AbeBooks has sold a rare 1931 book filled with paintings of shop signs in Peking. The Shop Signs of Peking, with a preface in English by H.K. Fung and produced by the Chinese Painting Association, sold for £3,615 ( $5,500) earlier in May. It contains 101 hand-coloured illustrations of the merchant signs with captions in English and Chinese. Peking is, of course, now known as Beijing. The book was sold by Bjarne Tokerud, a bookseller in Victoria, British Columbia, who specialises in rare Chinese books.
Historically, Chinese shops used pictorial signs because of a low literacy level among the population. Gold indicated a jeweler, silver a seller of pewter, a silver jar indicated a wine shop and a lantern designated a lantern shop. Fung writes: “The wine flag can be recognized from a great distance, when one wants to satisfy his thirst, he will not have to strain his optic nerves to get what he wants; they are as conspicuous as the barber poles in Western Countries.”
Fung predicts, quite correctly, in the preface that these highly visual signs would relics as the Chinese educational system became more established.
“The only explanation that I can give for the existence of these pictorial signs is that in the former times the percentage of illiteracy among the people was very low. I am sure with the establishment of the new public school system that most of the Chinese people can read the written language of the country. Therefore it is plain to see that these signs will gradually disappear as they are no longer necessary. Eventually they will become nothing but relics of the ancient Chinese Customs. So it is very advisable for those who are interested in things Chinese to add a copy of this album to their collection in Orientalia. October first 1931.”
One other copy is available on AbeBooks for £5,442 / $7,995.