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In our present society, the role of an individual may seem to have little significance in the grand scheme of things. However, the lifestyle one partakes is important, and it will shape not only oneself, but will also influence many of those around, as well as society influencing the role of the individual. In the novel “Rickshaw Boy” by Lao She, the protagonist, Xiangzi, is representative of an average man in the lower class of early 20th century China; starting out as an honest and likeable rickshaw puller in Beiping, he has a slow and gradual descent throughout the novel into the self-centered and tragic man he is by the end.
This is certainly an effect of his own faults, but also an effect of the faults of the society he is placed in. Lao She makes a statement with the character about the wrongness of a society where this is the norm. As we may learn from looking at the place Xiangzi ends up because of his actions, in order to have a successful life, the role of an individual in society must be balanced between individualism and collectivism.
Only then can the social order thrive, and one may flourish throughout life. The lifestyle of a rickshaw puller is a selfish one, with no room for family or friends.
The overall life from start to finish is similar among many men, even if the details are different. From the start of the novel, we know that Xiangzi’s life is not going to end up as he plans; the beginning chapter goes through the class system among rickshaw pullers for a reason.
Xiangzi’s journey starts off like the high-class men (“young, energetic, and fleet-footed”) and ends up on the lower end of the spectrum. She states that men over forty or younger than twenty generally work only in hopes of “earning enough to pay for that day’s rent and food” and have to rent more beat-up rickshaws, working only to survive day by day.
This alone implies that even the best rickshaw pullers will fall as they get older, as we see with Xiangzi. He is ambitious and diligent and will work hard to reach his goals, but a tragic fate in a society like this seems almost inevitable. He will not move up in the world as there is no room to grow, and he will not become rich or powerful as there is no way he can build himself up that high when starting off so low. He is, above all, alone in his life, getting attached to material possessions and money, with no real chance of settling down with a family.
Closer to the end of the novel, She even states that “he had gradually come to fit into the ‘rickshaw man’ groove of behaviour,” and “What the average rickshaw man considered proper, he did too… you travel with the crowd or not at all. ” This is the life of a rickshaw man. One factor that can be considered a reason for all this is the individualistic point of view that is so common among this sector of society. The rickshaw pullers care for themselves above all, and it’s easy for this to be taken too far. Xiangzi begins to feel fewer and fewer positive emotions towards others and becomes apathetic to most people in his life.
He even goes as far to say that “Worrying about other people is a waste of time. ” Though they may have dreams of living in a way where they can take time to care for a family, to help out a friend, the rickshaw pullers ultimately work to keep themselves alive. Perhaps if Xiangzi had been less concerned with the outcome of his own life at the beginning of the novel, things would have turned out differently. As Lao She says, “Someone who strives for himself knows how to destroy himself – the two extremes of individualism.
Due to this aversion to getting close to others, Xiangzi thinks only of himself and his needs, just as all the other rickshaw pullers do. If they had thought of others as well as themselves, and found a balanced way of living, then their quality of life would have improved significantly. The environment one is brought up in changes whom one is as a person. Though it may seem that the outcome of Xiangzi’s life is of his own fault, it’s at least partially because of the society he grew up in. Taking place in any other time or setting, the novel’s outcome may have been dramatically different.
As She says, in the final paragraph of the novel, “Respectable, ambitious, idealistic, self-serving, individualistic, robust, and mighty Xiangzi took part in untold numbers of burial processions but could not predict when he would bury himself, when he would lay this degenerate, selfish, hapless product of a sick society, this miserable ghost of individualism, to rest. ” Xiangzi, like most rickshaw men, is uneducated. He learns only from the experiences he has, and his experiences teach him not to care, not to try as hard as he can, because it’s not worth it.
In this way, he is a product of a sick, oppressive society. Xiangzi himself is not the reason for his downfall. His faults are a reflection of how he lives and how he sees his role in society. Despite having the best intentions to get ahead, Xiangzi continuously fails to succeed in life. Independent and self-centred, he is the picture of an average low-class man in his time. His role in this culture is small, and maybe not so significant to the bigger picture, but the rickshaw men as a whole form a large part of the society in which they live.
They live as one selfish and largely uneducated group, beat down by the way they are taught to live. Maybe Xiangzi, this miserable ghost of individualism, would have thrived in a different time or place. Maybe he was just unlucky. All the reader knows for sure is that a culture like this is wrong; when people are taught to look out for themselves above all and to value only material possessions, they will ultimately fail to reach their goals. The real question is, what are you doing to reach yours?
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