Street peddlers were a common feature of city life in China well into the twentieth century. The presence of these small-scale, often single-good merchants can be traced back to earlier centuries. That they survived until after W.W. II reflects in part the state of economic development in China where recent immigrants were prepared to take up the meanest or lowest-paid jobs to make a living. Peddlers were not necessarily the worst off in terms of occupation, although they certainly belonged to the lower rungs of urban society. Yet, their resilience is also a testimony to their intrinsic usefulness and the demand for their services. In the late Qing, they certainly met the need of women who could hardly walk far away from their home. Male immigrants with crowded living quarters could rely on peddlers for their daily food. More generally, all residents could avoid the trouble of going out to shop for such goods and carry them back home. Quite obviously, there was a market niche for peddlers in the city.
In Peking, thousands of peddlers roamed the streets and more particularly the hutong where most of the population lived. They offered their goods or services to the residents, day and night, ceaselessly. In order to attract customers and make them come out of their walled houses and courtyards, they made vocal sounds, sometimes in elaborate form, or more interestingly they used musical instruments. This was their way of announcing their presence and advertising the good(s) or service(s) on offer. As they each used a distinctive “call” or instrument, residents would immediately know what goods or services were available at their doorstep. Moreover, such calls and music would also change through the year. While some goods were peddled all year through, some were seasonal. Sounds and calls changed with the goods and time of the year. These vocal or instrumental calls by peddlers formed an essential part of the typical sounds of the city, especially in the quiet residential neighborhoods. They came to be part of Peking’s street theater, of a folklore recorded with nostalgia by some Chinese literati.
Peddlers are a very illusive category. Despite their number and prominence, they hardly left any trace. In the first part of the paper, I shall examine who they were, how they operated and what they represented in Peking’s urban society. From this sketchy social portrait, I shall move into a study of how the peddlers were represented in various sets of pictorial records. Finally, I shall demonstrate that peddlers were an integral part of street theater. This is not just a metaphor. Through their calls, songs, and music, peddlers created a constant flow of live entertainment in the street.
1. Peddlers: a sketchy social portrait
There is little information on the social background of peddlers or on their origin. Because their work required constantly patrolling the streets, they could not live far away from Peking. But even if they came from the neighboring villages, it was probably necessary to find temporary accommodation in the city proper. So far archives have proved silent on this issue, but one can glean some data from the newspapers as they published news about incidents or crimes related to peddlers. Fortunately, it was the standard practice by local newspapers in that time to give private details such as the address, native place and age of the individual involved. This is a meager staple, but it helps finding out who these peddlers were. Since the information is very scattered and itemized, I shall process it later to see what kind of incidents happened to them, what attracted the attention of the media, what transpired about their background. In the following section, I shall provide a preliminary outline of this population.
There were in fact two kinds of street peddlers: tanfan 攤販 (stand peddler) and chuan hutong xiaofan 串胡同小販(itinerant peddler). The first type designated those who actually had a fixed stand. They stayed in one place, where their goods were displayed. They probably usually occupied the same spot unless they were displaced by force (road work, police regulation, etc.). These peddlers did not really move all day long around the city. Most of them peddlers were to be found in certain streets or markets. The other type – the one I examine in this paper – were those who were on the move all day long or at certain hours, along regular paths. They were to be found in the hutong. The most common term was xiaofan, but many other names were used: fufan 负贩 (burden peddler), xingshang 行商 (itinerant merchant), xiajie xiaofan 下街小贩 (street peddlers), youfan 游販 (roaming peddler). All these expressions rendered quite well the nature and specificity of these ‘itinerant merchants’.
Peddlers catered for every conceivable want and desire. Almost everything that a Chinese household needed could be brought to its door, even cool drinks in the summer and hot soup in winter. Peddlers probably made a thin margin, or because they escaped taxation, they sold at prices that were often lower than those of shops. In the case of peddlers offering house services – repairing furniture, kitchenware, clothing, etc. – or body service – shaving, nail cutting, even massage – it saved residents from the trouble of carrying their broken item to the shop and enabled them the comfort of ‘body maintenance’ in their courtyard. Clearly, as a Western observer noted, “if it were not for these itinerant merchants, the residents in the hutong would have to make frequent journeys to the shops and markets, which are often a considerable distance away from their homes. Peddlers made the life of Peking residents much easier.
Peddlers were the caterers of those who could not afford to have servants at home to prepare their meals (although servants could also be sent to buy something extra), or who did not have space for cooking. In the early morning, peddlers sold breakfast everywhere. One could just easily stop by on the way to work or to school to fill one’s stomach. Photographs also show that most of the buyers were women and children. There were men too, but because women stayed at home and took care of the household while their husbands worked, because children, especially the younger ones, played in the hutong, they were the obvious targets of the peddlers. This was especially true of those who provided entertainment like trained monkeys or mice man. Those in old or young age or women did not go much out, at least until after May 4th, could find simple forms of entertainment delivered in front of their home. By the time of the spring festival, these street artists-peddlers would be called home to play for families, notably women who still spent most of their time secluded in the house.
Peddlers were ordinary people and, for some, poor people too. What is missing – and for good reasons since it is hard to come up with the relevant materials – is a concrete sense of the peddlers’ origin, life and work. In most of the Chinese sources I have used, newspapers or city guides, they are called pingmin 平民 a term that refers mostly not just to “ordinary people” but plainly to poor people. In the 1920s or 1930s, when rice became too expensive, the local governments would dispense pingjiami (low-price rice). Among the urban renewal projects implemented by the nationalist authorities, there were plans for pingmin zhusuo (low-cost housing). It does not mean they were bound to remain in that condition throughout their life. Peddling goods could be the beginning of an upward social mobility for a peasant if one could accumulate enough capital to make incremental steps toward a stall or a shop. Of course, we do not have any data on their individual or collective destiny. It is probably safe to assume that few became millionaires, but there is no reason to consider that they had no agency. In fact, even if a Western observer passed a harsh judgment on them: “I have talked with many of these people and been impressed by their dullness and narrow outlook. Making the same rounds year in and year out…”, there was no such description in Chinese language documents.
Peddlers had to work long hours to make a living. They did not need much capital to start a business, but the return was limited. In the 1920s, for fried bean curd (zha doufu), “the amount of capital needed per day was about $2, and the poor fellows have to walk the streets until 4 o’clock in the morning for a profit of 30 cents”. On the other hand, in a city guide, the author wrote that thread and yarn peddlers as well as those who sold women’s utensils, toothbrush, makeup, etc. earned three or four yuan per day and they were not worried about their daily life. On good market days, the peddlers selling sweet potatoes, bitter pear (suanli 酸梨) could fare better than an office employee. Work usually started at home where the food was prepared. Peddlers selling almond tea (xinrencha) cooked the ingredients (ground rice and sugar) in the afternoon and kept it warm on charcoal fire during the night. By 4 o’clock in the morning, the peddlers got up to boil the tea and place it in pots they took along with their travelling stove. They distributed their merchandise until around 10 o’clock, having made a profit of about 50 cents. To peddle their goods and services, they had, day by day, to make long and wearisome marches, exposed to all kinds of discomforts and ill protected against the vagaries of the weather. In February 1936, the city endured six days of snow fall. The residents cleaned their yards by removing the snow to the streets and alleys. The frozen stacks of snow made it very difficult for the peddlers to walk in the hutong. The peddlers complained. The following winter, there were also big snow falls that stopped the peddlers’ business. Aside from nature, peddlers were also the victims of modern traffic. In 1930, a water melon peddler was hit by a car in a street close to Heping men and had his left leg broken. Six days later, another sixteen-year old water melon peddler also had his leg broken by a car.
