Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 23, 2019

Rickshaw Boy, by Lao She, translated by Howard Goldblatt

This deceptively simple book Rickshaw Boy by Lao She (1899-1966) is a classic of Chinese literature.  According to the helpful introduction by translator Howard Goldblatt, Lao She was a prolific writers of plays, short stories and novels, and his status as one of the most widely read and best beloved Chinese authors is all the more remarkable given his humble beginnings.  His father was a lowly palace guard for the emperor when he was killed during the Boxer rebellion in 1900, plunging the family into dire poverty, which influenced Lao She for the rest of his life.

Despite disruption to his education due to financial difficulties, he was able to graduate from Beijing Normal University and, became a teacher, eventually making his way to the University of London where he taught Chinese from 1924-1929.  He read voraciously and became a great admirer of Dickens, whose devotion to the urban downtrodden and use of ironic humour Lao She found particularly affecting; they would inform much of his own work, particularly the early novels and stories.  He wrote his first three novels in London, and continued writing when he returned to China, mostly writing stories which critiqued the malaise which inhibited development in China and made it vulnerable to foreign incursions.  During what became a turbulent period in Chinese history, his belief in the Confucian ideal of individual moral integrity, shifted as he began to doubt that individual heroism could be of any use in a generally corrupt society.  Yes, hard on the heels of Barnard Eldershaw’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow which posited the hopelessness of individual effort to achieve social mobility or even to keep one’s head above water, I read Rickshaw Boy which has the same political and moral message: that individualism is bankrupt in the face of a corrupting and dehumanising social system.

But where the Barnard Eldershaw novel expounded the message in 400+ pages of sledgehammer polemics, the simplicity and elegance of Rickshaw Boy is a different reading experience altogether.  Its central character is an orphaned rural labourer who comes to Beijing (called Beiping in the novel) determined to better himself.  Despite his poverty Xiangzi is the embodiment of the Confucian man of virtue: he beggars himself to dress neatly and to rent the smartest of rickshaws; he offers superior service; he is as classy as a rickshaw boy can be to get the work he wants so that he can buy his own rickshaw and be financially independent.  Never at any time are the disasters which befall him his fault.

If you aren’t already feeling uneasy about the cover image on this book, the descriptions of Xiangzi pulling his rickshaw through all kinds of terrible weather and at the mercy of his customers, will make you realise how degrading this form of human exploitation is.  In the beginning Xiangzi pities the older men, never imagining that he will be old before his time too:

Xiangzi was not heedless of the wretched condition of the old, frail rickshaw men whose clothes were so tattered, a light wind blew through them and a strong one tore them to shreds.  Their feet were wrapped in rags.  They waited, shivering in the cold, at rickshaw stands, wanting to be first to shout “Rickshaw!” when a prospective fare approached.  Running warmed them up and soaked their tattered clothes in sweat, which froze as soon as they stopped.  Strong winds nearly stopped them in their tracks.  When the wind came from above, they ducked their heads down into their chests; wind gusting up from below nearly knocked them off their feet. They dared not raise their heads in a headwind, to keep from turning into kites, and when the wind was at their backs, they lost control of both their rickshaws and themselves.  They tried every trick they knew, used every ounce of energy they possessed, to pull their rickshaws to their destination, nearly killing themselves for a few coins. After each trip, their faces were coated with dust mixed with sweat, through which poked three frozen red circles—two eyes and mouth.  Few people were out on the streets during the short, cold days of winter, and a day of running might not bring in enough for one good meal.  And yet the older men had wives and children at home, while the younger ones had parents and siblings. For these men, winters were sheer torture… (p.95)

Summer is equally perilous, on days when the torrid heat means no one should be doing hard physical labour of this kind.

Nevertheless, Xiangzi is optimistic, hard-working and determined that he will achieve his ambition to own his own rickshaw.  He takes pride in what he does, but after years of slaving away and his ecstatic purchase of his own rickshaw, it is stolen from him when he is press-ganged into the army and he has nothing to show for his labour when he eventually escapes. His next disaster occurs when he is inveigled into a relationship that he doesn’t want and can’t afford.  It’s disastrous for him.

