Gems of Painting

Pictures on Knick-knack Peddlers

By National Palace Museum

Child at Play on a Path by a Willow by Attributed to Su Hanchen (12th c.)National Palace Museum

Introduction

Knick-knack peddlers were traveling salesmen for sundries in the old days. They would carry assorted goods on a pole slung over their shoulder or in a push cart as they made the rounds in countryside villages, often playing a hand-held pellet drum to announce their arrival. Repeating their melodious or catchy tune, peddlers would advertise wares and describe them in detail, including their functions. Striving to make a sale, peddlers apparently attracted the attention mainly of women and especially children.

The Knick-knack Peddler and Playing Children by Attributed to Su Hanchen (12th c.)National Palace Museum

The knick-knack peddler brought with him a multilevel arrangement of goods in almost every imaginable type, similar to a miniature supermarket or department store. Besides items for everyday use, there were toys, cosmetics, and even farming tools.  Furthermore, he carried sweets and vegetables for sale, having something for everyone in the village, much like a portable store to satisfy both young and old. The attention-getting tune of the knick-knack peddler must had been a common sound that welcomed joy in the often-mundane life of country folks in the past.

The Knick-knack Peddler by Li SongNational Palace Museum

This exhibition not only presents a variety of paintings depicting knick-knack peddlers from ancient times, the dazzling variety of goods depicted in them also serves as a reminder for older viewers in Taiwan of the "itinerant peddlers of household goods" who plied their trade decades ago. This display is divided into two sections, one for "Gems of Painting: Knick-knack Peddlers over the Ages" and the other especially devoted to "A National Treasure: Li Song's "Knick-knack Peddler."

Up the River During Qingming (AD 1644-AD 1911) by Shen YuanNational Palace Museum

The former introduces the diversity of pictures on knack-knack peddlers from the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, while the latter focuses on the famous "Knick-knack Peddler" painting by Li Song (1170-1255) of the Southern Song period. By illuminating the world of knick-knack peddlers in the past, it is hoped that the richness of these ancient paintings and their cultural perspectives can recreate a dialogue between art and life that allows the museum to further enrich the daily life of modern audiences.

The Knick-Knack PeddlerNational Palace Museum

In Song dynasty painting, attention to naturalism and local customs were emphasized, as exemplified by the appearance of knick-knack peddlers in art at this time. When children heard the peddler's sales pitch, they would rush ahead to the wares he brought and shout with delight, as depicted in the paintings. With his oft-wrinkled face worn from plying his trade over time and in the elements, the peddler is happy to greet them despite the sweat on his brow.   

Knick-knack Peddlers in Spring (1279/1368) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

Paintings of knick-knack peddlers reached a peak in popularity during the Ming dynasty, and even palace versions appeared with peddlers selling "birds in cages" and "wares on a pole beneath blossoms."  Although the figures and compositions in paintings from this time are more beautified, the artists' attention to detail is still everywhere to be seen, reflecting both the customs and features of the period. 

Palace versions of knick-knack peddler paintings continued into the following Qing dynasty. The peddler's repertoire of wares expanded then to also include colorful lamps, fresh fruits, child figurines, and birds, coming to symbolize as a whole a time of peace and prosperity.

The Knick-Knack PeddlerNational Palace Museum

The Knick-Knack Peddler

Attributed to Su Hanchen (12th c.),  Song dynasty
Let's look at some details of this work. 

A knick-knack peddler and his assistant are pulling a one-wheel cart laden with all sorts of objects and have arrived at a courtyard. Young children scramble about and cannot wait to get and play with the toys.

Many kinds of toys, play weapons, musical instruments, lacquer boxes inlaid with mother of pearl, daily sundries, and scented pouch trinkets are found among the peddler's goods; it seems that not a thing is missing.

One eagerly brings coins, another has lost his shoe in the rush, and two are fighting over a toy neither wants to give up. Raucous sounds and actions fill the scenery that has been remarkably rendered true to life, representing a joyous and happy mood that harks the arrival of the knick-knack peddler.

The children wear fancy clothing and are adorned with longevity and jade pendants that are all exquisitely rendered.

The Knick-Knack Peddler by Attributed to Su Hanchen (12th c.)National Palace Museum

A One-wheel Cart of Wonders

The Knick-Knack Peddler
Attributed to Su Hanchen (12th c.), Song dynasty

The Knick-Knack Peddler by Attributed to Su Hanchen (12th c.)National Palace Museum

The knick-knack peddler in this painting is seen pushing a one-wheel cart full of various sundry items and toys, having come to a stop below camellia and plum blossoms by a large garden rock.

Six children have heard the peddler playing his pellet drum and calling out his presence, and they scramble to reach him and crowd around to buy something. 