Most of the time peddlers were represented as one single person in the visual materials, probably because of what they were, all micro individual business. It can also be argued that the producers of these images were interested in and concentrated on the “figure” of the street peddler and therefore left aside possible companions of helpers. Reality, as we shall see, was more complex. As with other crafts, peddlers selling one type of food or good might come from the same area. For instance, Shandong steamed bread was a famous delicacy in Peking and all peddlers hailed from that province. Since they had to live in the city, they shared rooms, prepared the steamed bread and split into two groups, one serving in daytime and the other serving at night. The same type of division of labor existed among the lao doufu makers. They were divided in two groups, one to peddle their products in the hutong, the other to sell it on stands. They made their doufu in the morning and sold it in the afternoon. Some peddlers were urban residents and some were peasants from the nearby countryside who found an occupation selling candies in the streets during the winter.
The street barbers were almost all from Baozhi. They usually did not take their family with them. They came to Peking and brought together money to rent rooms in a temple or poor peasants’ dwellings. They shared rooms and food. This was called “guohuo 鍋伙”(pot mate). The tanghulu peddlers came from two districts in Hebei. The blown sugar candy peddlers (chuitangren 吹糖人) were all from Shandong province while most of the meat dumplings peddlers were from Zhuzhou. Those who sold sand cooking-pots (shaguo) had to get them from Qitang in the mountains west of Peking or from Mentougou in the suburb. They transported their merchandise on their shoulders to the city and marketed them in the hutong. Since these were heavy items, they probably brought a certain quantity to last them a few days or more. Peddlers could be involved in more than one activity to make up for the seasonality of their goods. We learn that those who sold blown candy figures dispensed their good only in spring, autumn, and winter. In the summer, they specialized in repairing umbrellas in the hutong. These peddlers began their rounds after noon until the end of the day. Like steamed-bread peddlers, they shared one room among three or four men. One peddler told a journalist that there were more than thirty of them in this trade.
It seems that the peddlers who sold cooked food prepared everything by themselves. They purchased the ingredients on the market, cooked at home and went into the hutong to sell them. Some had the primary ingredients with them and prepared the food in situ with the moving kitchen kit they carried along with them. Those who sold fresh products like vegetable or fruits vendors would get their supply from a broker or a market in the city. Some probably came from the neighboring villages from where they departed at daybreak. The press reported that brokers took advantage of peddlers and bullied them knowing that if they protested the peddler would have nothing to sell. In Peking, there were two fruit markets, one outside of Qianmen gate, north of Zhushikou, and the other outside of Desheng Gate. Every morning, all the fruit peddlers in Peking went to the markets or shops to buy fruits that had come on camels from the countryside to the city markets. There were also wholesale markets 要貨市 (yaohuoshi) in Peking. One was outside of Qianmen gate in the Dajiangjia hutong, the other was inside Desheng gate in the Tangfang hutong. These two markets sold toys and candies. In the early morning, the different kinds of peddlers gathered there to buy their goods. As these markets opened for only two or three hours daily, the various peddlers swarmed to the place.
The establishment of modern municipalities had an impact on street peddlers, although the lack of archival sources makes it difficult to actually assess this. A search in the archives failed to bring to light anything about measures of control or regulation of the peddlers. In the press, we learn that taxes were levied on shops or fixed stands in the streets. For instance, the stands selling calendars had to pay a police tax (jingjuan警捐), a welfare tax (shehui gongyi juan社会公益捐), and a 3- to 5-cent stand tax (tandishui 攤底稅). There is no mention of any tax on the itinerant peddlers. On the other hand, the municipality issued rules on the control of hygiene. The introduction of such modern policing in the city created tensions and conflicts. In August 1935, the Shi Bao 實報 (Reality) published a picture showing a peddler pouring all his soup on the ground in front of a policeman. The caption explained that the government controlled the quality of cold drinks for which a permit was required. A policeman of the public health section had caught a peddler selling suanmeitang without permission and had ordered him to destroy it on the spot. The concern for public health also led the municipal government to prohibit certain chestnut vendors the same year. On another occasion, a tanghulu peddler got into a fight with a policeman when the latter tried to take him to the police station. The peddler sold tanghulu with a lottery system to attract customers. The policeman accused him of gambling. Obviously, controlling the vast army of peddlers that walked the hutong could not be an easy task for the local government, if it did try to impose a measure of control. The concern for public health that eventually came to the forefront of municipal concern in the nationalist era, especially about food, may explain, as the image shows, the emergence of conflicts with peddlers.
One should not be surprised to see that some peddlers were involved in disputes and strives with customers or with their own family. A vegetable peddler who had been called in an alley close by the servant of a Japanese household to buy eggplants had an argument on price. As he refused to sell at the low price offered, he received blows from the servant that caused him to bleed. This case was not unusual. Peddlers might also fight with each other. Two vegetable vendors who had an argument about the division of profit hit each other with a kettle in a small tea house. Peddlers were exposed to other dangers as well. A zongzi peddler was robbed by a customer who pretended to have left his money at home to attract him to an isolated spot. Conflicts about money also caused family disputes. A peddler named Wan Diancai made a living with selling stewed chicken, while his wife earned some side money doing sewing. When Wang asked his wife to pay for their room, they went into a violent quarrel that eventually landed them in court. Li Tingrong, a 33-year old peddler had a dispute with his older brother to whom he had lent money. Instead of starting a business, the older brother had gambled away the money. Li chopped his gambling partner to death with a cooking knife. The newspapers also report on cases of suicide of peddlers. Sun Deshan and Wang Yu, two scavengers (dagude 大鼓的), who lived in a courtyard had a dispute about business. One day Sun saw old merchandise which he offered to buy, but did not get because his price was too low. The following day, Wang went to the same place and came back with the merchandise. This angered Sun who out of despair hanged himself and died.
2. Peddlers in the pictorial record
The visual material I used for this research consists of drawings and photographs produced in the republican period. Two of the major collections are made up of hand-painted pictures of peddlers. The actual source of the images is unclear, as we shall see below, but they both offer an imagined visual record of peddlers. The third set of record comprises photographs, the bulk of which was taken by Hedda Morrison in the 1930s-1940s. The fourth set comes from popular newspapers. It comprises both drawing and photographs, but because I had access only to low-quality microfilms, I shall not include the newspaper photographs in the present paper.