When finally there is the opportunity to find happiness with a woman he loves, his circumstances are too dire to marry her:

He still loved her, but supporting her brothers and her drunken father was beyond his means.  He still had trouble believing that Huniu’s death had freed him, for she’d had her strong points, most prominently her willingness to  help him financially.  However certain he might be that Fuzi would not sponge off him, it was just as true that no one in her family could contribute any incomes.  Love or no love, for a poor man, money talks.  Lasting love can sprout and grow only in the homes of the rich.  (p.241)

And so it goes on. Events conspire to sabotage his every effort, and his simple ambition comes to nothing.  He comes to realise that his abstemious habits in the service of improving himself have been wasted; he may as well join in with the other men, drinking and smoking and spending his few coins on good food, because self-denial and saving has led to nothing.

Sadly, American approval of Rickshaw Boy may have contributed to Lao She’s tragic end.  According to a review of a different book that I came across via The Asian Review of Books, he went to the United States for an extended visit in 1945, where he

… facilitated “ideological harmony between Chinese leftist activists and American diplomats,” particularly through his novel Rickshaw Boy. State Department officials referred to this novel about the class struggle and socialism as “liberal” and “democratic”. In 1945, the government released a special edition of the English translation of the book and directed its circulation among US soldiers stationed in Asia.

Was this why Lao She fell foul of the Cultural Revolution? or was it the impact of an interview given to a foreign couple in which he told them that he could understand why Mao wanted to destroy bourgeois concepts of life but could not write about it because he was not a Marxist. We old ones cannot apologise for what we are, he said.

Not long after that, Lao She was visited at the offices of the Chinese Writers Association by Red Guards, who dragged him outside, where they interrogated, humiliated and probably beat him. He was ordered to return the next day, but, according to reports, when he saw his “courtyard strewn with all his possessions, his house looted, his painting and sculpture wrecked, and his manuscripts, the work of a lifetime in shreds… he did not enter his house but instead turned and walked to [a nearby lake], and there he drowned himself. (Introduction, p. xii)

Everything I read about the Cultural Revolution reinforces my sense of horror about its barbarism.

BTW: In the introduction, Howard Goldblatt address the issue of the title.

Xiangzi is, of course, a young man, not a boy, and while only a few of the characters associated with rickshaws are, in fact, boys, at the time of writing, pullers were known among foreigners as rickshaw “boys” (waiters, servants and other menial labourers all suffered the indignity of being called boys, irrespective of their age).  However distasteful if seems now, “rickshaw boy” fits the period and the tone, and so I follow Evan King [a previous translator] in his choice of English title. (Introduction, p.xv)

BTW The translation is excellent.

Author: Lao She
Title: Rickshaw Boy
Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt
Publisher: Harper Perennial, Modern Chinese Classics
ISBN: 9780061436925
Source: Glen Eira Library

Available from Fishpond: Rickshaw Boy

 


Responses

  1. What a sad end to his life

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    • That’s what strikes me too, the utter loneliness of it. We forget nowadays that for a very long time there were always people who could not afford to marry and spent their lives alone and in poverty.

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  2. China such a complex subject. My minimalist reading Han Suyin’s autobriographical novels and The Long March in my early 20’s invigorated an interest being a child of the Cold War of post war Britain. These are challenging times for that relationship with this ancient culture most of us know so little. What an amazing human being Lao She and must read. Thanks again for your great review.

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  3. If Lao She wrote The Rickshaw Boy as an argument against Confucius and honour I wonder what he would put in its place. Though by your summary it seems to me an argument against the poor having ambition.
    Also it would be interesting to know whether he used words with the western connotation of ‘boy’ in the Chinese title.

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    • I’ve looked it up: the literal translation of the Chinese title is ‘fortunate son’, preceded by the word for ‘camel’ which is a nickname that he gets when he steals some camels from the army that he was press-ganged into. So, I see the translator’s problem: ‘Camel Fortunate Son’ just doesn’t work, does it?
      I think his point about Confucianism for the poor, is much like the argument for Irish Catholics: offer up for sufferings as a penance to God — and don’t rock the economic boat that puts you in a position where no matter how hard you try, you can’t get ahead.

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