Critical Context

Generally regarded as Lao She’s masterpiece and one of the top three or four twentieth century Chinese novels, Rickshaw marked a new stage in his development as a meliorist writer. His earlier novels, such as Li-hun (1933; Divorce, 1948), generally pointed to the weakness of the individual will as a key factor preventing Chinese society from throwing off the traditional ways that have engendered the social stagnation of the age. By contrast, with Hsiang-tzu, one encounters a very strong-willed character whose spirit of self-reliance is punctured by so many reversals that it is ultimately ground flat by the corrupt society in which he moves. Lao She now turns from the discredited ethic of individualist striving to a new credo of collective struggle on the part of the downtrodden: The rickshaw man whose ill grandson died in his arms cites the parable of the locust, which when alone is helpless to prevent a small boy from pulling off its legs, but as part of a giant horde can sweep through entire regions unopposed, devouring everything in its path. No doubt more leftist in orientation than any of Lao She’s previous novels, Rickshaw is nevertheless strikingly free of the obtrusive doctrinairism that mars so many other proletarian novels.