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Through telling the story of Xiangzi, Lao She’s “Rickshaw” moulds a woman in Hu Niu that is the antithesis of everything that a woman should be in the traditional society of that period. In the time-honoured Chinese culture, there has long been a strong prejudice against women of power. Every unfavourable image has been linked with particularly those who have proved especially formidable. Throughout the histories that have been written by mostly men where views as traditional as Xiangzi’s have been prevalent, dominant women have been presented in the most unsympathetic light.
In similar fashion, our look at the character Hu Niu is relentlessly coloured by Xiangzi’s harsh narrative. It is impossible to do a light reading of “Rickshaw” and hope to be presented a face for Hu Niu that is to true to her actual person. Therefore, in order to ensure that our understanding of this distinctive woman is holistic, we must consider two issues: what sort of social influences have manipulated Xiangzi’s point of view; and what is Xiangzi’s innate character that so overwhelming pre-ordains the way he thinks.
Only after peeling back such layers do we see a depiction of Hu Niu that is not peppered by biases. Only by doing our own commentary on the story do we hear the point of view of who is not talking and what is not being told, and that is the narrative of Hu Niu herself. What we subsequently come to realize is that, due to his wild prejudices, Xiangzi has rejected his best chance of escaping the rickshaw-puller’s misfortunes when he rejects Hu Niu.
In the broader sense of the Chinese history, women who have held power have often been blamed as the cause for ruin of an entire dynasty period. Historians have, for example, always blamed the downfall of the Qing dynasty on solely Empress Cixi and her refusal to recognize the changing times around her. In a more specific sense within the context of this novel, Xiangzi presents Hu Niu as the woman who is fully to blame for causing the downfall of a man. Women who strayed away from the traits that society norms dictate are seen as abnormal. In the same way, Xiangzi’s descriptions are most discriminating when revealing thoughts about any strong woman in his life, and he especially vilifies Hu Niu. This is not unlike the negative ways that dominant women like Empress Cixi and Empress Wu Zetian have been represented throughout history.
Under Confucian beliefs, it has been highly regarded the notion that the best types of women were the virtuous ones who may show maternal instincts – before they even marry – towards their younger siblings and widower fathers. There have always been deep-seated attitudes that have limited women’s access to power. Patriarchy being the norm of the culture, a woman’s position within her family and the social hierarchy was as a dependent, not leader, of men. The tendency has been to assign women and men different roles, and women’s special reproductive functions, of course, encourage this division. Often, the sharply restricted participation of women as competitors raises questions about a female’s ability to command.
In actuality, women are by nature no weaker than men. As a generalization, certainly, they may be physically slighter and their characters gentler, but this does not equate to them being fundamentally powerless, useless, hesitant, cowardly, or able to survive only by obeying men. Scientists and historians have devised systems to analyse the workings of the world that, coincidentally, protect their own interests while oppressing and dominating women: the theory of Yin and Yang, for example, was established to demonstrate that, inherently, the female sex (yin) is linked with softer elements of the world such as ‘stillness’, ‘inwardness’, or ‘earth’, etc., while the male (yang) is linked with much stronger elements such as ‘motion’, ‘outwardness’, ‘sky’.
Commanding and opinionated women were seen to be transgressing this boundary of yin and yang. Women who yielded power and used their skills in mind games to manipulate situations to their favour are seen as masculine and unnatural. Women who used their sexuality were seen as even more improper. Regardless of their individual personalities and abilities, females have been perceived as too weak, irrational and emotional to rule. This sentiment is shown in a Chinese saying that stated: “A woman ruler is like a hen crowing” .
As we see from the beginning of his tale, due to Xiangzi’s traditional views, his dream is to someday marry a robust and honest country girl after making enough money . As a result, it is apparent to us that the foundation of Hu Niu’s very nature had doomed her from the onset to be the recipient of all of Xiangzi’ prejudices. The precise manner in which she came to catch Xiangzi in marriage ignited every one of his prejudgments against women, especially against those who yielded sexual power. Xiangzi is incredibly scared of sexual women, but he mostly piously masquerades this fear as loathing or distaste. The morning following Hu Niu’s seduction of him, Xiangzi is thoroughly disgusted by the thought of Hu Niu, whom he deems as ugly, old, nagging, and shameless (54).
