Thursday, June 16, 2011

Identifying “Society’s Diseased Womb” in Lao She’s Rickshaw Boy

Perhaps the pursuit for economic independence provided strength to pull a rickshaw down the narrow avenues of China’s capital during the 1920s. Lao She’s novel, Camel Xiangzi or Rickshaw Boy, illustrates this independent spirit through a rickshaw puller’s image of perseverance: “They run at a moderate pace with their heads down and eyes fixed straight ahead while keeping to one side of the road. They have an air of superiority, of not being at odds with the world, about them” (Lao 3).1 The protagonist, Hsiang Tzu, firmly grips the wooden rickshaw and feels synonymous with it. Upon purchasing his own rickshaw, “He tried to see a reflection of his face in the lacquered panels [...] the rickshaw was his heart’s blood. There was simply no reason to separate man from rickshaw” (Lao 10). This enthusiasm is short-lived, for Lao concludes his novel on a somber tone. Hsiang spends his final years of his life assisting funeral processions for a living, with Laos closing statement being: “[...] 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” (Lao 249). The societal pressures bringing the self-reliant Hsiang to his downfall are dissected in this novel. By publishing Camel Xiangzi, Lao expresses a grim portrait of individualism at a time Mao Zedong ascended the ranks throughout the Long March (1934-5).
Lao was not the first to critique the aspects of character of those within China. Two decades before the novel’s publication, Liang Quichao blamed Chinese personality for the weakness of the Qing state. Liang proposed an unprecedented shift in Confucian reform: a reform from within the individual self. This was partially a reaction towards the failure of Feng’s “self-strengthening” movement, which sought to undergo institutional reform while remaining committed to Confucian norms. As scholar Xiaobing Tang remarks: “Liang found it a compelling issue to define the boundary between political liberty as an institution and individual freedom as a metaphysical concept and ideal”.2 Republican institutions in China, as Liang would suggest, cannot survive without a national understanding of human free will. Xiaobing continues by indicating that “the obvious form of a lack of freedom is the situation in which the individual is obliged to comply with an overwhelming force.”2 These assertions regarding free will, and the lack thereof, concerns Lao’s characterization of the common Beijing rickshaw puller. Hsiang chases the dream of deciding his own fate, only to frustratingly find greater social forces adding weight on the rickshaw. The narrative speaks more than the social immobility of the time, but the systematic robbing of human dignity.
The rickshaw pullers bring a unique, but effective, story to Lao’s novel  since it is not the “tableau of figures representative of Republican society,” as David Strand points out.3 In other words, the subject matter shifts from the conventional focus of influential intellectuals and politicians to an emphasis on the common people living in an age of new Chinese urbanism. The exception, as scholar Young-Tsu notes, is the absence of prostitutes.9 The were not impoverished either, their income was “comparable to policemen.”10 Lao incorporates scenes of typical Beijing lifestyles - from bustling street markets to the social gatherings of teahouses. “Rickshaw pullers were joined through their work to the basic rhythms of city life,” Strand notes, “expressed in collective activities ranging from marketing and theatergoing to political protests and panics.”3 While remaining in a meager economic class, the rickshaw puller is placed in a rare position to interact with their passengers, of whom are wealthy. These passengers ranged from public officials, businessmen, and tourists; all using the rickshaw as a means to avoid walks on the usually muddy unpaved roads.4 It would be typical for the pullers to be aware of the rumors circulating among these groups - as exemplified by Hsiang’s interactions with the Ts’ao family. In this particular instance, the rickshaw driver is caught in the middle of a police-spy investigation over suspicions of Mr. Ts’ao’s revolutionary ideology. Lao places similar frame stories to intimately convey the plight of early communist movements, outside the context of influential historical figures.
Lao places the story in Beijing by no accident whatsoever, for rickshaw pulling provided the greatest sector of labor within this non-industrial city. According to sociologist Li Jinghan, one out of six able males was a puller within the city.5 What attracted the pullers to what Lao describes as a “filthy, beautiful, decadent, bustling, chaotic, idle, lovable” (Lao 240) Beijing? Contrasting from Shanghai urban life, Beijing was relatively non-industrial, leaving unskilled workers to the rickshaw market. In addition, the capital’s rural surroundings experienced cold winters, bringing a seasonal influx of farmers for temporary work as pullers. The protagonist himself originated from rural life, where he became not only familiar, but mesmerized, by his rickshaw. Local warlord conflict caused food prices to raise, prompting Hsiang to leave for Beijing. He finds urban life as a ‘safety-net,’ by which Lao writes, “The only friend he had was this ancient city. This city gave him everything. Even starving here was better than starving in the country” (Lao 31). As a newcomer, Hsiang utilizes the hospitality provided by his rickshaw tenant; a common practice among rickshaw providers which invited migration into the city.
Working with the rickshaw opened a door for economic independence, unlike the nature of factory labor. “Becoming independent was not a simple matter at all,” describes Lao, “[...] one drop of sweat, two drops of sweat, who knows how many million drops of sweat until the struggle produced a rickshaw” (Lao 3). For Hsiang, owning a rickshaw would be a “reward” and “the equivalent of the campaign medals worn by a soldier at war” (Lao 4). Despite this notion of independence, rickshaw pullers collaborated with each other in transferring passengers for long distance trips. In addition, pullers would unionize to protect their interests, notably bringing The Streetcar Riot of 1929. Here, the union delayed construction of Japanese imported streetcars, a threat to the rickshaw puller’s market of personal transportation. “They focused on the strategies they fashioned to survive and protect livelihoods,” scholar Emily Honig notes, “and in some cases, drawing on an acquired knowledge of the law to insist on their formal rights.”6 Despite these collective practices, rickshaw pullers always maintained stubborn pride in their work. Merchant Kao Ma exaggerates the value of individualism while trying to sell a rickshaw to Hsiang: “I’d pull for myself and shout for myself and not beg anyone for anything! If I could do that, you could offer me the mayor’s job and I still wouldn’t trade” (Lao 72).
The optimistic spirit of the protagonist quickly diminishes in the realization of both the physical nature of the labor and the financial consequences of working independently. Fitness, in previous years, had been correlated to modernity as Kang Youwei and Liang Quichao emphasized physical exercises in schooling. It is questionable whether the fitness required to pull a rickshaw can be attributed to modernity, for such use of human power was seen as backwards towards foreigners.7 Income was completely dependent of the puller’s health- which would inevitably become problematic as the puller ages. Lao illustrates the underlying truth: “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” (Lao 185). Through greater dependency of unions, Hsiang also fell into indebtedness towards Yuan Ming, Beijing’s transportation tycoon. “Yuan Ming lived on in Hsiang Tzu’s mind, lived on in those bank notes in his waistband,” explains Lao, “Hsiang Tzu certainly had no regrets but he was afraid - afraid of that ghost which was close on his heels wherever he went” (Lao 245).
While the physical and financial stress take an enormous toll on the protagonist, the robbery of human dignity is perhaps the most damaging. As mentioned earlier, the image of a man pulling another would appear socially backwards. The nature of the work was dehumanizing simply because animals conventionally carried the burden of transportation. Hsiang reveals his emotional stress as “He wanted to sit down and cry for a while. 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” (Lao 48). Supporting a family, or even just a wife, added to the pressure for the provider. Around 20 percent of Beijing included those working as rickshaw pullers and their dependents.5 The protagonist expresses harsh domestic discontent: “He had to serve his wife, that red-dressed, tiger-toothed thing, a thing that sucked away a man’s virility” (Lao 143). The author addresses the loss of dignity with paramount concern - and in the words of Ranbir Vohra, “Lao She showed his disillusionment with individual effort as a path to China’s salvation.”8

