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Knickknack Peddlers by Li Song 李嵩 (fl. 1190-1230)

“Shidan yingxi” 市擔嬰戲 by Li Song 李嵩 (fl. 1190-1230)

Picture credit: The National Palace Museum, Taipei

Inscription by the Qianlong Emperor 乾隆 (1711-1799, ruling 1735-1796)





A hundred objects are brought over, more than what a shoulder pole [could bear].

In the tumult of children, the prices are not paid.

Peddler, you do know that, don’t you?

It is you who has nothing better to do than bring this chaos.

Detail of the “Huolang tu” 貨郎圖 (Knickknack Peddler) by Li Song

Screenshot of the high-quality digitalisation on the website of the Palace Museum, Beijing





Heavy weights on the shoulders, [he] doesn’t mind the burden.

With children surging forward, [he] struggles to maintain order.

Don’t mock the peddler for being too silly –

Who in this world is not as silly as him?


Inscribed by the imperial hand in the last decade of the mid-spring [month] of the guisi year [1773]


The knickknack peddler is an important theme in Chinese genre paintings that became especially popular during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) in representations of festive scenes. As the earliest examples of this motif, the four paintings of knickknack peddlers attributed to Li Song are widely believed to be realistic representations of knickknack peddlers in folk culture in contrast to the more extravagantly dressed peddlers in Ming dynasty works, who mostly serve as a festive symbol. Before being adopted by a court painter, Li Song had spent years as a carpenter, which is considered one of the reasons why he can depict folk topics in such minute details. The high-resolution images available freely on museum websites offer a great opportunity to appreciate the delicate depiction, especially for the three smaller works (less than 30 x 30 cm) mounted as album leaves.

However, the “realism” in Li Song’s works is not as apparently justifiable as it seems. Huang Xiaofeng 黃小峰, who examines the practicability of the mobile stall and compares contemporary and later representations of the knickknack peddler, suggests that Li Song’s works are not exactly realistic depiction of commoners’ real life. With reference to textual documentation of festive customs during the Song dynasty (960-1279) and the Ming dynasty, Huang Xiaofeng argues that Li Song’s works, in a similar manner to the Ming works, were created in the imperial court for the Lantern Festival in spring, and the knickknack peddlers are not real peddlers but actors who play the role of peddlers on this festive occasion.[2]

[1] Red characters rhyme. [2] See Huang Xiaofeng 黄小峰, “Leshi huan tong wanzhong xin Huolang tu jiedu” 樂事還同萬眾心——《貨郎圖》解讀, Gugong bowuyuan yuankan 故宮博物院院刊 2007 (02): 103-117+158; available at

“Yinxi huolang tu” 嬰戲貨郎圖 by Li Song

Picture credit: The Cleveland Museum of Art (

“Knickknack Peddler”, anonymous (widely attributed to Li Song)

Picture credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art


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