So despite the fact that the warlord soldiers has so heartlessly robbed from him the first rickshaw he had loved so passionately, in Xiangzi’s mind they are still nowhere near as despicable as Hu Niu is (54). The fact that all the wrongs in the world that have been done onto him did not compare to the hurt done onto him by sex-hungry women attests to his outright prejudice. After Hu Niu gains some knowledge from Xiao Fuzi about the variety of physical acts, she proceeds to use Xiangzi’s body to “find her lost springtime” (172). This enrages Xiangzi, who subsequently believes that Hu Niu’s cooking for him and caring for him is merely attempts to fatten him up to make him her plaything (152).
Xiangzi’s disdain for sexual women also manifests itself in the way he sees Madam Xia, as “merely a woman who could give him a little extra cash” (204). Xiangzi always tries to find safety in reverting to look down on the women whom he secretly finds intimidating. He does not like Madam Xia because he finds her to be a little “terrifying,” the way Hu Niu had been “terrifying” (204). He feels that Madam Xia brought with her all the harmfulness and destructiveness of the female sex that he had already tasted before and hated.
His scorn for sexually predatory women is confirmed by the fact that he feels Hu Niu and Madam Xia were “the same line of goods” (204), meaning both women were strong, calculating and impure. Xiangzi’s view had been shaped by the fact that society as a whole only accepted women who exhibited bashfulness and mildness. History tends to vilify Empress Wu Zetian, for example, and tell stories of her sexual appetites . She harboured imperial ambitions of becoming emperor and was indeed perhaps one of the most able of the Chinese emperors. In attempts to regain her youth as she aged, she kept a number of young men as her companions , no different from the way both Emperors and ordinary men alike all kept concubines. But history has been quick to condemn the gender reversals and sexual excesses of women as abnormal and uncivilized.
Xiangzi’s little regard for women also encompasses his prejudice against financially minded females. We as readers notice immediately how much more intelligent Hu Niu is than Xiangzi, but he only sees her as manipulative. Hu Niu recognizes that brute strength is hardly the only way to make a living. Her business sense shows clearly in her immediate idea to rent out a room to Xiao Fuzi to aid the latter in the entertainment of men, or her quick thought to rent out the rickshaw to Ting as opposed to letting it sit idle when Xiangzi caught pneumonia from the summer storm (184). She has it meticulously planned out of how much money to spend on what items.
Hu Niu is astute about what actions can be taken when money begins to decrease. She suggests that they go back to Old Liu, act submissive, and make up with him for the fight she had with him; she knows that she needs to given her father face, that he needs to be flattered and cajoled. She calculates, albeit too late, that by submitting to Old Liu, she and Xiangzi would be able to get the man’s money legally in the proper line of inheritance (147). We see Xiangzi subsequently admitting to himself that none of this had ever occurred to him (148). Yet, even though he admits that he had never thought Hu Niu would have a plan like that in mind, and now he had an idea of her smarts, he still refuses to agree with Hu Niu. His stubborn reasoning is that he does not want to be the wife’s toy nor the father-in-law’s lackey (149). But he himself has no other ideas. The absurdity is clear in the fact that his only argument is, he just does not want to loaf, and pulling a rickshaw is all he knows.
Xiangzi’s prejudice against economically minded females is also seen in his disregard for Kao Ma’s advice regarding savings and investments. Kao Ma tries to teach Xiangzi how “money breeds money” and is herself very adept in modern financial strategies (70). Although Xiangzi thinks Kao Ma is perfectly nice and is one of the very few women whom he respects, her advice to him is very quickly dismissed by Xiangzi simply because she was merely a woman. He trusts only himself, and when he adds up his money on his own, he promptly decides that it is much safer kept in his own hands (72). His entire mind is centred only on safekeeping the money that he has. Besides laboriously pulling a rickshaw for a seemingly infinite period of time, his mind is nothing like Kao Ma’s or Hu Niu’s regarding how to use the money one already has to earn more.
