Author: Lao She
Publication Date: 1936
Page Length: Approximately 300 pages (may vary depending on edition)
Rickshaw Boy, written by Lao She and published in 1936, is a gripping work of fiction that follows the life of Xiangzi, a rickshaw puller in 1920s Beijing. Through detailed descriptions and vivid storytelling, Lao She depicts the daily struggles, aspirations, and character development of his protagonist against the backdrop of a rapidly changing society.
The novel is divided into six sections, each exploring significant periods in Xiangzi's life.
Section I introduces us to Xiangzi's humble beginnings, his determination to make a living as a rickshaw puller, and his dream to one day own his own rickshaw. We are introduced to Xiangzi's loyal friend Xiaopang, who helps him realize his dream by lending him money. Xiangzi manages to acquire his own rickshaw and begins to build a small fortune.
In Section II, Xiangzi becomes embroiled in a love affair with Hua, a young prostitute. Despite the disapproval of his fellow rickshaw pullers and Hua's controlling pimp Chunsheng, Xiangzi is consumed by his infatuation. However, tragedy strikes when Hua is forced into an arranged marriage, leaving Xiangzi heartbroken.
Section III sees Xiangzi at the peak of his success. His hard work and determination have paid off, and he has become highly respected among his fellow rickshaw pullers. Lured by the prospect of greater wealth and independence, Xiangzi decides to invest his earnings into a cargo business. However, Xiangzi's lack of experience in this field leads to his downfall. His naïveté is exploited by unscrupulous businessmen, leaving him bankrupt and broken.
In Section IV, Xiangzi returns to the only profession he knows: pulling a rickshaw. This setback further highlights the harsh realities and cyclical nature of life. Xiangzi's mental turmoil deepens as he struggles to accept his failure and starts to question the purpose of his existence.
Section V takes us into the realm of political and social change. As China undergoes a transformation with the rise of the Nationalist government, Xiangzi becomes a victim of the oppression and exploitation faced by many ordinary citizens. The novel provides a stark critique of the oppressive social order, where power and corruption rule.
In the final section, Section VI, Xiangzi's journey comes full circle. He finds himself back where he started, grappling with poverty, desperation, and a sense of helplessness. The novel ends on a bitter note, symbolizing the harsh realities faced by those who are trapped within a society that offers little opportunity for upward mobility.
Throughout Rickshaw Boy, Lao She paints a vivid picture of urban poverty, human resilience, and the struggles of the proletariat. The characters are multifaceted, with Xiangzi embodying the dreams, aspirations, and challenges faced by the working class. The novel captures the essence of 1920s Beijing, providing readers with a glimpse into the social, political, and economic conditions that defined the era.
Themes of love, individualism, social ambition, and societal critique run through the narrative. Lao She's masterful storytelling not only hooks readers with the gripping plot, but also allows them to engage with the historically significant issues that shaped Chinese society during this period.
Rickshaw Boy remains an important work of literature, both for its historical significance and its exploration of universal themes. Through the lens of Xiangzi's struggles and aspirations, readers gain insight into the human condition, the complexities of social structures, and the challenges faced by individuals fighting for dignity within an unequal society.