The photographic record plays a major role in sharpening our gaze on the peddlers’ condition. Photographs, contrary to paintings, take us into the urban space. They place the peddlers in city streets. These pictures make us more aware of the relationship between the city and the peddlers, between the urban layout and everyday life, between life in the neighborhood and the peddlers’ business. Although we cannot hear them, these photographs are the silent records of the vibrant sounds that animated the streets of Republican Peking. In Morrison’s images, peddlers no longer appear in the aestheticized representation of Constant’s or Qi Rushan’s drawings. They offer a plain view of their allure. If we look closely, we can observe that their clothes are not in a shabby state. They may be plain and worn out, but they are far different and way above the beggars Morrison also recorded with her camera. It can also be said that they offer a better appearance than the coolies or manual workers portrayed in the same period. Probably, their appearance was somehow important vis-à-vis customers who might turn away from peddlers looking too miserable. On photographs, they have a pleasant expression, perhaps because they were in front of the camera, but quite clearly they were not beggars or poor sods eking a living in the street.
The two pictorial books on peddlers were published at around the same time in the mid-1930s. In fact, they are probably the only two such records on peddlers, except for short series of images and notices in Peking’s popular newspapers. I do not have elements about this sudden interest in peddlers, a category that could not rank very high in elites’ concern and more generally in the public. It may be part, as is obvious in one of the two books, of a ‘nostalgic turn’ among literati and intellectuals in Peking. One can find in the press and in various publications this sense that something had been or was about to be lost in Peking’s culture, and that it was time to make a record of it before it became history. The popular press, in particular, ran several series of illustrated short papers on different aspect of the former capital’s distinctive features.
The first collection of images on peddlers was published by Victor Samuel Constant. He prepared this work for an M.A. degree at the California College in China and published it in 1935 under the title Calls, sounds and merchandise of the Peking street peddlers. The author states that his work includes the most important and most common peddlers who went around Peking streets. Sixty-five peddlers are presented in the book (4 in photographs), with a description of their calls, characteristic sounds and what they have to sell or offer as service. Yet it is obvious from the pictorial representation of the peddlers that the source of the images cannot be from the Republican period. Some peddlers are represented with a queue [pigtail], some are not really clear but their hairstyle point to the pre-1911 period, and many are painted with their full hair. In other words, we cannot be certain that Constant painted them himself, nor can we know whether he drew on earlier publications to represent peddlers.
I have not found much on Constant and the California College in China. The College was first established in 1910 in Peking as the North China Union Language School, a school for English-speaking missionaries, businessmen, and diplomats. With the Japanese invasion of China in World War II, the College moved back to the United States, to the UC Berkeley campus in 1942. Later its collections came to the Claremont Graduate School (now Claremont Graduate University). On Constant himself, I have only found an obituary notice after his death in 1989 in the New York Times. It would be appear from this notice that this was the same Constant who was in China in the 1920’s. Constant was born in 1885, the son of an eminent attorney and military officer. He joined the U.S. army himself and was posted in China in the 1920s. There is no precise record on the length of his stay. Given his birth date and career, he could not have seen himself the Qing-period peddlers. We have to assume that he used the books listed in the bibliography, such as the book by Qi Rushan, Musical Instruments of the Old Capital that we discuss below, or by an anonymous author, ‘Old Manchu Dynasty’ hand-written manuscript, “Huo Sheng” (Business Sounds). This tends to confirm that Constant had access to the sources from the Qing dynasty. He also noted that he made investigations and had personal conversations with street peddlers to prepare the book. His study, therefore, was also grounded in his experience when he lived in the city in the republican period.
The second collection is a book by Qi Rushan (1877-1962), printed and circulated privately in 1935 and published the following year. Qi Rushan was a famous Chinese opera and music theorist and dramatic author who contributed very much to the renewal of Peking opera. His book on peddlers Gudu shiyue tukao 古都市乐图考 (A pictorial study of city music in the ancient capital) describes 40 musical instruments used by peddlers. It is illustrated with black & white images of the peddlers and their instruments, with a textual explanation on the instruments themselves. There are no indications on the origin of the images. As in Constant’s book, some of Qi Rushan’s images seem to be from the end of the Qing Dynasty and some from the republican period (9 pictures in Qi and 14 in Constant). This pictorial record is focused only on peddlers who used a musical instrument. Undoubtedly, for Qi Rushan, these instruments were an integral part of Chinese musical culture and peddlers were the guardians of a vanishing culture. Qi Rushan also mentioned he produced another book, Beijing huosheng 北京貨聲 (Beijing business sounds), on peddlers’ calls, with only the lyrics but not the sounds (有字無聲)..
The two books discussed above present peddlers in an artistic form. Apart from the issue of time, they put the emphasis on peddlers as figures of the local folk culture and even of an ancient, but fading musical tradition. Qi Rushan sees them from the point of view of protecting Chinese musical instruments, while Constant presents them in fine-art like artistic vignettes. In both cases, we are left with a record that emphasizes aesthetics, exoticism/nativism from a nostalgic perspective. The clothing, hairstyle, and even the movement of the body in these paintings are anesthetized. They are meant to take the reader back into the Chinese past, a gentile past where hard work and poverty are glossed over. On the opposite, style and allure are given prominence to highlight the richness of past customs. Qi Rushan (1877-1962) would have seen the peddlers at the end of the Qing dynasty as a young adult, but these books came out in the mid-1930s, not as ethnographic records of peddlers, but as an ode to an idealized past.
For a more realistic representation of Peking peddlers, I relied on the photographic collection of the German photographer Hedda Morrison. Morrison took around one hundred photographs of peddlers in Republican Peking. None of these photographs are dated or provided with indications on locations. We know Morrison lived and was active professionally in the city between 1933 and 1946. Her record bears the trademark of her picture-taking. As it was aimed at becoming commercial photographs, she took great care to produce in recording what she felt were iconic representations of life in Peking. At the same time, perhaps due to her original training in fine industrial photography, she generally covered her topics in several steps: she would take a picture of the peddler with all his equipment, then of the goods on sale, of the devices used to carry the goods (shoulder pole, box, tray, etc.), and of course of the instruments used to call customers. These pictures are not stylized, as in the drawings, with an intent to show the action of singing or calling. These are plain images that offer a definite visual record of peddlers in the street.
Apart from these major collections of images, I have found both pictorial and textual data in the newspapers published in Peking in the 1930s, such as the Shi Bao 實報 (Reality), Xin Beiping 新北平 (New Beiping). In 1935, both published a series of drawings, altogether 56 images, on peddlers. During wartime, the Xinmin Bao 新民报 (New People) ran a series from July to November 1939 that included about thirty photographs of peddlers. The form of representation of peddlers in the newspapers was quite similar. It usually consisted in images with a short caption. The impact of these series was probably not insignificant. The Shi Bao was a very popular newspaper with an extended life span in the city, from 1929 to 1943. The other two came in succession, the Xin Beiping from 1931 to 1938 and the Xinmin Bao from 1938 to 1944. They all featured different series on popular culture, past and present, in the former capital city.
