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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 328

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Themes of Camel Xiangzi include the value of hard work, the cruelty of the world, and how circumstances can change a person's character.

The value of hard work is expressed in the character of Hsiang-tzu, the protagonist. He works hard when he first gets a job pulling rickshaws in the city; he attempts to save to buy his own so that the work can be both more profitable and on his own terms. Through hard work, he is able to buy a rickshaw. Later, he saves to purchase another. He is always willing to work hard and use what he has to make life better for himself. This is in contrast to other rickshaw coolies who are lazy, sneaky, and shiftless.

The cruelty of the world inexorably takes its toll on Hsiang-tzu and the other characters. Hsiang-tzu repeatedly loses his rickshaws and money through circumstances he himself did not create. He loses his wife and child when she dies in childbirth. He loses the other woman he cared about when she kills herself after being forced into a brothel. Other characters in the novel lose things as well. For example, Hsiang-tzu refuses to tell his deceased wife's father where she is buried because he was cruel to them in the past. The father lost the rest of his daughter's life and the comfort of knowing where she was laid to rest.

The way the world treats Hsiang-tzu changes his character. At the beginning, he is a good man who is willing to work hard and follow the rules. After he loses his first rickshaw, he starts to bend the rules while still working with a rickshaw and trying to save money. After he loses his wife and the other woman he loves, he becomes sneaky, works outside the law, and gives up on rickshaws and building a good life for himself. The world beats each character in the novel down and does not allow them respites from cruelty.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 272

Hsiang-tzu would seem to be well equipped to flourish at rickshaw pulling: Brawny and strong-willed, he loves to work and is so frugal that he skimps on food while saving to buy a rickshaw. Though somewhat naive, he has the presence of mind to win back part of his losses while escaping from the army. The fundamental factor behind his downfall, according to Lao She, is his idea that individual striving is the key to success in any endeavor. In an economically backward society lacking any sort of welfare safety net, aside from a few scattered soup kitchens, an individualist ethic of self-reliance is a dubious credo for manual laborers of the lower social strata.

An old rickshaw man tells Hsiang-tzu that he had watched helplessly while his grandson died in his arms from an illness because he could not afford the fees that doctors and hospitals charge. Lao She seems to suggest that there is something ethically bankrupt about a society that remains complacent in the face of true misery affecting a large segment of the citizenry. Yet Lao She puts forward none of the answers common in the 1930’s, such as notions that a new political leadership or economic system would solve everything. Lao She views the problem of a lack of compassion for one’s fellowman as generalized and diffused throughout all levels of society; late in the novel, as a condemned labor activist is paraded through the streets on his way to the execution ground, rich and poor alike throng the sidewalks to gape and jeer at a person whom they callously scorn as being no longer human.