ai started to organize his troops along foreign lines and discarded these long brass horns for the more up to date bugle.

The pieces of metal which the majority of the knife sharpeners use instead of a horn are called “ching kuei yeh” or “leaves used to startle the women’s rooms”. These flat pieces of iron – generally four in number – are about four to five inches and about two or three inches wide. In the top end which is slightly narrower than the bottom are two holes by which each slab is slung slightly lower than the other. The series is fastened to a piece of wood which serves as a handle. The knife sharpener walks along with this in his hand and clanks the flat pieces of iron together.

The “ching kuei yeh” is spoken of in Ming Dynasty books. The idea of “startling the women’s rooms” was to remind the women that they should sharpen their scissors and get to work on their sewing.

There are many theories as to the origin of the “ching kuei yeh”. Some say that they may have been old mirrors as the knife sharpener polished the metal mirrors in olden days and perhaps sold new or traded broken mirrors as well.

Another version is that the metal slabs came from “t’ieh pan” – an ancient musical instrument. In this however the iron plates were strung parallel and not offset as are the ones used by the knife sharpener.

Some people say that the iron slabs are very much like the shape of a very ancient knife used in prehistoric times. This is supposed to have had a round blade like the knife used by makers of “lung t’i”. This “lung t’i” is a sieve like arrangement made of a circular willow strip about four inches wide. Across the bottom of this are fastened bamboo slats. The Chinese use the “lung t’i” to steam bread and for many other things in the kitchen.

The Chinese say the most likely story is that the “ching kuei yeh” were old iron plates from the armor used in ancient times. The knife sharpeners of olden days sharpened swords, axes and other weapons, and cleaned the rust off the armor plates. They of course also repaired broken armor and replaced worn out pieces. The work of keeping the iron plates sewed to the cloth underneath – which was silk or similar strong material – was in the hands of the women of the household. Hence it seems most likely that the sound of the clanking armor plates would “startle the women’s room” and remind them that their lord and master’s armor must be cleaned, repaired and put in condition for use at any time.