Altogether, our visual documentation is made up of 209 images of peddlers in Peking, most of them for the Republican period, with about one third in photographs. This visual record will allow us to explore further the prominent, though illusive population of peddlers. From a gender perspective, these images show that almost all were adult males. Women are extremely rare, only three -- two of them peddled matches in exchange for used shoes, paper and the like, and the other one is a rice cake vendor with a cart. The match peddlers appear in Constant and two newspaper drawings, while the rice cake vendor comes up in Constant. Hardly anything can be said beyond the obvious fact that peddling was an activity for men. Even in the photographic record of the 1930s, after women had gained their place in the public space, they were not yet part of this labor market. There were of course considerations of physical strength, but as we shall see – and can see today in China – there were plenty of goods women could carry and peddle. The world of peddlers had not yet opened to women in Republican Peking. There were also a few children, again in the drawing, not in the photographic record. In the latter, they were to be seen on market places, but rather than peddling goods, there were more often peddling their ‘art’, namely acrobatics and martial arts. Peddlers were in their adult years. Of course, there is no way to tell their age even on an average basis. Nevertheless, from Morrison’s photographs they are for the most part in the 30-55 year age bracket, with an even distribution among those in their thirties, forties and fifties. There were very few older peddlers and no more than a handful in their twenties.
What was the actual variety of goods and services available to Peking residents? Our sample of 209 images shows 106 different activities, even if our count is based sometimes on small differences. In the paintings, it was probably easier to represent a greater variety of peddlers. Constant and Qi present 35 and 16 types respectively. Morrison had to count on her encounters, at the right moment of the day, and of course only by daytime. Her record of 100 photographs actually shows 15 different peddlers (and six unidentified food peddlers). The newspapers offer the largest sample with 41 different peddlers (see Table 1 for the list of represented professions). Even if we take into consideration the similarity between some peddlers, there is no doubt that a wide variety of goods and services was available. It was larger as we know from other records that more goods were circulated in this way. Within this sample, the vast majority (83) peddled goods while the rest (24) offered services.
Among those who marketed goods, a large number proposed food (38). I distinguished between those who carried raw food (fruits and vegetables), cooked food and drinks. The first category usually marketed one specific type like garlic, melon seeds or fresh almonds. There are a few cases of “fruits”, “vegetables” with no more precision. Even if we take the whole sample, the number of peddlers catering in raw food was limited. It was not a main line of business. The commercial edge of peddlers was more on the side of prepared snacks and drinks. As to the latter, we have five kinds that remain popular to this day: hot tea, almond tea (Chinese), plum soup (suanmeitang), milk liquor (mai lao de), and tea soup (chatang). We also know that peddlers also delivered plain boiled water to houses. On the side of cooked food, the variety is beyond description. It includes basic items like mantou (steamed bread), huntun (meat dumpling soup), shaobing (baked roll) that were part of the regular diet for breakfast. There was a large number of candies, sweet delicacies (including the famous tanghulu) and salted dumplings. In other words, while peddlers brought the staple of everyday life, many of them catered for the “extra” or the superfluous. Given the share of candies and sweets, they could have targeted a certain clientele of children and older people more inclined toward such products.
The variety of goods marketed outside of food is also very rich. Fundamentally, one could list most of them under household goods. It started with the basic necessities like oil, charcoal, or matches. Then followed anything related to cooking -- stove, china, earthen vessels (shaguo), kettle, ironware, gourds, and the like – and maintenance of the house – brush, feather duster, lamp bowl, mat, and all kind of small everyday items (combs, small scissors, etc.). A third group can be organized around house decoration, with things like paper flowers, pictures, goldfish, fresh flowers, calendar and the ‘Gate God’ for happiness. We also find peddlers selling cloth, umbrellas, and ear puffs for the harsh winter, toys, medicine and miscellaneous items. It can be observed from this list that peddlers distributed goods that came in many shapes and weights. While some of these goods could be obtained from regular shops, especially the basic kitchenware, peddlers often brought goods from a specific place that had a reputation in their manufacturing. Besides a lower price, this may have given them a competitive advantage.
In terms of services, the range was definitely narrower, even if this does not necessarily reflect the actual number of peddlers involved in these lines of business. Yet, the consumers of candies were certainly far more numerous than those requiring shoe or kettle mending. In my sample of service activities, there are two broad categories, those offering a concrete form of service and those who provided a form of entertainment. I shall talk about the latter category in the next section. The range of services matched the most common needs of families in their everyday life. They were mostly repair or mending services. Peddlers could fix almost anything: shoes, mats, vessels, kitchenware, wok, kettle, leather goods, etc. These were items that were meant to last as long as possible to avoid purchasing a new one for money-strapped families. Given the fairly low cost of common kitchenware, it also tells us how cheap the service provided by the peddlers was. Knife and scissor sharpeners were also in great demand as cooking required adequate tools, but we also find one carpenter who would probably fix worn out furniture. Aside from repairing or maintenance, a small group of peddlers specialized in taking out things from houses, usually by purchasing (silver buyer) or removing worn out items (scavengers).
There were also peddlers who provided for the comfort of soul and body. The first category was made up entirely of fortunetellers who took care of the peace of mind of people by advising them about the good or bad omen in their life. Although it is a single category, it is represented by twelve images in our image collection. In charge of the body, the most prominent by all criteria were the barbers. Although on the wane, they can still be seen in the streets of Peking today. They have a long enduring presence in the urban landscape. They were generally among the most represented in Westerners’ photographic record. The barbers provided an essential service until 1911 by taking care of the shaving of the front part of the head, something not easily done by oneself, and weaving of the queue. More generally, because of the hot Peking weather, males in the popular classes often had their head fully shaved during the summer. There was therefore a large market of heads to shave almost all year through (although barbers were listed by Constant among the summer peddlers). Two other parts of the body were also serviced by specialized peddlers, feet and ears, although sometimes this was done by the same person. Yet, in our image collection, they appear as two separate figures.
Roaming the street to sell one’s goods or services entailed one form or another of transportation. Peddlers had various types of equipment. It could be a simple basket or a tray where the goods – generally light ones – were displayed, or a box, for better protection or to carry tools. When it came to heavier goods, or even for a whole set of equipment for cooking, one of the most common instruments was the shoulder pole (tiaozi 挑子) but peddlers also used various types of wheelbarrow and two-wheeled and three-wheeled handcarts. The visual record demonstrates the remarkable creativity of peddlers in the use of various devices to carry their goods and tools. I shall examine the major types and see how they were distributed among the different types of activity. Peddlers used five sorts of carrying devices: trays, bags/baskets, boxes, shoulder pole and carts. Of course, there was also combination of these items, especially with the shoulder pole to which peddlers suspended all kinds of objects (trays, baskets, boxes, stove, etc.).
