Book # 626a
“The life of a poor man…was like the pit of a date, pointed on both ends and round in the middle. You’re lucky to get through childhood without dying of hunger, and can hardly avoid starving to death when you’re old. Only during your middle years, when you’re strong and unafraid of either hunger or hard work, can you live like a human being.”
This is the essence of Lao She’s Chinese classic novel Rickshaw Boy. Xiangzi is an impoverished rickshaw puller in his twenties who is ambitious enough to make sacrifices and save up to improve his lot in life, only to have his hopes and dreams dashed over and over again. The moment things are going right for Xiangzi, another misadventure befalls him. Despite this endless tragedy, Lao She’s story is comical, if painfully so. The sheer unfairness of the ups and downs and the matter-of-fact tone of the writing force the reader to laugh with a grimace.
The city of Beiping (now known as Beijing) plays a critical role in the book. As a rickshaw man, Xiangzi knows every nook and cranny. Despite the poverty and lack of opportunity he faces, Xiangzi never has a negative thought about his city. In fact, “Xiangzi had but one friend: this ancient city.” He can’t imagine ever leaving it, even if leaving might improve his situation. Beiping is home for Xiangzi in the fullest sense of the word.
Ultimately, Rickshaw Boy is the story of the hopelessness that results from extreme poverty. Without the slightest chance to ever live comfortably, Lao She makes clear that a rickshaw man has little reason to work any harder than he must to survive the day:
“Sloth is the natural result of unrewarded hard work among the poor, reason enough for them to be prickly.”
He also has little reason to even think about the future. After all, any gains he makes will be taken from him:
“Experience had taught him that tomorrow was but an extension of today, a continuation of the current wrongs and abuses.”
Rickshaw Boy is a quick and fairly easy read, with a very overt message. What I enjoyed most about it reading it was the fact that it took me well outside the usual realm of literary classics from America and Great Britain. Rickshaw Boy is a Chinese story and a successful portal into 1930s China. But it’s also a universal story of the hopelessness that extreme economic disparity breeds; this is a very relevant message in our world today.