Themes and Meanings
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.