In the introduction to Lao She's novel Lo-t'o Hsiang Tzu, first published in serial form between September of 1936 and May of 1937, the translator relates that Lao She's message in his previous works had explored "the conservatism of the traditionally educated. . . (and) their blindness to the necessity to modernize China. . . (with) the Chinese as the obstacle to progress," yet in Rickshaw, Lao She focuses on "the self-centeredness of the Chinese which he calls Individualism. . . (being) their crucial failing" (viii). The main character in the novel, Hsiang Tzu, a rickshaw puller, appears to be the "personification of this great flaw," namely individualism. Thus, Hsiang Tzu "is not a victim of a sick society but one of its representatives, a specimen of a malady that must be cured" if China is to become modernized and be a part of the modern world.
Without a doubt, Hsiang Tzu stands as a symbol for China's plight in the late 1930's when the country was faced with many social and political problems. Since the setting of the novel is in Peking, it is clear that Hsiang Tzu, in order to survive as a member of China's uneducated and underprivileged class, is attempting to make a decent living in this city, the capital of China until it was shifted to Nanking in 1928. However, Peking, "the great city, is neutral toward him. It neither helps nor hinders, (for) all it gives him is a slightly better chance to survive" (Introduction ix). In order to better understand Hsiang Tzu's position in Peking as a rickshaw puller, a brief look at the history of China during the 1930's is necessary.
In 1928, the Guomindang (Nationalist Party) made Nanjing its capital because the southern capital was closer to its main power center on the lower Yangzi. Beijing was renamed Beiping which means "Northern Peace," and the ten-year period between 1928 and the Japanese invasion in 1937, the year in which Lao She's Lo-t Hsaung Tzu is primarily set, is known as the Nanjing decade. The record of the Guomindang in these years provides the evidence on which to judge Lao She's great novel during a time when China was attempting to create a modern nation-state.
During the Nanjing decade, Chinas was a country of startling contrasts. In the coastal cities, the indications of modernization and Westernization were widespread yet somewhat superficial. In Shanghai in 1929, there existed 2,326 factories that employed nearly 300,000 workers with 70% being women and children. In 1933, more than 80% of Chinese-owned industry was located in the eastern and southern coastal provinces and in Manchuria. But in Peking, things were not so bright, and the city merely existed to sustain itself while the rest of China, except for the rural areas, prospered under the guise of the Republic of China. But when China became the People's Republic in 1948 on the eve of the Cultural Revolution, Peking "had no industry and had lost its only business, governing the country" (Introduction viii). With this scenario, it is clear that Hsiang Tzu was caught up in the turmoil of the great political change within China and was forced to make his way in society through the only means available to him, namely as a rickshaw puller, a job that entailed much labor, danger and very low pay.
A number of selections from Rickshaw will help to illustrate the aspect of Hsiang Tzu as an individual which appears to be at heart of China's problems during the mid to late 1930's, at least according to Lao She. In Chapter One, Lao She describes Tzu as a "comparatively independent rickshaw man. . . (who) belonged to that group made up of the young and strong who also owned their own rickshaws." But becoming "independent was not a simple matter at all," for it took years and much sweat and toil to reach the level of an independent rickshaw owner (3). This process of being independent is somewhat analogous with capitalism as it existed in many Western nations during the time of Hsiang Tzu and in today's world. The term "rugged individualism" as it applies to America serves as the basis for capitalism and self-independence, but with Hsiang Tzu, being an individualist appears to be a negative trait by separating him from the rest of society that, for the…