The man places one hand on the handle of the cart and the other peddles a toy, his actions appearing quite dramatic.

The peddler's cart is painted in cinnabar red, and the wheel is adorned with auspicious decoration traced in gold. The children are wearing bracelets, longevity lockets, and opulent clothing that further fill the painting with an air of wealth and prosperity.

The delicate painting style follows in the academic tradition of the twelfth-century court painter Su Hanchen.

New Year's Market in a Time of Peace-1 of 9, Ding Guanpeng, 1708/1771, From the collection of: National Palace Museum
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New Year's Market in a Time of Peace-2 of 9, Ding Guanpeng, 1708/1771, From the collection of: National Palace Museum
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New Year's Market in a Time of Peace-3 of 9, Ding Guanpeng, 1708/1771, From the collection of: National Palace Museum
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New Year's Market in a Time of Peace-4 of 9, Ding Guanpeng, 1708/1771, From the collection of: National Palace Museum
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New Year's Market in a Time of Peace-5 of 9, Ding Guanpeng, 1708/1771, From the collection of: National Palace Museum
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New Year's Market in a Time of Peace-6 of 9, Ding Guanpeng, 1708/1771, From the collection of: National Palace Museum
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New Year's Market in a Time of Peace Ding Guanpeng (fl. 1708-1771), Qing dynasty 

New Year's Market in a Time of Peace by Ding Guanpeng (fl. 1708-1771), Qing dynasty

Ding Guanpeng entered the Qing dynasty court as a painter in the Yongzheng reign (1722-1735). This handscroll depicts the raucous scenery of an urban market during the Lunar New Year season. In addition to all kinds of vendors, there are peddlers with carriers on poles filled with goods plying the pathways and calling out what they have for sale. They are shown selling fresh fruits with two round connected containers of food on a pole. On top of one side is a board, on which are placed various fruits, foods, and dishes.

New Year's Market in a Time of Peace-3 of 9 (1708/1771) by Ding GuanpengNational Palace Museum

They are shown selling fresh fruits with two round connected containers of food on a pole. On top of one side is a board, on which are placed various fruits, foods, and dishes.

Another peddler is shown with a bamboo carrier, his wares put on display and including various play weapons and masks to attract the children to come, look, and choose from. This is a representative example of the knick-knack peddler as seen in the Qing dynasty.

New Year's Market in a Time of Peace-7 of 9, Ding Guanpeng, 1708/1771, From the collection of: National Palace Museum
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New Year's Market in a Time of Peace-8 of 9, Ding Guanpeng, 1708/1771, From the collection of: National Palace Museum
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New Year's Market in a Time of Peace-9 of 9, Ding Guanpeng, 1708/1771, From the collection of: National Palace Museum
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The Knick-knack Peddler by Li SongNational Palace Museum

A National Treasure: Li Song's "Knick-knack Peddler"

National Treasure "Knick-knack Peddler," Li Song (1070-1155), Song dynasty
Verified and declared by the Ministry of Culture on 24 December 2008

Knick-knack Peddler (1170/1255)National Palace Museum


Reasons for designation:

This painting describing a peddler selling his goods in a countryside setting integrates the themes of the knick-knack peddler and children playing. The lines in the brushwork are taut and powerful with numerous objects detailed but not chaotic, being as they are painted in a refined yet dynamic manner. Not only does the painting demonstrate exceptional artistic skills, the lively and naturalistic description of the figures reveals the interest in and concern of the artist towards figures in the countryside.

"Knick-knack Peddler" represents an important achievement of the Painting Academy in the Southern Song dynasty and has exceptional historic significance and period features. It fulfills the requirements in Paragraphs 1, 3, 4, and 6 in Item 1 of Article 1 in the "Regulations Governing the Review of Classification, Designation and Revocation of Antiquities" for designation as a "National Treasure."

Li Song (1170-1255), a native of Qiantang (modern Hangzhou), served as a Painter-in-Attendance in the Painting Academy at the Southern Song court under three emperors: Guangzong, Ningzong, and Lizong, who reigned from 1190 to 1264. Li Song is said to have specialized in Buddhist and Daoist subject matter, figures, and "ruled-line" painting.

This work depicts an elderly knick-knack peddler holding a pellet drum and accompanied by a shoulder pole carrying his countless wares. He has come to rest by a willow tree somewhere in a countryside setting as a woman with children arrive and swarm around him. The peddler is busy keeping an eye on the mischievous children, having a look of nervousness and hopelessness at keeping the children from his goods. 

The mother looks down at the items and appears to be lost in thought, the children clamoring with frenzied action and spirit. Along with its realistic details, this painting reveals the children's psychological state of excitement and desire, making it a superb example of Southern Song naturalism.

Credits: All media
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