Works Cited:
  1. Lao She. Rickshaw. Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii (1979).
    1. Originally written in 1936, observes the struggles of a rickshaw puller as his life transforms in Beijing in the 1920s.
  2. Xiaobing Tang. Global Space and the Nationalist Discourse of Modernity. Stanford: Stanford University Press (1996). p 158-9.
    1. Xiaobing analyzes Liang’s philosophy on “free will,” and the institutional and individual relationships towards human freedom.
  3. Strand, David. Rickshaw Beijing: City People and Politics in the 1920s. Berkeley: University of California Press (1993). p 24.
    1. Reviews the culture, themes and events surrounding the rickshaw pullers of Beijing. Makes consistent references to Lao’s literature. Provides greater factual knowledge and a broader observation - rather than Lao’s individual narrative.
  4. Strand, David. p 32.
  5. Strand, David. p 20.
  6. Honig, Emily.“Review: [untitled].” International Labor and Working-Class History. No. 39 (Spring 1991). pp. 111-113. Cambridge University Press.
    1. Observes the backwardness of rickshaw pulling as a contributor to the modernization of China. Also provides an account of Beijing’s “pre-industrial” urbanism, in relation to Shanghai.
  7. Strand, David. p 33.
  8. Vohra, Ranbir. “Review: [untitled].” The Journal of Asian Studies. Vol. 39, No. 3, (May, 1980), pp. 589-591. Association for Asian Studies.
    1. Summarizes Lao’s objective of writing Rickshaw Boy; the “disillusionment” of individualism and the downfall of Hsiang Tzu.
  9. Young-Tsu Wong. “Review: [untitled].” The English Historical Review, Vol. 108, No. 428 (July 1993), pp. 763-764. Oxford University Press.
    1. Brief review of Lao’s Rickshaw Boy. Points out that prostitutes were excluded from novel, but a noteworthy reality in Beijing. Also makes references to the October 1929 riots.
  10. Strand, David. p 29.

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