Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)


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

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

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.)

The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The protagonist is a composite of two 1930’s Peking rickshaw men whose travails sparked Lao She’s imagination. One had stolen three camels from some marauding soldiers to compensate for their confiscation of his rickshaw, while the other rickshaw man was forced by one calamity after another to pawn every rickshaw which he had bought, finally sinking into extreme penury. Hsiang-tzu’s nickname and brief notoriety evolved from the first rickshaw man’s camel caper, but the overall tenor of the protagonist’s life resonates more fully with the string of bitter reversals that ground down the second rickshaw man.

A key irony in the harshness of Hsiang-tzu’s fate is his long-standing obliviousness to the risks of establishing a place for himself in an unfamiliar urban environment: In his optimism that borders on foolhardiness, he has eyes for only the opportunities that the city offers. Hsiang-tzu once muses that even for beggars life holds far more opportunities in the city than in the countryside; urban beggars enjoy meat scraps now and then, while their rural counterparts may never savor the taste of meat. This windfall mentality makes him impatient with manual jobs such as street peddling that provide a reliable but meager income. Would it not be far better to work as a rickshaw puller, when one large tip from a wealthy customer might come to as much as a whole day’s peddling? It is not until Hsiang-tzu is too overwhelmed by his reversals to...

(The entire section is 564 words.)