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Lao She: 駱駝祥子 (Camel Xiangzi; Rickshaw; Rickshaw Boy)

Lao She’s previous works had been satires on the professional classes. This is his first work on the urban poor, particularly rickshaw drivers. It is set in the mid-thirties, when the situation in China was very unstable, with anarchy, corruption, bandits and poverty rife. Hsiang Tzu, the hero of this novel, has been an orphan since he was a child. He is now a rickshaw driver, in his early twenties. As Lao She explains at the beginning, he is in a better position than many others. Many start when very young and are worn out by the time they are Hsiang Tzu’s age. Those over forty are too weak to offer good service. Hsiang Tzu has to hire his rickshaw but is saving up to buy his own. He does this by making sacrifices. He is single, so has no family to support. He is parsimonious, with no frivolities and denies himself even medicine when he is ill.

Eventually, after three years of saving, he has saved enough to buy a rickshaw. However, his pride of ownership is soon shattered. When he is at the edge of the city one day, he hears reports of soldiers on the rampage. However, two men offer him and another rickshaw driver two dollars – well in excess of the normal fare – to take them outside the city. The two drivers agree but they are soon captured by soldiers, beaten up and have all their money and rickshaws stolen. Hsiang Tzu wanders around, trying to find a way home without running into more soldiers. In doing so, he comes across some camels and takes them. He plans to sell them in Peking but is concerned about handling them and having them stolen so he sells them very cheaply. He returns to Peking and goes back to the agency where he worked before he bought his own rickshaw and is soon nicknamed Camel. The agency is run by an old man called Liu who has a daughter Hu Niu. She is in her late thirties and helps her father run the agency. She is something of a dragon and is no beauty. However, she has a soft spot for Hsiang Tzu and manages to seduce him one night. The ambition of every rickshaw driver is to become the private driver of a family and Hsiang Tzu manages this a few times, though not always successfully, as some families are better employers than others. When Hu Niu turns up pregnant one day, Hsiang Tzu’s employment with one family abruptly ends. Hu Niu has a plan to get her father to adopt Hsiang Tzu and for him to manage the agency instead of driving. However, Hsiang Tzu neither wants to be Hu Niu’s husband nor manage the agency. He is quite happy driving rickshaws.

The rest of the novel concerns his continuing travails. He owns a rickshaw again and loses it again. He saves money and then loses it. His character changes dramatically, first mellowing and then becoming harder. Of course, things do not work out with Hu Niu and her father does not adopt him. Even when he finds the girl of his dreams, he loses her. In short, nothing goes right for him at all. Lao She tells an excellent story of a man struggling to lead a simple existence but, due to a combination of political and economic circumstances, his own naivety and the trickery of others, never manages to come out ahead. When things seem to be going right, something comes along to derail him. And, as in real life, there is no happy ending.

Publishing history

First published in Chinese 1936
First published in English as Rickshaw Boy 1945 by Reynal & Hitchcock; as Rickshaw by University of Hawaii Press; as Camel Xiangzi 1981 by Foreign Languages Press, Beijing
Translated by Evan King (Rickshaw Boy); Jean M. James (Rickshaw); Shi Xiaojing (Camel Xiangzi)