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Rickshaw Individualism

Rickshaw Individualism

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Published by oakster510

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Published by: oakster510 on Jun 16, 2011
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02/05/2013

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Identifying “Society’s Diseased Womb” in Lao She’s
 Rickshaw Boy 
Perhaps the pursuit for economic independence provided strength to pull a rickshaw downthe 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 runat 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).
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 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 [...] therickshaw 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 finalyears of his life assisting funeral processions for a living, with Laos closing statement being: “[...] and noone 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 theLong 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 Qingstate. Liang proposed an unprecedented shift in Confucian reform: a reform from within the individualself. This was partially a reaction towards the failure of Feng’s “self-strengthening” movement, whichsought 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 politicalliberty 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 humanfree will. Xiaobing continues by indicating that “the obvious form of a lack of freedom is the situation inwhich the individual is obliged to comply with an overwhelming force.”
2
These assertions regarding freewill, and the lack thereof, concerns Lao’s characterization of the common Beijing rickshaw puller. Hsiangchases the dream of deciding his own fate, only to frustratingly find greater social forces adding weighton the rickshaw. The narrative speaks more than the social immobility of the time, but the systematicrobbing of human dignity.The rickshaw pullers bring a unique, but effective, story to Lao’s novel since it is notthe “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 politiciansto an emphasis on the common people living in an age of new Chinese urbanism. The exception, asscholar Young-Tsu notes, is the absence of prostitutes.
9
The were not impoverished either, their incomewas “comparable to policemen.”
10
Lao incorporates scenes of typical Beijing lifestyles - from bustlingstreet markets to the social gatherings of teahouses. “Rickshaw pullers were joined through their work tothe basic rhythms of city life,” Strand notes, “expressed in collective activities ranging from marketingand theatergoing to political protests and panics.”
3
While remaining in a meager economic class, therickshaw 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 toavoid walks on the usually muddy unpaved roads.
4
It would be typical for the pullers to be aware of therumors 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 conveythe 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 urbanlife, 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 onlyfamiliar, but mesmerized, by his rickshaw. Local warlord conflict caused food prices to raise, promptingHsiang to leave for Beijing. He finds urban life as a ‘safety-net,’ by which Lao writes, “The only friendhe had was this ancient city. This city gave him everything. Even starving here was better than starving inthe country” (Lao 31). As a newcomer, Hsiang utilizes the hospitality provided by his rickshaw tenant; acommon 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 produceda rickshaw” (Lao 3). For Hsiang, owning a rickshaw would be a “reward” and “the equivalent of thecampaign 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, pullerswould unionize to protect their interests, notably bringing The Streetcar Riot of 1929. Here, the uniondelayed construction of Japanese imported streetcars, a threat to the rickshaw puller’s market of personaltransportation. “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 intheir work. Merchant Kao Ma exaggerates the value of individualism while trying to sell a rickshaw toHsiang: “I’d pull for myself and shout for myself and not beg anyone for anything! If I could do that, you

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