Xiangzi in fact feels that his deathlike grip on his money is worthy of respect, and even though Kao Ma was a nice enough woman, he sees no advantage in following her advice (73). Even when Madam Fang, an old employer, had urged him to open a savings account, he promptly rejected the notion because, through his warped logic, he felt that the cash in his hands was much better than the numbers in a passbook (71). One can not help but think that if it were not the Madam Fangs and Kao Mas of the world giving Xiangzi these advice, if in fact a man – Mr. Cao, perhaps – had done so, Xiangzi would certainly have listened much more seriously.
Xiangzi’s loathing for being under Hu Niu’s control is a reflection of the fact that, throughout history, there have been blatant biases against female rulers. That a female could gain power over men and an entire country – thereby abandoning the path set up for her by society – was not accepted to a huge degree. Cixi, likely the shrewdest woman of all of Asia during her period, has been credited with the some of the worst things to befall her era. Much has been said about her rule as being the significant contributing factor to the ruin of a nation. Be that as it may, her control stems from power she fought for and won for herself.
She rose from the lowest positions of a fifth rank concubine to what was eventually considered by many at the time as “the only man in China,” and likely exercised more power than any woman in that time . Another illustration of the bias can also be found against Empress Wu Zetian. Likely one of the most influential and oftentimes misunderstood rulers of Tang Dynasty China, she controlled the empire during one of its more peaceful and culturally diverse periods . Some may say that she was ruthless in her desire to gain and keep power, but others may say that she merely did what she had to and acted no differently than any male emperors of the same period. The kinds of behaviour criticized in men are dramatically different than those criticized in women, especially one dominant and “deviant” enough to rule an empire.
It should be no surprise to us, then, that Xiangzi, someone who is determined to be dependent on only his own size and strength, should find is so unbearable to be controlled by a woman like Hu Niu. Xiangzi is dogged about relying on nothing more than his own muscles, and he mistrusts a woman who uses shrewdness and mind game to get what she wants. To him, Hu Niu’s calculating proposals are shameful, and he hates having to be at the mercy of her dominance (149). The fact that a woman ordered him about was insufferable for someone as headstrong as Xiangzi. This loathing comes to such a height he eventually declares that he is glad that she is dead because she had always oppressed him (218).
He believes anyone who is powerful or calculating to be “evil” and deserves to die. Despite the fact that Xiangzi’s hatred has been building since his meeting of Hu Niu, the severity and mercilessness of his venom here is still surprisingly startling. Xiangzi states that the only people he thought deserves to live was himself and Xiao Fuzi, who is “loyal and honest” (218). Such a statement reveals to the reader that if Xiangzi is ever at all capable of empathizing with anyone, it is only with the passive and the meek.
Xiangzi’s discrimination against Hu Niu cannot be fully understood until we get a feel of his ode to Xiao Fuzi. The earliest we observe of his intolerance for women as a whole is when he purchases his first rickshaw and the only class of persons to whom he simply refuses to grant a ride are women, who are, in his opinion, an indication of bad omen (10). More appropriately, we could say Xiangzi’s bias is most concentrated against specifically those women who know what they want and stops at nothing to achieve it. We see that the only woman in this entire novel of whom he sings high and unfettered praises is the one woman who is different from Hu Niu in every possible way: simpleminded, thoughtless, compliant and sweet Xiao Fuzi. As we know, tradition calls for women to have no opinion, listen to the husband, be tolerant, be useful and not be afraid of hard work. Xiao Fuzi is the epitome of the perfect woman of Xiangzi’s dreams.
Even when Hu Niu is making Xiao Fuzi’s life miserable and her “business” difficult, the latter is still capable of swallowing her tears, and humbling herself by throwing herself at Hu Niu’s mercy. The bearing of disgrace by kneeling before Hu Niu is the most admirable of sacrifices (188). Xiangzi loves Xiao Fuzi’s mildness and it shows in his fondness for her companionship and conservations (186). With Hu Niu, he never got the last word. Xiangzi can only tolerate a traditional woman who listens to men. Therefore, in Hu Nui’s devotion to Xiangzi, we see that her love could never find reciprocation or fulfilment. Furthermore, we can deduce for ourselves that if Xiao Fuzi was not someone who “handed her whole life over to him…someone who needed a man like him…someone whom he could rescue” (224), nothing about her either would have been any allure for Xiangzi.