Bags were the least used device (8). They served the need of those who had light equipment (ear cleaners, feet fixers) or sold light and small-sized goods (braids, tobacco, Jew’s harp). Tray was also a relatively rare item. The simplest form was a tray made of rattan on which goods were spread flat. Obviously, with such trays peddlers could carry either a limited quantity of goods or goods that were especially light. Trays appear in 12 images (5 within the single-activity sample) for light food items like almonds, melon seeds, shaobing, tanghulu, all kinds of candies, and flowers. The third most important carrying device had the shape of a large round or oval basket or box slung over the shoulder and carried on the lower back or in front of the body. Boxes (or baskets) appear 43 times (23 within the single-activity sample). This category also includes cages (mice, monkey) and the “running land boats” (see section 3). Mostly, they were used by peddlers who could pile up their products but also had to protect their products from the rain or shocks. This included such items as cloth, fans, matches, medicine, cosmetics, almanacs, pomegranate blossom, and toys. Boxes were hardly used for food. In my sample, I found them only for pea cakes (wandou), ligao (pear cake), and shaobing. One type of scavenger was also shown carrying a box.
Wheel carts, a traditional rural instrument, are represented in 24 images (16 within the single-activity sample). Wheel carts were more popular in Northern China where the land was dry and harder than in the South, even if the Chinese wheelbarrow could be seen in any city. The sturdy carts enabled peddlers to carry large quantity of goods – on a wheelbarrow it was not unusual for a single man to carry between two to eight people. In Peking, carts came in different forms, two- or three-wheeled and the traditional wheelbarrow. But they also required a higher investment than a box or a shoulder pole. Moreover, even if it could carry more goods, it was also more cumbersome. This was for peddlers who lived in the city proper. The last form of device was wheel-based carts. In Peking, it seems only goods were transported on wheelbarrows. Carts were used exclusively for the sale of goods, with food representing more than one half (14) (sweet potatoes, shaobing, tanghulu, tracery candy, mantou, etc.). A large part was made of cooked foods that required heat on the way. Not surprisingly, carts were also the preferred device for charcoal, ironware, vessels, but also for yarn and thread, brushes and various household goods.
With 101 images, the shoulder pole was the carrying device par excellence. It was a very common and popular device used throughout China, probably originating in the countryside where it was in common use. The shoulder pole allowed an individual to carry a larger and heavier quantity of goods or equipment. Sometimes, it was also used for the transportation of small children. Almost anything could be hung on shoulder poles: baskets, buckets, oven, etc. In other words, a peddler could transport solid as well as liquid products (water, soup, etc.). He could also have an elementary but complete kit to provide either cooked food or a service such as hairdressing. In Peking, it was used as much by peddlers in the service business as by those selling goods. Because it allowed one to carry fairly heavy goods, the shoulder pole is found in a wide array of activities with no discernable pattern. There are 32 food peddlers in our sample, all the barbers, knife sharpeners, and oil peddlers, most menders of kitchenware, our one carpenter, most entertainers.
In fact, it appears, quite logically, that the choice of a carrying device had to do with the weight and/or quantity. Among candy peddlers (16), one would find 3 carts, 13 shoulder poles, and 3 trays, depending on the amount one was able to produce and sell. Charcoal peddlers (2) used a cart and a shoulder pole. Given its weight, there was hardly any other option. Cloth was peddled in boxes (2) or on shoulder poles (3), while flower came on shoulders poles (3) and a tray (1). Nevertheless, the shoulder pole was more the carrying device of various containers than the direct carrying tool. Our distinction is made above all with the purpose of distinguishing those who carried their produce and tools with baskets, boxes and baskets slung over their shoulder in quantities that by force were more limited. Finally there were peddlers who went around without a carrying device. The major one was the fortuneteller. In our collections, he always appears without anything, even if on other visual records he may be shown with a table, a chair and an advertising poster. Apart from pictures by Morrison where I cannot determine whether the peddlers had a carrying device, the only other figure of peddler without one was the blind street singer.
In the pictorial record, peddlers were represented as individual figures totally detached from the context in which they operated. Furthermore, paintings tend to idealize the image of the peddlers and to present them in a fairly conventional way. For instance, it would be impossible to say from their clothing where they fit socially. The record by Morrison offers a better view of the peddlers. Photographs show peddlers in their daytime clothing. There was no embellishment. This is how they were. According to her husband, Morrison never staged the pictures she took in the streets. Of course, she had in mind to sell her photographs to Western customers and this would certainly command the decisions she made when taking a picture. Yet the photographs of Morrison caught the moment when she was in a given place, roaming the streets for possible shots of social life in Peking. Morrison’s photographs also show the range of clothing through the seasons. Peddlers could only afford plain and simple clothes, but in most pictures they present a very decent appearance. A few of them look poor and wear seriously worn out garments (toy peddler), but it is rather exceptional. The photographs convey the image of ordinary people who made enough money to afford very presentable outfits. Even if they belonged to the lower strata of society, they do not convey a sense of poverty or destitution.
3. Peddlers as street theater
Peddlers brought into city life not just food, goods and services. They also brought sounds, songs, and calls produced with their voice or with musical instruments. These sounds created a sonorous environment that was characteristic of the urban scene in Peking, one could even say of urban theater. There may have been more than one such call that could be perceived as shouting or sheer noise. Yet, there was a form of competition among peddlers not only to have a distinctive ‘call’, but also to produce sounds or songs that would please their prospective customers. As can be seen in Constant’s work, some peddlers actually sang a song, with or without an instrument, to advertise their goods.
Western and Chinese scholars alike have argued the obvious, that the calls and sounds were meant to attract people to buy the goods or services that came to their doorstep, that it was a primitive form of advertisement. The custom of using sounds to advertise oneself can also be read in relation with the urban structure of Peking. Those familiar with the city before its unfortunate renewal by way of bulldozing entire blocks, have in mind the dense crisscross of alleyways – the famous hutong – that organized the physical layout of the city. The hutong formed passageways lined with walls behind which housing units – the courtyard house (siheyuan) – was partitioned itself into units separated by walls. A bird eye’s view of Peking would reveal a vast sea of roofs… and walls. These walls were clearly an obstacle to making contact with the people inside. Constant read these omnipresent walls – city walls, palace walls, yamen walls and walls of the rich and poor – as having profoundly affected China’s history and the psychology of her people. He wrote: “they have caused the Chinese family to build for itself a small feudal castle, so to speak, into which the family or clan withdraws and closes the gates […] The compound is their world to a larger extent, certainly to the women folks, to whom going outside its confines is quite an event”. Although his broad generalization from the special case of Peking to ‘China’ is tainted by a Western bias, there is no denial that the walls of Peking, the difficulty to walk the long distances created by the walls, the poor state of the road cover through most of the late imperial and republican period and the rigors of the climate can explain why peddlers became a pivotal element of Peking’s ‘customs’.
