Rickshaw Boy

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This article is about the novel. For the film, see Rickshaw Boy (film).
Camel Xiangzi
Author Lao She
Country China
Language Chinese
Published 1937
Rickshaw Boy
Rickshaw Boy (Chinese characters).svg
"Rickshaw Boy ("Luotuo xiangzi") in Traditional (top) and Simplified (bottom) Chinese characters
Traditional Chinese 駱駝祥子
Simplified Chinese 骆驼祥子
Literal meaning "Camel the Auspicious Lad"

Rickshaw Boy or Camel Xiangzi (Chinese: ; pinyin: Luòtuo Xiángzi; literally: "Camel Auspicious Lad") is a novel by the Chinese author Lao She about the life of a fictional Beijing rickshaw man. It is considered a classic of 20th-century Chinese literature.[1]

History[edit]

Lao She began the novel in spring, 1936, and it was published in installments in the magazine Yuzhou feng ("Cosmic wind") beginning in January, 1937.[2] Lao She returned to China from the United States after the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949. In an afterword dated September, 1954, included in the Foreign Languages Press edition of Rickshaw Boy, Lao She said that he had edited the manuscript ("taken out some of the coarser language and some unnecessary descriptions") and he expressed regret for the lack of hope expressed in the original edition.

In 1945, Evan King published an unauthorized translation of the novel. He cut, rearranged, rewrote, invented characters, and changed the ending. The girl student and One Pock Li are King's, not Lao She's. King also added considerable embellishment to the two seduction scenes. Despite the liberties taken, the book was a bestseller in the United States and a Book-of-the-Month club selection.

Plot[edit]

Set in the 1920s, the novel's protagonist is an orphan peasant who leaves for Beijing to earn a living. Xiangzi is a young, hardworking, well-built rickshaw puller who dreams of owning his own rickshaw. Just when he has earned enough to buy one, it is confiscated by warlord soldiers. By a twist of fate he comes across some camels during his escape from the military, which he later sells, earning the nickname Camel. However, the cash Xiangzi obtains from this is not enough for him to buy another new rickshaw - providence decrees that he must toil once more. A police secret agent later extorts him into paying him his savings, leaving Xiangzi impoverished again. Left with no choice, Xiangzi returns to work for Old Master Liu, the boss of a thriving rickshaw rental company.

Although he tries to be honest and down to earth, Xiangzi finds himself entangled between Old Master Liu and his stout, manipulative daughter Tiger Girl, ten years his senior. Tiger Girl, who is carrying a torch for him, insists on marrying Xiangzi after pretending to be made pregnant by him. Her father disowns her and the couple live together, progressively made poor by her spendthrift ways. Later, Tiger Girl becomes pregnant by Xiangzi and grows even fatter as she awaits her delivery due her laziness and greediness for food.

When Tiger Girl dies during childbirth and Xiangzi's infant child is stillborn, Xiangzi is distraught. He later finds meaning in life again in a female neighbour, the meek and long-suffering Little Fuzi, who is forced into prostitution by her idle father. When Xiangzi has earned enough to redeem her from the brothel, he is devastated to find she has committed suicide.

The harsh realities of life taught Xiangzi that decency and hard work have little meaning in this pragmatic, dog-eat-dog world. He becomes a lazy, degenerate and unscrupulous good-for-nothing, no different from those he looked down on early in his life, spending his days gambling, cheating and whoring.

Subject matter and themes[edit]

The major subject matter of Rickshaw Boy is the way in which the hero makes his living pulling a rickshaw, the options he faces and choices he makes, and especially the fundamental issues of whether to work independently or as a servant to a family, and whether to rent or own a rickshaw.

Additionally, the novel describes a series of adventures he has and his interactions with a number of other characters.

Beijing -- "filthy, beautiful, decadent, bustling, chaotic, idle, lovable"[3]:240—is important as a backdrop for the book. "The only friend he had was this ancient city." (p. 31)

The book explores the intimate relationship between man and machine (the rickshaw), and the evolution of that relationship. The relationship is both financial—requiring months and years of calculation to graduate from being a renter to being an owner—and physical. "His strength seemed to permeate every part of the rickshaw. . . . he was energetic, smooth in his motions, precise. He didn't appear to be in any hurry and yet he ran very fast . . . . " [3]:7