If Xiangzi’s opinion were the only narrative in the novel, then simply after considering his side could be the end of our story. After all, this novel is centred on Xiangzi – the repetition in his buying the rickshaw, losing the rickshaw – and is about how life has killed his idealistic dreams. However, merely Xiangzi’s account can not be depended upon. The story of Xiangzi’s loss of hope is told through two competing narratives. There is another narrator besides Xiangzi that every now and then gives us glimpses of the fact that the Hu Niu at the centre of all of Xiangzi’s lamentations is not completely real. Throughout Xiangzi’s struggles, the one character that we cannot get away from is Hu Niu, even though a pure account of her inner thoughts hardly ever surfaces. The importance of her role in this novel may seem somewhat belittled by the fact that every image we get of her character is through Xiangzi’s eyes. To work against Xiangzi’s bias, the reader must delve deeper under the surface narratives through which to form one’s own version of the original Hu Niu.
We see very little of a non-Xiangzi-influenced, neutral narrator’s Hu Niu. And if we did rely on Xiangzi’s mind to tell us the whole story and all its underlying events, we would be cheating ourselves. For a thorough view of Hu Niu, Xiangzi’s version must be rounded out by our own analysis. The reason for this is that there is always a story unfolding that Xiangzi simply does not understand; there is a woman in this story that Xiangzi does not recognise. How reliable is Xiangzi’s explanation of the story? We should consider how reliable Xiangzi’s explanation is of the world at large.
Xiangzi’s views of himself and the environment surrounding him occasionally seem ridiculously upside down. Having arrived in Beijing from the countryside at age 18, he has no education and is merely somewhat street smart. Being physically strong, and possessing characteristics like passion, honesty, righteousness , he is extremely self-righteous and self-confident. Through the narrator’s descriptions of Xiangzi’s arrogance, it helps us see that his views of himself are horribly distorted by his ego. Once he had grown into his body by his 20’s, he became tall, strong, broad-shouldered and big-footed (5).
He thought of himself as the best at what he did. We further see Xiangzi’s vanity in the fact that he goes as far as to smile at himself whenever he looks in the mirror; he is that satisfied with himself. He is so confident in his strength to be able to conquer everything that he never likes or bothers to talk with others or discuss anything with fellow rickshaw pullers. Even when he encounters something unlucky, he still believes that he would find a way out of it and would not be easily cheated or defeated because of his strength.
All this narcissism we see in Xiangzi is a completely contradictory view to what we as bystanders think of him when we regard Xiangzi. We see on his face a “particularly lurid” scar, courtesy of a mule (5). This scar is long and large and a quite noticeable flaw on his face. Quickly, we begin to see that this scar is representative of more inherent character flaws, something more innate in Xiangzi that contributes to his eventual downfall.
One of these flaws is his ego. Even though we see this gaping imperfection on his face, Xiangzi’s love for it remains the same as his love for his body, blind and excessive. He sees his face as also possessing tough strength just like his face (5). He essentially regards his face as another extension of one of his limbs; as long as his four limbs are strong, his face is also strong and noble. In actuality, Xiangzi’s scar attests to his short-sightedness. We sense that there is a feeling of mockery in the narrator’s detached statement that Xiangzi believes relying on only “his [‘]intelligence[‘] and exertions were enough to realize his ambitions” (4).
Another flaw is Xiangzi’s weakness for compliments, also a testament to his vanity. He feels particularly important, for instance, when his impressive height requires him to duck his head when he passes through a doorway (11). Also, when no rickshaw puller is willing to risk going to Qing Hua University for fear of the warlord soldiers, all someone has to do is call Xiangzi a “Big Boy” and he promptly decides he would go, as though his strength could certainly prevent any danger from befalling him. This flattery of “Big Boy”, and the fact that the payer of the compliment was a “short-of-body…baldhead” to whom Xiangzi felt significantly superior, led to the demise of Xiangzi’s first rickshaw. He had felt invincible.