It is difficult to trace when this tradition of peddlers’ calls and sounds began. As with most things in China, it was assumed it must have come from ancient history. In a paper published in the Xinmin Bao in November 1939, we are told that all these peddlers who roamed the alleyways of Peking have a two thousand-year history, even if Peking had hardly come out of the ground two thousand years ago. More serious studies, however, place them in a longue durée history, with a solid record at least since the Song dynasty. Meng Yuanlao’s 孟元老 Dongjing meng hua lu 東京夢華錄 (Record of the wonders of the Eastern Capital) written, in the 12th century, offers one of the earliest mentions of peddlers in the city. In various texts that described Peking under the Yuan, the Ming and through the Qing dynasty, one can find other mention of peddlers. In the late imperial period, according to more recent studies, there even existed three manuscripts devoted to peddlers in Peking. Current scholarship in China and Taiwan focuses on tracing the origin of the peddlers’ calls. Qu Yanbin corroborates the existence and effect of these calls as well as the nature and use of instruments in a wide range of pre-modern sources. Mostly, however, the major argument is to sustain that these city sounds were an element of Chinese folk culture. A folklorist approach dominates in these works marked by a form of nostalgia.
From our images, one can see that there existed three kinds of peddlers depending on what they used to make their calls. The first category relied only on the voice, while another group used a musical instrument. Of course, a third category used both voice and instrument. There also seems to have been peddlers who were silent – san bu yu 三不語 – and made no sound or call at all, and one wonders how they could exist. They were the cobblers, the glutinous rice figure peddlers and the feather duster peddlers. Moreover, some used an instrument, but made no vocal calls: feet fixers, shoe repairmen, pig castrators, bowl repairmen, medecine peddlers, barber and fan repairmen. In my collection of 209 images of peddlers, there are 54 peddlers who made vocal calls and 117 who used an instrument (along with their voice). If I limit my classification to the 106 man-activities, calls were made in 41 cases and instruments were played in 37 cases. The remainder represents 15 cases where there was no indication that either call or instruments were used. This may have more to do with a deficit of information than actual silence on the part of these peddlers. Even if we cannot hear them, we can see on the images the instruments they played and we know from the newspapers and Constant’s work those who used their own voice. The share of peddlers with instruments may also be biased upward by the fact that Qi’s collection was based on musical instruments, not peddlers. This does not fundamentally alter the general sense that peddlers made a generous use of music instruments for advertisement purposes.
In the drawings, the vocal-call peddlers are often represented with their right hand over the ear. This is a customary gesture by singers to hear themselves better or make sure their tune is right. It may also have been a way of isolating oneself from surrounding noises. Other witnesses confirm this practice: “A peculiarity to be noticed is that at the moment of utterance many of the criers put a hand over one ear [...], it really comes from a custom of putting the hand over one side of the month in the desire to concentrate the sound upon a particular house or quarter”. Even the peddlers who pushed a handcart, as on these pictures, were placing vocal calls or sang as they walked through the hutong. The vocal calls of peddlers are no longer to be heard in Peking. Their voices, however, were not completely lost. Their calls and songs were recorded in various materials, notably in textual materials like songs. Constant made a record a various peddlers’ songs. Here is a score of what [Dried fruit and nut song] peddlers sang. This is a domain I have not yet really studied. “Selling what” and “calling what”, were a very common phrase in all kinds of literature of that period to describe the operating mode of peddlers. One author stated that there was a harmonic link between the vocal calls and the goods on sale.
As with other elements in Chinese commercial culture, words went beyond the mere description of the actual items on display. As peddlers sang, they used nice words to promote their goods and, as in poems, added rhyme in their calls. The purpose was to entice customers to come forward: “Some call out their wares in a musical voice or song calculated to please the hearer.” Metaphors abounded to designate in a more flowery language even the simplest good. The water melon peddlers called: “Liang dakuai er lie, duome da de kuai er, sha da riyouyi’er de, dakuai er de, dakuai de ai-----you!” [俩大一塊兒咧， 多麽大的塊兒，沙大日尤一兒的， 大塊的噯 -----呦 !]. The sweet potato peddler had: “Guodi lie….Lizi wei er….” [锅底咧….栗子味兒….], the turnip peddler: “Saili lie…..la le huan….” [賽梨咧….辣拉換….]. Some of the calls had an interesting meaning, as among peanut peddlers: “Luohuasheng lie….Zhimajiang de zei er lai….cui rang de luohuasheng ai….” [落花生咧….芝麻醬的味兒來….脆瓤的落花生哎….] or steam bread peddlers: “Qibing lai…mantou…yangrou xian er de….baozi!” [棋餅來….饅頭….羊肉餡的….包子 !]] The variety of goods and services made available by peddlers made it necessary to have uniquely identifiable vocal calls. As each peddler introduced his own style, the calls, songs and tunes that floated in Peking’s hutong were legions.
Instrument calls, as Constant’s argue in his introduction brought about a particularly interesting dimension. They also introduced other lines of music onto the street theater. The pictorial record shows the wide range of instruments peddlers played through the streets. The images reveal the diversity of sounds that were produced from Buddhist temple horns of Tibetan origin to the strokes of a drumstick on drum. Even the goods on sale could be used as a musical instrument, provided that they could produce a sound. A kettle, a gourd or any such article could easily be turned into a musical instrument on which to play simply by striking or rubbing with something a form of cadence or beat on it. This is parallel to the practice of using original goods as shop signs on shops in Peking. The use of the instrument calls could also be a way of sparing their vocal cords and let them have a break in their physical effort.
Obviously, all these instruments were made to produce a sound, but some were designed simply to produce a single specific sound. Some were real musical instruments. Of course, this is true of the street entertainers who made a living performing in the street, but even peddlers selling goods advertised themselves by playing an instrument. Qi Rushan highly praised these peddlers, whom he saw as the guardians of Chinese traditions. There is probably a part of embellishment in his presentation. Qi lamented that throughout Chinese history several thousand types of musical instruments were being used, whereas only a few were still in use at the time of his writing. In the Qing dynasty, tens of different musical instruments were used, but mostly for offering sacrifices, or during funerals and wedding ceremonies. According to Qi, after the establishment of the Republic, the old instruments played on the occasion of sacrifices disappeared, while wedding and funeral rituals came to include western music. Peking was fortunate to have all these peddlers who played these musical instruments. They should receive all the credit for preserving and protecting these old musical instruments. In Qi Rushan’s reading of the peddlers’ calls, tunes, and songs, there was more than advertising calls and sounds to sell their goods and services. These sounds were the sounds of city music. They brought onto the streets a permanent flow of sounds and songs that turned Peking’s hutong into a permanent albeit fleeting musical theater.
