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[359] Rickshaw Boy – Lao She

Translated by Howard Goldblatt

” Every cent he saved brought him that much closer to his goal of buying a new rickshaw. Not buying one was unthinkable, even if it was taken away from him the day after he got it. It was his ideal, his aspiration, almost his religion. He had no reason to live if he could not pull his own rickshaw . . . His talent was in pulling a rickshaw . . . not to do so would have been a disgrace. ” [5:51]

First published in China in 1937, Rickshaw Boy (Camel Xiangzi) is the harrowing story of Xiangzi, an honest and country boy who seeks employment in Beijing as a rickshaw puller. People seem to eager to deal with a conscientious man who has an innocent face, convinced that a simple, artless young man like him would not overcharge them. To Xiangzi, whose illiteracy puts the prospect of any clerical, non-menial job out of the window, making a living by pulling a rickshaw is proof of moral integrity.

If there was anyone or anything to hate, it was his fate.” [7:82]

As a hardworking rickshaw puller Xiangzi swallows coarse grains and sweats blood, depleting his strength for next to nothing. He has finally bought a rickshaw and then quickly loses it to the soldiers; he has saved up some money and loses to a secret police whose indiscretion he has to buy. For his monthly hire master belongs to an outlawed political society. The rickshaw shed owner’s daughter entraps him into a miserable marriage. Another employer—a wife and a concubine—exploit him as if they feel they haven’t got enough value out of the pittance they pay.

He wept silently. A rickshaw, a rickshaw had been his rice bowl. He’d bought one and lost it. He’d bought another and sold it. Time and again he’d reached up only to be thrown back, as by a ghostly apparition that forever eluded his grasp. He’d suffered so many hardships and wrongs, and yet had come up empty. [20:238]

Rickshaw Boy traces the degradation and ruin of an industrious Beijing rickshaw puller, a peasant drawn to the city. Xiangzi briefly enjoys the status of owner-operator, and finally dies on a snowy night. Living hand to mouth, he barely makes ends meet. through no fault of his own, he has, figuratively, been reduced to a two-legged beast, no longer a thinking human being. He has never been treated fairly as a hardworking man.

All right: since being conscientious, respectable, and ambitious was a waste of time, living like a no-account rascal was not a bad option. [14:163]

The novel not only serves as an indictment of a barbarous society, it also explores personality characteristic, its relation to economic existence and tolerance of risk, and personal standard of human dignity. The idea of individualism, which pervades the entire novel, as the plot is no more than how fate challenges Xiangzi, reflects the influence of Russian influence. A situation will be started on its way through unknown complications in dramatic possibility that is found in any Chekov scene. Xiangzi is, Lao She wrote, “a ghost caught in individualism’s blind alley,” because each man’s hopes and exertions obscured his vision during the time in China when victims could not see their way out of the poverty trap they were in.

300 pp. Trade paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Rickshaw Boy is a Chinese Literature Challenge read. Lao She (Shu Qingchun 1898-1966) is one of the most acclaimed and influential Chinese writers of the twentieth century. He is the author of numerous novels, short stories, and plays. He remains one of the most widely read novelists today, and probably its most beloved. The poverty of his childhood and the fact that these were also the years when the dynasty was collapsing and the Manchus were becoming a target of increasingly bitter attacks left a deep shadow on his impressionable mind and later kept him from personal participation on political activities.

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7 Responses

  1. Wow, wonderful review of what sounds like a wonderful book. Can’t wait to get my hands on it!

  2. Matt! Long time – do you remember me? Hahha I’m over at tumblr now! This book sounds really intriguing, I’ve been meaning to read more Chinese literature since Soul Mountain, but just haven’t known where to start.

    I’m learning Mandarin at uni now, do you reckon it would be too hard to attempt in the original for a third year student? 😀

  3. […] A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook by Matthew – “[359] Rickshaw Boy – Lao She“ […]

  4. This one sounds fascinating…I’m intrigued by your review and think that this is one I could get into for sure.

  5. Sounds like a tough book but one that’s well worth reading. Those can be the best kind!

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