sometimes witty book reviews
TW: brief mention of miscarriage and suicide
First published: 1937
Found: Syllabus of a Literature Course at Peking University
Pages/read time: this translation: 300, one rushed evening
[edited version of a class summary]
Rickshaw is a refreshingly working-class look at life in China. Set in the Early 1920s in Beijing and its nearby surrounds, this novel by Lao She is a testament to honest, hard hitting writing depicting the desperate life of the working poor at one of the most dynamic and volatile periods of the city’s history (a little bit like Lu Xun’s The True Story of Ah Q). Xiangzi is a remarkable lead character destined for tragic poverty, and the host of side-characters are also similarly tragic and garish. My favourite character (for want of the better description), however, is the city of Beijing itself. Probably a little because the novel is set in the same neighbourhood I am currently living in.*
Early on in the work Lao She uses sentence that, on first reading, I thought I understood: ‘The only friend he had was the ancient city.’ At first the meaning seems obvious. Beijing was his home, it fed and clothed him, provided work and supplied him thus with a livelihood. Yet, only as the work progresses does one realise that the city – though silent and mostly passive – s the only element of the story not destined for tragedy. Beijing goes on (in wealth, in poverty, in slums, in grandiose residences) as it always has. It keeps feeding, keeps providing work, keeps sustaining the lives within it, but the lives themselves ultimate make their own way to their respective bitter ends.
As Xiangzi faces set-back upon set-back, trial after trial, the soundscape and functioning of the city carries on as always. Xiangzi, however, faces greater and greater adversity. From the theft of his rickshaw to his entrapment into marriage, death of his gluttonous spouse and their stillborn son, and eventually the suicide of the woman he learned to love, Xiangzi’s life is destined for a squalid end. It could be argued that the city itself, with its depraved population and entrenched inequality, turned the once-headstrong and bright eyed country boy into the tiresome drunkard he is by the end. However, Xiangzi begins his first years in the city observing and taking a proper measure of the way things work within its walls. In my opinion, Xiangzi’s sense of self-pride and superiority ultimately leads him to his tragic circumstances.
For instance, he is pressured into marrying a person with little regard for his endless work hours and financial hardship. This could have been avoided. Of course, he could not prevent the sudden death of wife and unborn child, but it is his superior, hero-narrative that leads him to try and save a woman forced into prostitution instead of seeing that (as a good Confucian) the woman would ultimately suicide than wait for his redeeming relationship with her. Much like the late 19th century Russian literature that this novel evokes, however, this novel to me reads as a very satirical comedy. The slow and painful descent of Xiangzi from confident youth to desperate man is almost impossible to enjoy on a sadistic level.
Try 1) to avoid reading too much into the character’s nickname: Camel. Our professor spent two hours on the first two sentences stating that. It…detracts. 2) Try to locate the Jean M. James translation (pictured above) as earlier versions (often called Rickshaw Boy) are heavily re-written from the original.