I tend to be a little less enthusiastic than Qi about the role of “guardians of tradition” he bestowed upon peddlers. There is no doubt that musical instruments were frequently used and that their sounds definitely pervaded Peking hutong. One can question to what extent this represented the diversity and sophistication Qi would like us to believe. Based on the visual record, it is possible to determine what kinds of instruments were used. Wind (chui) and string (tan/la) instruments were represented in 9 images and 3 images respectively. The overwhelming category was represented by drum-like or gong-like instruments on which the peddler stroke with a stick. Altogether, only 35 instruments are represented in our visual collection. Wind instruments include: flute, saona, Jew’s harp and three types of trump. String instruments are limited to huqin and sanxuan. Such a distribution makes it apparent that the vast majority of these instruments were not made to play elaborate melodies. If we except the string instruments and wind instruments, they could not produce more than one single or at most two notes. They were very simple instruments meant to issue a “signal” rather than a melody. Some even stroke on the good on sale like vessels, gourds, etc. Yet, the nature of the material, the size and shape made possible a wide range of different sounds through which the peddlers could single out their line of business.
There is hardly any deviation in the distribution of instruments among the different collections for a given line of business. It reflects the standardization of how each peddler wanted to be identified. The two exceptions in this coherent system are fortunetellers – all used a drum-like instrument, except for one who used a wind instrument – and knife sharpeners equally divided among drum-type and wind instruments. In Constant and Qi Rushan, candy peddlers are shown in different pictures using a small gong (luo) or a drum (gu). The two paintings are very similar and could have been copied from the same source or made by the same painter. Behind the apparent monotony of these broad categories laid the reality of an amazing diversity of instruments producing simple but distinctive sounds. It probably required a certain familiarity, but peddlers could also play on cadence and rhythm to single out their trade. Although our documentation makes explicitly mention of only five types of peddlers who used both voice and instrument, it is quite certain that vocal calls accompanied the instrument in most cases.
The calls and songs that pervaded Peking’s hutong were far from monotonous. They punctuated the course of the day. The chain [string] of food peddlers started in the early morning with the sounds for vegetables, porridge (zhou), pancakes (shaobing), fried sticks (youtiao) and all the typical items of a Peking breakfast. In the afternoon, by 3 or 4 o’clock, this was followed by calls for bean porridge (madoufu), tea flour (miancha), old bean curd (lao doufu), barley porridge, and bean curd soup (doufunao). In the evening came a string of small snacks for such as steamed bread (mantou), soup dumplings (huntun) in all seasons; sweet sesame balls (yuanxiao) and candied fruit skewers (tang hulu) in winter. These peddlers stayed at home during daytime and woke up at three or four o’clock in the afternoon. By six or seven o’clock, they went out to sell their goods until three or four o’clock the next morning. Peddlers who dispensed food had their usual routes in the same districts where they were assured to meet regular patrons. Some of them had even built a relationship to schedule in advance the products with peddlers.
In Republican China, the year was punctuated by seasons and by festivals. While the change of seasons brought a renewal of the fresh or dried products that came on the market, festivals were accompanied with the sale of specific goods. Constant organized his book by season. It presents the peddlers that operated during each season with their respective goods, calls, and instruments. Altogether, there are 64 images categorized under the four seasons: spring (20), summer (6), autumn (19), and winter (19). In table 2, I have listed the products by season. The seasonality of certain products is quite obvious as certain fruits would mature at a certain period only. Constant’s categorization, however, raises some questions. Some of the products do not appear to be related to a specific season, unless certain manufactured goods depended on available labor (say peasants during winter) or transportation (snow would be an obstacle for peddlers) or climate (summer would affect fresh produces), etc. If we look at peddlers by season, spring can understandably bring over fortunetellers (people would want to know their chances in the New Year), fresh flowers, various types of cakes or tracery candy (again in relation with the New year). It is less obvious that cloth, braids, melon seeds or knife sharpeners should be associated with spring.
The summer list is fairly short. It makes sense to include barbers as a warm temperature would make it more pleasant to be shaved outside (although in the pre-1911 period shaving had to be done in any season) in anticipation of the hot summer temperatures. Fans were also a welcome device to beat the heat, but whether feet care or bundle cakes had to be summer features is debatable. Finally, dried fruits required a combination of ripe fruits, warm temperature and wind that only came with the summer. In his autumn listing, Constant includes peddlers who definitely worked all year round (shaobing, candy) or whose seasonality is not obvious (china mender, matches, kettles, clay ad earthenware), except if Peking resident made a provision of such cooking utensils (used for stews) for the upcoming winter. Other products make more sense, such as sesame oil (fresh from the summer harvest), charcoal (winter reserve), moon cakes (Mid-autumn festival delicacy). Finally, with winter came two major types of peddlers, those who provided entertainment through the cold season (despite the rigor of weather). Stoves would certainly be useful, but it was true for any season. Milk liquor or turnips may have been a winter treat, but I shall leave it as an open question. Finally there were those who sold the artifacts for the New Year (almanacs, gate gods). In the preceding weeks, as calendars and almanacs were sought after by every family, there was a “year-end rush” (gannian bao 趕年暴) that attracted all kinds of people who would not normally peddle goods, like the book sellers who usually held a small stand, but also newspaper boys, rickshaws pullers or people who had lost their job. They purchased the calendars and almanacs from the publishers at Qianmen Damochang or around Liulichang. There were several hundreds of them roaming in the hutong by the end of the year.
From this brief overview based on a single collection, certain categories of peddlers showed up only during a given season with a very distinctive product, especially in relation with a major festival like the New year or the Mid-autumn festival. Some may have been much more present at certain moments of the year, event if they could be found at any time. My collection and degree of information are too limited to support the idea of an ever-changing flow of peddlers according to seasons. It appears reasonable to think that there was a stable population of peddlers who marketed their goods and services all year through, with some seasonal oscillations. There was also a flow of peddlers who were closely associated with the change of seasons. The visual record I have used probably underestimate this aspect, even if the distinctions between two types of fruit peddlers was probably thin. Yet, Republican Peking lived very much by the rhythm of seasons. The constraints of weather, transportation and traffic within the city, as much as the care (if not crave) of Chinese for fresh and distinctive produces created the conditions for a vibrant peddler’s market. With each came a form of music or calls that added a new line in the undirected street symphony.
There may have been some romanticizing about this music. Qi Rushan wrote that peddlers were a great feat for Chinese culture. Their vocal calls were like songs and the sounds of their instruments were just like an orchestra. Constant was no less prone to metaphor to describe the contribution of peddlers to the urban scene: “But whether vocal or instrumental, the peddlers’ advertising is full of audible color and is one of the outstanding features of life in the Peking Hutung”. This “audible color” was to the ear what the colorful shop signs and shop fronts were to the eyes. The grayish appearance of Peking’s street was constantly repainted by the calls and sounds from peddlers. If the hutong lacked the vivid colors of commercial streets, they enjoyed the privilege of the living theatre created through the stream of peddlers who walked them day and night.
