Rickshaw Boy: Messages for Christians (and All of Us)

In a previous post about Lao She, I shared a secret about this beloved and famous Chinese novelist: he was actually Christian. After an inspiring visit to his memorial site and former residence in Beijing, I was inspired to read some of his works. I have begun with one of his most famous novels, Rickshaw Boy. I first purchased the simplified Chinese text and then added a good English translation on Kindle. I am using the translation by Howard Goldblatt, which should be the best one available. One popular early translation made radical and inappropriate changes in the story. If you have read a version with a happy ending, it was fake!

Since Lao She converted to Christianity prior to writing Rickshaw Boy, I cannot help but wonder how Christianity influenced this work. The story is depressing as we watch a diligent, wholesome young man face disasters and setbacks that lead him to give up hope and abandon his former principles that seemed to do him no good. Nevertheless, there are aspects that Christians might appreciate.

Rickshaw Boy is about a young man named Xiangzi which means “lucky son.” The Chinese title is Luoto Xiangzi or Camel Xiangzi, a reference to an early incident in his unlucky life. After diligently saving money to buy his own rickshaw in Beijing, Xiangzi and his rickshaw are seized by a group of soldiers and taken away to the north of Beijing. Xiangzi is able to escape and is able to take 3 camels with him as he flees. Finding the camels actually is a stroke of luck that might have given him the capital needed to buy a new rickshaw. Unfortunately, he is perhaps too anxious to sell them and takes the first low offer he receives, fetching a price of 60 yuan, about 40 yuan short of the price of a rickshaw.

I see the events relating to the camels as a sign of divine intervention, a mysteriously “lucky” event that helped Xiangzi move forward. His lot was hard, but there was hope in the midst of trouble. Later, he encounters another blessing in finding an employer, Mr. Cao, who is a noble Confucian gentleman with kindness and high values. Life looks good and Xiangzi is close to having enough cash to buy his own rickshaw again. Unfortunately, a corrupt detective who is tracking Mr. Cao threatens Xiangzi and takes all the money he has been saving. In this scene, though, there was evidence of hope. Mr. Cao, spooked by the presence of a detective tracking him and knowing that he had a political enemy, gave Xiangzi instructions on how to go back home, warn his family, and help them rapidly escape before the threat of arrest could come. Mr. Cao told Xiangzi that if he suffered any loss in this matter, then he would make it up to him. Xiangzi, though, after being intimidated by the detective, fails to stay true to his commission and flees, as instructed by the detective. The detective tells Xiangzi that it is no use looking out for the Caos and that he needs to just think of himself and his own well being. By the time his conscience leads him to come back to the Cao family home, he is too late, and the Caos have fled to some other city. Had he been less selfish, less focused on himself and more on his duty, Mr. Cao apparently would have helped Xiangzi and reimbursed him for the loss from the detective’s theft. A means for delivery had been provided, but Xiangzi failed in his moral duty and, in my opinion, was unable to receive the blessing prepared for him.

Later, Xiangzi faces further disasters, but also further blessings and, with each disaster, opportunities for escape, if only he would stick to his morals or seek advice from others. His failure to get outside opinions on his difficulties and his lack of connection to others, due to his selfish focus on his own needs, resulted in much unnecessary loss, including being tricked into a terribly unhappy marriage by a girl who had seduced him and then pretended to be pregnant. Getting advice from almost anyone else could have helped him deal with this problem with less pain.

Some see Rickshaw Boy as a depressing story that points to the hopelessness of the poor, even those who are able to work with great diligence and energy. Others see it as a message supporting the claims of socialism and the futility of individualism. The closing paragraph seems to emphasize that point:

Respectable, ambitious, idealistic, self-serving, individualistic, robust, and mighty Xiangzi took part in untold numbers of burial procession s but could not predict when he would bury himself, when he would lay this degenerate, selfish, hapless product of a sick society, this miserable ghost of individualism, to rest.

Xiangzi had been a victim of a sick society and of external evil, suffering theft from soldiers and a detective, abuse from his employers, deception from a woman, and other wrongs. But none of these wrongs were so devastating as to end all hope or leave him with no recourse but abandonment of principles. It was selfishness that ended his hopes most fully.

His victimhood from outside forces is symbolized, in my opinion, by the scar on his head that he received as a boy. While he was napping, a donkey bit him, leaving a scar that ran from his cheekbone to his right ear. He was marked for misfortune, it seems, and when things got worse for him, his scar became more visible and finally becoming “spidered” with wrinkles during the difficult time living with the wife he despised, the one who tricked him into marriage. The scar on his cheek also helped the detective recognize Xiangzi as his former conscripted colleague in the group of soldiers that took his rickshaw, making it easier to extort Xiangzi. Perhaps the scar symbolizes the unavoidable impact of external factors that can destroy that which is material, but it was his entire countenance that changed for the worse when he abandoned principles. Xiangzi’s scar reminds me of the scars Christ received, a symbol of what He suffered at the hands of others, and what He conquered in the end. We cannot avoid scars and injury, but we can choose how we react.