An important theme of the book is the economic precariousness of the hero's life. "No matter how hard you work or how ambitious you are, you must not start a family, you must not get sick, and you must not make a single mistake!" [3]:185 "If you avoid dying of starvation when young, good for you. But it was almost impossible to avoid dying of starvation when old." [3]:95

Further, the book explores personality characteristics and their relationship to economic existence, especially tolerance for risk, tolerance for hard work, and assertiveness, and personal standards of human dignity. "He had a strong body, a patient disposition, ambition, yet he allowed people to treat him like a pig or a dog and he couldn't keep a job." [3]:48

Isolation and individualism are important themes in the book. "His life might well be ruined by his own hands but he wasn't about to sacrifice anything for anybody. He who works for himself knows how to destroy himself. These are the two starting points of Individualism." [3]:237

Historical significance[edit]

The characterization or point of view in Rickshaw Boy reflects the influence of Russian literature in China in general, and particularly on the way that influence was transferred to China by Lu Xun in stories such as The True Story of Ah Q and "Diary of a Madman".[4]

The subject matter of Rickshaw Boy aligned with concerns of Chinese leftists and the Chinese Communist Party. For instance, the final sentences read, "Handsome, ambitious, dreamer of fine dreams, selfish, individualistic sturdy, great Hsiang Tzu. No one knows how many funerals he marched in, and no one knows when or where he was able to get himself buried, that degenerate, selfish, unlucky offspring of society's diseased womb, a ghost caught in Individualism's blind alley." [3]:249

Lao She went on to play a leading role in literary associations endorsed by the government, such as the All-China Federation of Literature and Art. According to the introductory section of the Foreign Languages Press (Beijing) English translation, "Before Liberation [Lao She] wrote many works of literature, including his best novel Camel Xiangzi (or Rickshaw Boy) to expose and denounce the old society.

While he now enjoys prestige in China and was named a "People's Artist" and "Great Master of Language", at the beginning of the cultural revolution he was severely persecuted. The Red Guards paraded him through the streets and beat him in public. Being humiliated both mentally and physically, he, according to the official record, committed suicide by drowning himself in Beijing's Taiping Lake in 1966.[5]

English translations[edit]

Reynal & Hitchcock (New York) published an English translation by Evan King in 1945 under the English title Rickshaw Boy ("by Lau Shaw"). According to Jean M. James ("Note on the Text and the Translation" in the James edition), "King cut, rearrange, rewrote, invented characters, and changed the ending."

The University of Hawaii Press published an English translation by Jean M. James in 1979 under the English title Rickshaw: the novel Lo-t'o Hsiang Tzu.[3] It is based on the 1949 edition.

Foreign Languages Press (Beijing) published an English translation by Shi Xiaoqing in 1988 under the English title Camel Xiangzi.

The most recent full translation is Rickshaw Boy: A Novel (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Chinese Classics, 2010) by Howard Goldblatt (ISBN 9780061436925). Goldblatt went back to the 1939 first book edition and consulted the 1941 edition while working on the translation.

Adaptation[edit]

The story was filmed as Rickshaw Boy (1982) directed by Zifeng Ling. Composed by Guo Wenjing, an opera based on the novel was created at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (China) in June 2014.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Song (2013), pp. 164-165.
  2. ^ How I came to write the novel "Camel Xiangzi", included in Foreign Languages Press edition.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Lao She (1979). Rickshaw: the novel Lo-t'o Hsiang Tzu. Jean M. James (trans.). Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. 
  4. ^ Douwe W. Fokkema, in "Lu Xun: The Impact of Russian Literature," in Merle Goldman, ed., Modern Chinese Literature in the May Fourth Era (Cambridge: Harvard, 1977), writes, "The heroes in these stories are all outcasts and underdogs, in varying degrees . . . . Xiangzi, the main figure in Luotuo xiangzi (Rickshaw boy [1937]), who becomes the victim of his own stubborn toiling, fits into this category." (p. 100)
  5. ^ [1], additional text.

References and further reading[edit]

  • Vohra, Ranbir (1974). Lao She and the Chinese Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.,: East Asian Research Center, Harvard University; distributed by Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674510755. 
  • Hsia, Chih-tsing (1961). A History of Modern Chinese Fiction, 1917-1957. New Haven,: Yale University Press. 
  • Song, Yuwu (2013). Biographical Dictionary of the People's Republic of China. Jefferson: McFarland. ISBN 9781476602981. 
  • Wang, Dewei (1992). Fictional Realism in Twentieth-Century China: Mao Dun, Lao She, Shen Congwen. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231076568.