Camel Xiangzi is one of the most touching and successful novels by the Chinese writer Lao She (1899–1966). Lao She, a patriotic people’s writer, is a pseudonym of Shu Qingchun. The novel is based on the author’s fi rsthand knowledge of rickshaw boys and typically shows the narrative style of this famous author: the vivid and sensitive portrayal of characters, biting and lively use of language, and, more important, the enlightened view toward his protagonists trapped in modern China’s social turmoil.
The main character, Xiangzi, is a healthy boy raised in the countryside. He moves to Beiping (today’s Beijing) at the age of 18 and now makes a living as a rickshaw boy. He is tall and energetic, with a rubicund face and shaved head. He believes that he can transform his life by working hard, and sure enough he manages to buy his own new rickshaw three years later. This period proved to be a happy beginning for the young man, but the euphoria is short-lived as tragedy soon strikes. One day, while Xiangzi is carrying a customer out of the city, he is robbed by a group of soldiers. They imprison him, forcing him to work for them. The young man quickly resolves to escape, and the opportunity soon comes. In the middle of the night, Xiangzi flees the barracks, taking three camels with him that the soldiers had earlier stolen. He sells the camels to a villager for 35 yuan. The money makes up partially for Xiangzi ’s loss, and for this experience he gains the nickname Camel.
Without enough money to buy a new rickshaw, Xiangzi must borrow one from a rickshaw station named Harmony Yard. The boss of this station is Father Master Liu, an old man with only one daughter named Hu Niu. Xiangzi is permitted to live in the yard, which is convenient for him as he has no home. His ambitions swell again. He has saved some of the money from the earlier sale of the camels, so he plans to work hard and save more money in order to buy his own rickshaw again.
His ambitions fall prey, though, to Hu Niu, an aging spinster and shrew who has helped her father run his business for many years. She notices Xiangzi and tries to lure him into marriage. One night she persuades him to drink heavily, and they fall into bed together. The next morning Xiangzi regrets his involvement with Hu Niu and decides that he must leave the station immediately. Feeling he has escaped another bleak and imprisoning situation, Xiangzi finds a steady job working in Mr. Cao’s house. Mr. Cao, a professor, treats the rickshaw boy well, but Xiangzi enjoys his new job and improving spirits for only a few months. Hu Niu appears unexpectedly and tells Xiangzi that she is pregnant with his baby and now wishes to marry soon. Xiangzi is shocked by the news.
Having no choice, Xiangzi returns to Harmony Yard, where he marries Hu Niu. He regrets his decision, however, and sees the marriage as ridiculous. Hu Niu is not only much older than he, but she is ugly, selfish, and lazy. He also learns of her deceit: She had faked her pregnancy by hiding a pillow under her coat. In their new home, Hu Niu employs a neighbor named Xiao Fu-zi as a maid, but she soon drives the young servant away because she fears that her husband is attracted to the younger woman. Xiangzi is indeed attracted to the pretty young maid because she possesses all of the warm emotions and caring spirit that his wife lacks. Hu Niu soon dies of an infection, forcing Xiangzi to sell the rickshaw to pay for his wife’s burial. He decides that he cannot marry Xiao Fu-zi because he has no money to support her and her two younger brothers.
Despairing, Xiangzi once again begins working as a rickshaw boy, but he also begins to smoke and drink heavily, and his temper turns volatile. He finds himself at the end of his rope, until one day he visits his former employer, Mr. Cao, who allows him to continue his old job. Mr. Cao also agrees to hire Xiao Fu-zi as a maidservant. Xiangzi excitedly hurries to the tenement to tell his beloved the promising news, only to discover that Xiao Fu-zi has hanged herself in a grove outside the white cottage (the bawdyhouse).
This novel unfolds the collapse of a rickshaw boy, both in body and spirit. Xiangzi comes from the countryside to live in the city. Although he prefers the urban life, he thinks and behaves as a farmer. He wishes to have his own rickshaw, just like a farmer wants to have his own land. He believes he can turn his dream into reality, but his efforts are in vain. His dreams—simple ones, he thought—die in front of him. He cannot have his own rickshaw and a caring, beautiful wife in Xiao Fu-zi.
The author Lao She describes the miserable career of rickshaw boys like Xiang Zi with mixed feelings. He shows his great sympathy to and understanding of the group of rickshaw workers, but he also reveals that one’s own humanity is often too frail and powerless to withstand the onslaught of evil and destructive forces in the universe. Lao She’s works are renowned for their compassion and profound understanding of human plight in the 20th century. In this sense, Camel Xiangzi can be read as a mirror of modern Chinese sociocultural life during the early 20th century, and Lao She’s works—others include the Four Generations Under One Roof (Si Shi Tong Tang) and the play The Tea House (Chaguan)—are regarded as the peak of civic literature in the history of Chinese modern literature.
Fan Jun. “Recognizing Laoshe.” Literature Criticism 5 and 6 (1996).
Zhan Kai-di. Two Characteristics of Language in Camel Xiangzi. Papers Collected on Laoshe Study. Shandong: People’s Press, 1983.