Xiangzi’s character flaw is also seen in his stubbornness. He is stubborn about not letting go of his money for medicine when he falls ill (9). He is stubborn about never needing a helping hand from anyone or anything. He deems himself to be so great that, depending only on his strength, he believes he would be able to escape from the evil cycle that is the life of a rickshaw-puller. This said cycle comprises the rickshaw man being forever doomed to pull a rickshaw his entire life, be frequently susceptible to injury, ultimately grow old, become chronically ill, and, unable to run any longer, one day fall down in the middle of the streets and die. Xiangzi is mulish about the fact that he could beat the system without anyone’s assistance if only he just stays away from distractions. This brings us to his ultimate stubbornness, which is about the disastrous “distraction” that is Hu Niu.
As a result of seeing Xiangzi’s impressions of himself, we are wary of the validity of the image of Hu Niu Xiangzi projects through his narration. In knowing how traditional his views are and how biased he is against women of power, it is immediately evident how distorted his vision is of Hu Niu. As readers, we can see that his life takes a favourable turn when he meets Hu Niu. Even if we did contemplate her through Xiangzi’s prejudiced eyes, we can still see how useful and capable a person she is. This woman knows about life. We value her authority, and Old Master Liu values her authority and did not want to see her married and gone , but Xiangzi seems fundamentally incapable of seeing anything positive in her capabilities.
In his mind, her intelligence translates into shrewdness, and her ability to manage and organize translates into manipulation. What is more, he refuses to see that Hu Niu really cares for him. He rejects the possibility that, if only he would listen to Hu Niu’s advice, he could escape the rickshaw puller’s horrible lifecycle. His stupidity is so blinding that he attributes his decline to the existence of Hu Niu, when in actuality his own stupidity is the very trait that causes his demise. Xiangzi’s closed-mindedness makes him unable to understand others’ motives, locking him in, and causing him to see everything from only his own point of view.
Xiangzi does not have the intelligence or foresight to see the Hu Niu that readers see, or the fact that Hu Niu is his finest chance at a better life. Worse, he actually thinks Hu Niu will be the death of him. Every time she takes something into her own hands or solves a problem – a problem from which Xiangzi would always run away, besides – he would believe that he has suffered another wrong because he cannot stand being under her control (140-144). We consider Hu Niu’s economic sense to be sensible and her logic to be a good way to extract Xiangzi from his dreary existence. She has sensed that his personality could doom him to toil all his life (149).
But she tells him outright that even though he may have his plans to sweat away his entire life, she has her plans to change that (149). And her plans for him consist of the hope that he will not need to pull a rickshaw anymore, not have to stink with sweat, and can get out of a dead-end occupation. Xiangzi, however, does not see that using keen business practices instead could lead quicker to a better life. All he wants is to painstakingly make money cent by cent through blood and sweat and buy his rickshaw; he does not know there could be any other ways to live. Hu Niu knows what must be done to help Xiangzi escape misfortune. She tells Xiangzi explicitly that she will “take care of [him]”; but all he wants to do is escape (83).
To be sure, Hu Niu’s effort to end Xiangzi’s life as a rickshaw puller is partly due to the act that she does not want to be the wife of a poor rickshaw man (158). She regards herself as someone significantly more elegant than those living in the mixed courtyard. The thought that she could lose everything on Xiangzi’s account makes her momentarily almost regretful of marrying him (158). Nevertheless, these thoughts were only temporary lapses in her mind, for she truly is in love with Xiangzi. She likens the happiness she feels being married to Xiangzi as feeling like her entire body was a big red flower “blossoming warmly, fragrantly, beneath the rays of the sun” (158). Inside, she knows that even if Xiangzi spends his whole life pulling a rickshaw, or if even he were reduced to begging, she would still never leave him; she would stay with him forever (158). Hu Niu tells Xiangzi of her love for him over and over: “I think about you all the time. I love you. I’ll take care of you” (83), “I know you’re ambitious but you ought to realise that I really love you, too” (156). But Xiangzi ignores it all. He is contemptuous of her behaviour and begrudges Hu Niu’s money (152). He does not want to think about how unmanly it is to be using his wife’s money to buy a rickshaw (148).
