The Social Metaphor of the Rickshaw of futile social striving in Lao She’s Rickshaw

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The central titular metaphor of the rickshaw, both coveted and pulled by the central protagonist Hsaing Tzu, forms the core metaphor of Lao She’s novel of the same name. Tzu fetishizes the object of the rickshaw. The rickshaw symbolizes his desire and perceived ability to attain social success, despite his humble birth in the country and his lack of parents. Tzu pulls a rickshaw by trade, but he is sure if he owned the rickshaw, riches and respect would be his, just as Tzu’s despised wife similarly fetishizes the man himself, thinking that if she ‘owned’ him, she would attain some sort of social respectability and grace. Both are continually thwarted in their attempts, as Tzu’s striving for social advancement proves to be chimerical, and his wife’s marriage ends in death, death for her and death for the child of the union of the two ill-matched lovers.

Upon reading the novel, at first glance, a reader might be tempted to assume that the central visual metaphor of the rickshaw, of one enslaved being to another, as a man or woman pulls another on wheels, is merely visually striking. The visual power of the image cannot be denied. Through the apparent operation of the rickshaw, the person being ferried is the superior, while the other is the subordinate. The other person is yoked as an animal for the other’s comfort. But this relationship takes on power social significance, as Tzu’s desire for his rickshaw and status as a rickshaw puller come to symbolize his fetishizing of money, his willingness to abase himself for social mobility, and eventually, the rickshaw ‘relationship’ between puller and pulled comes to symbolize the nature of most relationships between people over the course of the novel.

Unlike family relationships, idealized in Confucian texts, commercial employment of any kind is a rickshaw relationship. A marriage entered into not for honorable reasons, but for social advancement, is also enslaving to both parties, as Tzu’s wife discovers. Thus Lao She’s socially conscious characters relate to objects, rather than to people and ancestors, as they should according to Confucian philosophy. A rickshaw driver like Tzu is a willing vocational slave to a trade through Chinese city dust, rain, summer heat, and winter cold. Hsaing Tzu’s fetishizing his ownership of a rickshaw is still evidence of his enslavement to money and work, even though he sees it as liberation.

Tzu’s fetisihizing the rickshaw, like his wife’s fetishizing of the institution of marriage with a man for social advancement rather than to have children and obey her husband like a good Confucian wife, however, is not a psychological statement, as it might be in a Western novel. Rather, the explanation for the use of fetishizing in the novel is indicative of the fallen nature of society, where traditional social relationships have been perverted and diverted into an obsession with money. The enslaving rickshaw is a parallel for Tzu’s desire for social and economic mobility, just as marriage is for his carping wife, an apparent mobility that is a dead end because it is morally bankrupt.

Even the name of the protagonist suggests this enslavement, as his name comes to characterize the nature of his fetish. All of Tzu’s attempts to better himself are through theft, by making himself into a beast of burden, by enslaving himself to modes of capitalist exchange. Initially, as a young emigrant from the countryside Tzu has no social status in the ‘superior’ urban world, and desires to steal such status. He has no parents, no relations, and no lineage to speak of or ‘trade’ off of, in a world of capitalist exchange or Confucian exchange for that matter. His first marker of status comes by being nicknamed after the camel he steals, his first of many thefts. Camels were particularly degrading beasts of burden in China. By being given a nickname, rather than a family name, Hsiang Tzu is always reminded of his shameful theft. His wife, even more degradingly, wishes to ally herself wish such a man and name, and pass on this name, although she sees marriage as a form of respectability. Tzu’s nickname underscores how remote is his lot in life from the traditional Chinese social structure, just as his wife’s inability to pass on his name indicates how no man can truly steal a respectable family name and way of life.

Continually, through being a beast of burden to others, Tzu strives to better himself. He does not see how despised the rickshaw drivers like himself are, as they act as conveyors of “eaters of foreign food.” (3) He feels because he has picked up a “smattering” of foreign phrases to communicate with his foreign clientele that he has bettered himself, even though he has only served to alienate himself from his countrymen and his tradition. (3) As a driver, even his dress and language sets him apart from other workers not in the rickshaw trade, although foolishly again, Tzu is proud of how he has shed his country accident and country ways. He is convinced that “with his own rickshaw” he would have something to eat, to call his own. (5)

This obsession with owning things carries over into all of Tzu’s social relationships, as his wife tries to own him through marriage, and his employers strive to own him through their subjugation of him — Tzu sees the only way out of such a relationship to become an owner himself. He does not try to better the world, only make more money, again, ironically by fetishizing an enslaving mode of conveyance. This shows how socially, Tzu is throughout a ‘surface’ oriented person. Although a peasant, the foreign rickshaw trade gives Tzu a superficial sensibility he mistakes for ‘the real thing.’ However, the reader has clear knowledge that this will not rehabilitate his status, as he will still be a rickshaw-pulling beast of burden given the visual power of this metaphor, and the social power this metaphor begins to accrue.

