Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 360
Hsiang-tzu dreams of owning a rickshaw so that he can be economically successful in the city. The price of a rickshaw is so high that it is difficult for him to afford it. Still, the novel introduces him as a thoughtful, dynamic young man who is willing to sacrifice to achieve his dreams. This is in contrast to the men he works with in the city; each of them are more interested in spending their money than planning for the future.
Once he owns his own rickshaw, Hsiang-tzu still is not able to completely achieve his dreams. Things out of his control keep getting in the way. For example, he is forced to work for soldiers. He has to run a rickshaw for them after they take the one he saved to purchase. Though he steals camels from them—earning the nickname Camel Hsiang-tzu in the process—he still does not make enough to purchase the new conveyance.
As he works toward purchasing a new rickshaw, he abandons the ideals he had when he first came to the city. He is no longer the kind and respectful young man he used to be. Instead, he is willing to do whatever it takes to make enough money to get back to where he was before he was kidnapped. He loses his savings when his employer's house is raided by the police but still manages to buy another rickshaw with his wife's money.
That rickshaw is sold once Hsiang-tzu's wife dies in childbirth. The only way he can afford to bury her and their child is to sell it and use the money. He slides deeper into depression and does not live the positive kind of life that he hoped to live when he first came into the city. When he finally feels like attempting to be positive again, he secures jobs for himself and his former neighbor—a woman he loved—with his old boss. Unfortunately, that neighbor was forced into prostitution, and she killed herself. This is the final straw for Hsiang-tzu. He abandons the ideals he used to hold dear and lives out his life shiftless, irresponsible, and dishonest.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 848
After Xiangzi’s parents die, he goes to the city of Beijing, bringing with him a country boy’s sturdiness and simplicity. He rents a rickshaw from Fourth Master Liu, who owns the Harmony Rickshaw-renting Yard, to make a living. Unlike the other rickshaw pullers, who are addicted to smoking, drinking, and visiting prostitutes, Xiangzi leads a decent, frugal life. His only dream is to have a rickshaw of his own. After three or four years of struggle and hardship, he saves enough money to buy a rickshaw, believing that the rickshaw will bring him freedom and independence. No sooner does he buy the rickshaw than he is drafted into the army, and his rickshaw is confiscated. Later Xiangzi escapes from the barracks during a night attack, taking with him three army camels. He sells the camels and gets back to Beijing, starting another round of saving money to buy himself a rickshaw. For his theft of the camels, he becomes known as Camel Xiangzi.
Xiangzi deposits the money he made from the sale of the camels at Fourth Master Liu’s place and works even harder. One night Fourth Master Liu’s daughter Tigress seduces him. Ashamed of himself, he leaves Liu’s place to work as a private rickshaw puller for Mr. Cao. Even so, he is repeatedly bothered by Tigress, who pretends to be pregnant. Around the same time, Ruan Ming informs the police of Mr. Cao’s socialist ideas as a revenge for Ruan Ming’s academic failure under Mr. Cao. During the police raid of Mr. Cao’s home, Xiangzi surrenders all his savings, including the camel-sale money he just got back from Tigress, to a secret policeman who is the former lieutenant Xiangzi waited on in the barracks. Tigress then takes advantage of Xiangzi’s misfortune, tricking him into marriage. As a result, Fourth Master Liu disowns his daughter for her determination to marry a penniless coolie and looks down upon Xiangzi, believing that he married Tigress for money. Xiangzi and Tigress move to a slum.
Counting on her father’s eventual forgiveness, Tigress lives an easy life on her savings. She treats Xiangzi as a plaything and forbids him to work pulling a rickshaw. Xiangzi becomes depressed. He is frustrated when Tigress accuses him of marrying her for her money. When Tigress learns that her father sold the Harmony Yard and went into hiding with all the money, she finally lets Xiangzi buy a rickshaw with the rest of her savings. Xiangzi hopes the rickshaw will enable him to assert his independence. He works furiously day and night. Then he catches a disease after pulling the rickshaw in a summer storm. His health is impaired. Worse still, he is constantly tortured by his wife’s nagging. He can only seek solace from Joy, the neighboring woman who is supporting her drunken father and two little brothers on her meager earnings as a prostitute. Tigress is terribly jealous of the friendship between Xiangzi and Joy. The two women become reconciled when Tigress gains some understanding of Joy’s plight and her forced prostitution. When Tigress gets pregnant, the prospect of being a father gives Xiangzi a new hope in life. Tigress eats excessively and does not exercise, resulting in her death when she gives birth to an oversized baby. After Tigress’s death, Joy wants to marry Xiangzi. For fear of supporting her large family, Xiangzi turns her down but promises to come to her someday.
Xiangzi is forced to sell his rickshaw to pay for the funeral of his wife and son. After the loss of his second rickshaw, he loses faith in the value of hard work. He begins smoking and drinking, even contracting venereal disease from the mistress of a house where he works temporarily. He indulges himself shamelessly in dissipation and grows pugnacious. One day Fourth Master Liu happens to ride by in a rickshaw and asks about Tigress. Xiangzi says she is dead but refuses to tell Liu where she is buried. Depriving the old rich man of his only relative, Xiangzi feels that he won a spiritual victory. He has a sudden urge to recover his old self, “that unfettered, unburdened, decent, ambitious and hard-working Xiangzi.” He believes that Mr. Cao and Joy will help him succeed in establishing a decent life. As expected, Mr. Cao offers him a job and even agrees to let Joy come and work. In high spirits Xiangzi goes in search of Joy. After a few days of inquiries, however, Xiangzi discovers that Joy hanged herself after being forced by economics to enter a low-class brothel. His mind goes blank and life suddenly loses its meaning. He does not return to Mr. Cao’s family but instead degrades himself by becoming lazier, dirtier, and more shiftless day by day. He delights not only in the small gains of petty thievery but also in the monetary reward he receives for betrayal of a revolutionary. He finally degenerates into an automaton, parading for a pittance in Beijing’s endless wedding and funeral processions.