Camel Xiangzi was first published serially in Yuzhou feng (cosmic wind) from September, 1936, to May, 1937. It was first translated into English by Evan King in 1945. The first English version was titled Rickshaw Boy, an apt title that reveals the intimate relationship between Xiangzi and the rickshaw. To own a rickshaw of his own seems to Xiangzi to be a moderate and practical ambition. Like a white bird gliding above the dark crows, the dream of owning his own rickshaw keeps Xiangzi’s hope alive. Xiangzi’s dream also helps him to maintain moral integrity and drives him to seek beauty even in the manner of pulling a rickshaw. Xiangzi does not comprehend that in his unjust society any effort to accomplish an idealistic goal is a joke. The degree of Xiangzi’s demoralization corresponds to his repeated deprivation of a rickshaw. Whenever he tries to pull himself up, the dream of keeping a rickshaw fades. The death of his dream reduces Xiangzi to a living dead man. Lao She conveys the importance of holding on to one’s dream, even if it is delusional.
The title of the novel, Camel Xiangzi, conveys another important theme: the degradation of an individual. The theft of the camels marks Xiangzi’s first spiritual lapse. Xiangzi has justification for his theft of the three army camels in the confiscation of his rickshaw, but his adultery with Tigress destroys his self-respect and leads to his subsequent moral downfall. According to the tenets of naturalism, and this novel may be considered naturalistic, Xiangzi’s downfall is not his individual responsibility but that of the society. Lao She, for example, makes it a point in the novel to criticize individualism. The grandfather of Little Ma compares an individual to a helpless grasshopper caught and tied by a child and believes that only swarms of grasshoppers can defeat the victimizing hand. Lao She ends the novel by denouncing the degenerated Xiangzi as “a lost soul at the end of the road to individualism.” Although Camel Xiangzi is the first novel to reveal Lao She’s inclination toward socialism, his socialism should be called Confucian socialism. Mr. Cao, a mild socialist who provides a moral oasis in the society’s desert of evil, has Confucian aesthetic taste and individual integrity. He upholds Lao She’s ideal. The novel negates selfish individualism; Xiangzi’s tragedy is also caused by his abandonment of positive individualism, or personal responsibility. He is defeated by relying on Mr. Cao and on Joy for his salvation.
Tigress and Joy are two unforgettable female characters. They represent two traditional types in literature: the vicious scourge and the nursing angel. Tigress, ugly, seductive, and vampirish, threatens Xiangzi’s independence, whereas Joy, pure and innocent although forced to be a prostitute, nurtures his spiritual and bodily wounds. Lao She’s favor for Joy’s meek sacrifice and loathing of Tigress’s aggressiveness are obvious. Joy represents the traditional type of woman whose identity equals self-annihilation. Tigress, at least, pursues her own happiness and struggles for status and economic independence among men. Lao She’s fiction very often reveals his phobia of assertive women as well as of young revolutionaries because of their self-interested motives. It was not surprising that he committed suicide at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 after a humiliating confrontation with the Red Guards.
Camel Xiangzi is Lao She’s masterpiece, praised by the eminent critic C. T. Hsia as “the finest modern Chinese novel before the second Sino-Japanese War.” The first piece of realistic modern fiction introduced to the West from China, as Rickshaw, King’s translation, it was an instant best seller. People all over the world enjoy Camel Xiangzi; Xiangzi’s tragic fate speaks to everyone, and the rickshaw world is a microcosm of human society. Camel Xiangzi also demonstrates Lao She’s sophisticated humor and mastery of the Beijing dialect. Although Lao She was influenced by English and American literature, his Camel Xiangzi is uniquely Chinese.