When Xiangzi made the decision to abandon his principles and give up goodness, he blamed goodness itself for his trouble: “…so what is so great about proper behavior anyway? He was beginning to chart a new course for himself, one in direct opposition to that of the old Xiangzi.” He would cheat customers, be rude on the street, take advantage of people whenever possible, etc., all of which he felt would help him enjoy life more. “All right: since being conscientious, respectable, and ambitious was a waste of time, living like a no-account rascal was not a bad option.” In fact, it was “heroic.” “Fearing neither heaven nor earth, he’d no longer bow down or suffer in silence. He owed that to himself. Goodness turns a man bad.”

Goodness was not the problem. It was selfishness and despair.

Shortly before this tragic turn in his attitudes and values, he demonstrated the ability to overcome the selfishness and materialism that had fueled his single-minded quest to save money to buy a rickshaw, a quest that is even called his “religion.” The young man who would never waste money or give it away felt a wave of compassion in the presence of a decrepit old rickshaw man who came into a tea house seeking a few minutes of reprieve from the bitter cold of the Beijing winter. Responding to those feelings, Xiangzi ran out to buy the man a dozen hot buns to give him and his young grandson a meal. It was the best he had felt. That event reminds us that he had potential to grow, to life others and himself, in spite of setbacks. That experience was a moment of grace, both for him and the man and child he served.

Another example of grace being offered was his encounter with Mr. Cao after his fall. He resolved to be better, and dared to face him. He was greeted with warmth and given a second chance. The girl of his dreams, whom he had deserted earlier in order to save enough money for marriage, was a topic of the discussion and Mr. Cao offered a job for her as well and a place to stay. The goodness of Mr. Cao and his mercy may be a symbol of God’s love and enduring grace.

In going to meet Mr. Cao, his former employer, the recently fallen Xiangzi was penitent and resolved to abandon his evil ways and return to the virtuous person he once was. He said: “Please, Mr. Cao, be there, don’t let me come up empty. . . . Heaven won’t desert Xiangzi, now that he’s turned his life around, will it?” It was a prayer that was answered, but in a complex way. Mr. Cao would be there and would be as gracious as anyone could hope for. The final challenge Xiangzi had to face, however, was to show that his resolution to change was real, even when faced with the devastating news that the girl he wanted to marry was dead. He failed that challenge, and sank even lower than before. But he had a choice and the opportunity to change and improve, in spite of sorrows.

Suddenly there was hope, and Xiangzi rushed out to find the girl he had neglected. Tragically, he learned that she had been forced into prostitution and had committed suicide. With this final blow, Xiangzi rejected the grace offered him, abandoned his repentance, and plunged to new depths, never to return.

When he previously rejected or walked away from the girl he loved, he focused on his own goals and needs foremost. His selfishness interfered with the chance he could have had to save her and live happily with her, with kind assistance from Mr. Cao.

The major setbacks in Xiangzi’s life were balanced with lucky events such as finding camels or again encountering Mr. Cao, events that had the potential to give him renewed hope, if only he would adhere to virtuous principles and endure. The real tragedy was his abandonment of virtue in the face of trouble. The real enemy was his own selfishness.

One speaker in the novel equates rickshaw men with a grasshopper tied to a string. When grasshoppers join together in a great mass, they can become unstoppable and devour all crops in their way, yet when tied to a string, an individual grasshopper achieves nothing. Their powerful wings have no value when tied down. The need for unity and cooperation among the rickshaw men to improve their lot is one that many of them recognize, but none have the faith or knowledge needed to take action. Xiangzi takes a step in that direction not by agitating for reforms but by sharing to help a needy brother, and it makes him feel better than he had ever felt.

One of the most important Christian objectives that I think may be found in Lao She’s book is making society aware of the challenges of poverty among the workers in our own midst. China and all nations still have numerous rickshaw boys pursuing other endeavors: today’s rickshaw boys may be cabbies, factory workers, peddlers of food and cheap goods on the street, and others who work long hours with little compensation. Rickshaw Boy does much to bring their sorrows and hopes to light, that the rest of us might be able to show more compassion.

It is not an overtly Christian book, but as Christians, we can learn much from it. Though it is rife with sorrow, we can learn from Xiangzi’s mistakes and realize that there may be grace and hope extended to us even in times of trouble. And I hope we will all learn to better grasp the plight of the poor and do what we can to offer hope and mercy to those in distress.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

2 thoughts on “Rickshaw Boy: Messages for Christians (and All of Us)

  1. You always have good stories and information to share. And with a lesson to learn and put to use in our everyday lives. Thanks.

  2. You're welcome. China has so much to offer in terms of literature, culture, history, and food. Wish I had more time to write about what we experience over here.

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