Hsiang-tzu, a Beijing rickshaw puller born and reared in the countryside. Self-confident, brawny, and hardworking, the twenty-year-old orphan enthusiastically adopts the colorful capital of northern China as his lifelong home. Although he pulls rickshaws with exemplary zeal and skill, his rural naïveté and his low position in the social class structure combine to bring him one misfortune after another. Having lost his wife during a breech childbirth and, subsequently, his fiancée through suicide, and having seen his hard-earned life savings repeatedly slip through his fingers, Hsiang-tzu sinks into the urban underclass of shiftless vagrants when his once iron-hard will to better himself finally breaks. He becomes a mere husk of his former self.
Old Liu, the vain and overbearing owner of the rickshaw agency where Hsiang-tzu rooms and works during much of the novel. A former soldier of fortune who, in his younger days, amassed a large nest egg through mobster racketeering, the seventy-year-old man has since settled down to the more mundane occupation of renting out rickshaws to men who cannot afford to buy their own. His only child, a thirtyish daughter who is increasingly fearful of ending her days as a spinster, seduces Hsiang-tzu and tries to persuade Old Liu to accept the lad from the countryside as his son-in-law. Enraged that she would shame the family name by getting engaged to somebody of such humble origins, in a fit of pique Old Liu self-righteously disowns his daughter, abruptly sells the agency, and finally condemns himself to living out his remaining days in grim loneliness.
Hu Niu, Old Liu’s daughter, the real brains behind the day-to-day management of the Liu family rickshaw agency. Wily, aggressive, and fiery in temper as well as passions, she presides as the...
(The entire section is 772 words.)