When Tzu is tricked into marriage with a woman he despises he is particularly upset because he believes the marriage is beneath him, ironically for a man who makes his living beneath others, much as a prostitute makes her money beneath other men. The institution of marriage, like the betterment of one’s self through ownership of one’s means of income, a rickshaw, should symbolize social advancement in Tzu’s confused way of thinking. Tzu’s wife makes a fetish of the marital institution much in the same way her husband does the conveyance of a beast of burden, and with as little self-knowledge.

But marriage should provide a connection to the future, and a respectable linage for the father and his wife. The marriage in the novel cannot do so, because the hearts of the participants are empty and were not willingly joined. Thus, fittingly, according to the moral and social symbolism of bad marriage in the novel, Tzu’s wife dies in childbirth, as does his only child and link to the future. The bad wife provides a dead link to the future, and the coveted rickshaw, because it is an enslaving and burdensome means of commerce that dehumanizes the puller and provides a dead means of making a living. The foreign-pulling rickshaw driver becomes more of an animal than a man.

Throughout the entire novel, like an animal Tzu finds himself exploited by officials and the employers he has the misfortune to become subject to as a laborer — he is always pulling the rickshaw. Tzu is so fixated on making money he forgets who he is and aspires to become. At one point of the tale he ends up scraping cigarette butts off the street, informing on dissidents, and hiring himself out as a mourner and wedding flag bearer in the rituals for no one he knows, all to make money. The novel condemns a society that allows such actions to occur under the official and legal ‘watch’ but also regards Tzu as complicit in such actions. Society allows rickshaws to exist, and foreigners to permeate the Chinese world, but that does not excuse bad actions, such as Tzu’s thievery and his wife’s trickery.

The rickshaw thus acts as more than a powerful textual image, but as a fetish of the main character that accrues more and more socially symbolic capital through the novel. After all, Tzu is not the only man who enslaves his body to the service of others — he is one of many rickshaw drivers. The rickshaw becomes a metaphor of the man’s entire life, as he actively seeks such enslavement for money, and a society that despises such individuals as the rickshaw pullers, but allows them to exist because it makes things easier for society. Similarly, the man’s wife pursues a marriage that leads to childbirth and death, because she believes it will be her own conveyance to social advancement, and make her life easier. Instead, her burden of a child destroys her, because her marriage was not entered into in good faith. By yoking herself to another, like her husband did to a rickshaw, despite the fact that her husband did not desire such a bond, his wife sowed the seeds of her own destruction, and was killed by the scope of her own social ambitions.

One of the final social ironies of the rickshaw and the character of Tzu and his wife is that book thinks quite highly of themselves, despite their absence of such traditional Confucian markers of status as family, or a truly heaven-arranged marriage, where they wife subsumes herself to her husband’s will, as the husband subsumes himself to the will of heaven, his ancestors, and his social betters. Tzu’s epitaph, is that he is one who is “handsome, ambitious, dreamer of fine dreams, selfish, individualistic, sturdy, great Hsiang Tzu…[N] o one knew when or where he was able to get himself buried, that degenerate, selfish, unlucky offspring of society’s diseased womb, a ghost caught in Individualism’s blind alley.” (249) No one will honor Tzu, in other words, the man who made a fetish of the rickshaw of money and commerce, rather than real family, the man who refused to accept what heaven doled out for him. A lack of burial and proper mourning and children is the ultimate death in Confucian society, a fate enjoyed by both husband and wife.

This alienation from society, family, and tradition in the pursuit of social mobility, a solitary and lonely life of pulling and striving, of hollow and emotionally and financially unprofitable struggle stands against one of Tzu’s few true friends, one of his ‘good employers,’ which the novel stresses he should respect according to traditional Chinese law. Mr. Ts’ao is scholar, teacher, husband and father, who even Tzu respects as “very reasonable in everything”(77). Mr. Ts’ao reveres learning and patronizes the arts, but does not feitishize them, or try to make them into vehicles of social advancement, and when he is buried, all in his family will mourn him, unlike Tzu who strains against Confucian laws of parentage and one’s allocated place in the world.

Thus the yoking rickshaw Tzu desires to buy and the unblessed marriage of Tzu desired by his wife are mutually degrading as well because of the individualism they show in the hearts of social strivers. His wife’s idealization of the yolk of marriage to an unwilling husband parallels her husband’s eager pulling of foreigners that despise him and social advancement as an individual through an object of transaction. It is not commerce or marriage themselves that are ‘bad’ institutions but what one makes of them as institutions. The rickshaw and the yolk of marriage become corrupt because they exist in a corrupt society that has lost its Confucian compass of morals to commerce, and because they are fetishized and filled by corrupt, weak-willed people.

Works Cited

She, Lao. Rickshaw. Trans. Jean M. James. Honolulu: U. Of Hawaii, 1979.