Hu Niu is scrupulous in her care for Xiangzi. She is not gentle by nature like Xiao Fuzi, so she does not know how to sweetly cajole him when speaking, especially if she is already anxious over him. When she tells Xiangzi that she still has four hundred dollars left after they marry and prods him to relax a little and enjoy life because he “pull[s] a rickshaw and stink[s] of sweat all year long”, it comes out sounding near to an order (148). But it is clear that her heart is not unkind and her intentions are good. Stubbornly, Xiangzi only sees the attention and concern that Hu Niu showers him as her attempts to fatten him up like a cow so as to better squeeze the milk out of him (152). We witness the fact that Hu Niu would very much like to have a quality family life with Xiangzi and hopes for Xiangzi to have a better life than that of a rickshaw puller’s.
She is undeniably calculating in deciding to approach her father, despite their fight, in order to get a firmer grip on Old Liu’s money. But this is so she would then be able to find Xiangzi a better job (157). She believes that Xiangzi has ideal traits of strength, diligence and frugality and sees in him potential for greater success if only he would let go of his death grip on the desire to only pull a rickshaw. But because Xiangzi has been a “child of misfortune and knew what deep poverty was” (152), he is unshakable in his belief that only hard physical labour is the solution to anything. Without much life experience (other than that of pulling a rickshaw), Xiangzi does not know any better. By ignoring the potential of Hu Niu’s abilities, he is doomed to stay in the disastrous cycle.
By looking beyond Xiangzi’s prejudiced criticisms of Hu Niu, we get a much most realistic view of this woman. Indeed, we even feel sorry for her. When she thinks of the joy of being married to Xiangzi, it is a fascination for her that she could not even speak of (158). We as readers, however, read almost in the same breath of Xiangzi’s hatred for her. While she wants to promenade with Xiangzi and show off the happiness of her marriage, Xiangzi, meanwhile, finds walking about with any woman in tow to be a disgraceful business, much less someone he abhorred as much as Hu Niu (146). This sort of ingrained thinking Xiangzi cannot change. Our sympathy for Hu Niu stems from the fact that her attempts to loosen his attitude and alter his mindset were ill-fated from the beginning.
Xiangzi’s palpable narrow-mindedness permeates the entire novel. When he comes to the realization that his body “wasn’t as strong as it had been,” he attributes it to the fact that Hu Niu, the bloodsucking monster, has sucked away his virility (205). It is never even a consideration that his age and the major bouts of illness could be the reasons for his inability to run as fast as before. Societal traditions have also embedded in him preconceptions about women like Hu Niu, whose “every move…was like that of a woman who had been married for a long time” (145) and chauvinism that a woman who is “quick, experienced, and had an air of self-confidence” is conversely not worthy of respect.
Ironically, the more obsessively Xiangzi portrays to us the “evil” Hu Niu that he wants us to see, the more clearly we see the Hu Niu that is not shown through Xiangzi’s narrative. A thought that perfectly captures the irrationality and absurdity of Xiangzi’s mind is when Hu Niu poses to him the question, “Between the two of us, who should listen to who?” (149). This is a loaded question that triggers much thought. Despite the tenacity of Xiangzi’s incessant commentary, we do not come to side with him in formulating our answer to that question. On the contrary, we have gathered every evidence in each situation to believe that Hu Niu was the key to Xiangzi’s chance at breaking the cycle.
Xiangzi is the only one who does not see this and it is to his own immense detriment. His many character flaws are revealed in his enormous ego, stubbornness, shortsightedness, and staunch mistrust of others’ advice, especially advice from women. His prejudice against Hu Niu has been particularly hardened by societal beliefs and the traditional stigma that follows sharp and able women. Xiangzi is trapped in the blindness of his prejudice and remains perpetually unable to see and hear the Hu Niu that we ultimately comprehend. Ignoring Hu Niu’s help, support and advice, we watch with disappearing sympathy as Xiangzi’s hurtled towards the expected end of a rickshaw-puller’s life cycle.
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