Westerners may have harbored different views on the quality or nature of these “sounds”, but their testimony confirm to us the omnipresence of peddlers’ voices on the urban scene. In Years that were fat, George Kates kept a vivid memory of peddlers’ vocal advertising: “In China the tone is much more sonorous, the calls more singing, more prolonged. It would swell to a great chorus of rhythmic metropolitan altercation, with every soloist vocal in his turn. Kindling, or cabbages, garlic and leeks, each had its own motif; each had its special praises lifted insistently for a moment above the continuing background of sound”. The author seems to have enjoyed this music of the street, which is not common on the part of the Western residents’ usual perception of Chinese tunes. Kates went as far as noting there was something that was missed by those secluded in the comfort of their foreign-style houses with sash windows and laid floors in the Legation Quarter: “they missed much. … local peddlers and hawkers were excluded by special police guarding the entrance barriers. Some may have been bothered by the constant flow of sounds like this French author who wrote about life in Peking: “The Chinese hate silence, just like nature detests emptiness.
For local residents, it was not a simple call; it was a song or a poem. Old residents knew from the music of their call which peddler was arriving. In Yuzhoufeng 宇宙風 (Universal Wind), an author aptly described in 1936 how he felt. He wrote that when people heard a call, an image emerged in their mind of a twelve year-old child selling binghe 冰核 (ice cubes) under the hot sun. The peddlers’ various songs, a newspaper wrote, were the beauty of the small and wide lanes and alleys. Yet the calls were not exact science and required training and familiarity. Because peddlers used metaphorical adjectives, split words, and inflected tones, people also recalled or complained that vocal calls could not be understood by the sense of their words for someone new to the city. There was a paper in Beiping Chenbao in 1931 about improving the calls. The proposal stated that the vocal calls of peddlers should be improved in four ways: first, they should be sonorous because of Peking’s traditional house constructions with more than three or four courtyards; second, they should use the short voice instead of the long one in order to let people understand the words; third, they should use Peking’s dialect; fourth, the choice of the words should be simple and clear. From this proposal, one can assume that the vocal calls were not always readily understandable, except by local residents. In the popular periodicals published in republican Peking, there were lots of news and comments everyday on opera. People lived with opera, even at the street level. In 1938, Shao Quan, a journalist in the Xinmin Bao went so far as to place the calls and sounds of Peking peddlers at par with the famous Peking opera. The calls and sounds of peddlers were received just as a form of street theatre, extending to people a simple albeit similar experience of theatre and performance.
Among the peddlers that brought genuine spectacle into the streets were the street performers. There was an extraordinary array of such artists as the pictorial record tells us. Later memories present them as impoverished peasants or individuals who could no longer work (or had never been) because of a physical handicap. This may be just a conventional trope about misery in pre-revolutionary China. In the pictures that we have, the performers all look physically fit. They were said to be originating from the neighboring districts around the city. The performing artists that we have in these images plied their trade in different way. Three of them put animals on show: mice, monkey, and bear. This was not a whole circus, but it brought into the neighborhood the thrill of a simple and pleasurable show. Its short duration allowed the performer to repeat it several times during the day, with his animal’s resilience as the only limit. The second category of street entertainers were those who presented stage-like shows, like puppets, magicians, running land boat (pao hanchuan 跑旱船), a form of theatrical performance). The last category were those who performed in a traditional way. In Peking, this included the street musicians, among whom were many blind people. There were also the story-tellers, among them one kind that accompanied its voice with a big drum.
The pictorial record shows that peddlers were everywhere in the city, not only in the hutong, but also in the main streets, in markets, in front of schools. They were an integral part of Peking’s cityscape, a ‘feature’ that was part of the scenery of Peking. In 369 huabao 三六九畫報 （369 Illustrated Journal), I have found several drawings entitled “Natural Scenic View of Beijing” 北京風光 (Beijing fengguang) that displayed peddlers as the central theme of the view. In many newspapers, the images of peddlers were categorized under “Hundred pictures of city” 都市百影 (dushi baiying). In Xinmin Bao, they appeared in a series called “Shehui xiezhen” 社會寫真 (Social mirror). In Xin Beiping (1935）or Xinmin Bao (1938), the pictures of peddlers were presented in series entitled “Natural Scenic View of Beiping” (京市風光 (jing shi fengguan) or “Natural Scenic View of Beijing City” (北平风光). City guides also started to give them some prominence. In one Chinese Peking guide, the chapter “Portrait of ordinary people’s life” (pingmin shenghuozhi xiezhen 平民生活之寫真 ) focused entirely on different street peddlers. A Western guide of Peking guide also pointed out the street scene with its peddlers as something to see for tourists: “Cries of itinerant vendors, each with his individual noise-making instrument. It is said if one stands long enough on any street corner one may buy all the necessary commodities of life from these walking shops… But why not finish this list yourself?”
Peddlers’ daily rounds in the streets were an important part of Peking’s everyday life. Peddlers attended for the most part to the usual or recurrent needs of the population. At a time when few people enjoyed the comfort of modern amenities, when moving around the city entailed an effort or an expense, however small it was (rickshaws), Peking residents could rely on the flow of goods and services that came to their doorsteps and avoid all the hassle of personal chores outside the home. That peddlers were an enduring presence in the city until 1949 is in itself a proof that people enjoyed the facility these itinerant merchants provided. They were the occasion for social intercourse. At their calls, residents came out of their houses to buy goods, ate some snack, and probably had a little chat. The passage of peddlers created a social moment when people in the same neighborhood could see each other. Peddlers did not enjoy an easy life. They had to roam the streets for long hours, sometimes in an unforgiving weather. Although they were one-man shops, we have seen that many hailed from outside Peking, they lived and worked together and probably found some comfort and solidarity in that communal life. Even if becoming rich was beyond the reach of most, peddlers covered a narrow slice of the common people between poor and ordinary manual workers.
The visual record was an essential component of our study. It brings to light a phenomenon that did not figure prominently in the textual sources. It literally “reveals” this central dimension of Chinese urban street culture. From these images, I was able to extract a multitude of facets of the peddlers work, life, and art. In some of the works I have used, like Constant’s and Qi Rushan’s, images are supplemented with texts that seem to give keys for the understanding of the peddlers. We have seen that a systematic treatment of these images actually help to deconstruct a narrative that in part tend to idealize the peddlers’ life and role, and to aestheticize their appearance. Even for the crucial issue of calls and music instruments, a careful analysis tones down a bit the enthusiastic endorsement of “opera-like” street entertainers. These notes of caution, however, do not challenge the fact that peddlers were a musical presence in the hutong of Peking and their movements through the neighborhood brought a regular and ever changing stream of sounds. Peddlers were the anonymous actors of the hutong theater. They brought food and household necessities to the doorstep as much as they also entertained with their calls, songs and music instruments.