Though human-pulled rickshaws were invented in Japan at the end of the 19th century and were still operating in many Asian cities until the 1950s, they have come to symbolize the degradation that peasants suffered in early 20th century China. Pulling rickshaws was often the only work available to those coming to the cities for the first time and many had to work 17 or 18 hours a day regardless of the weather just to eke out a living. Just released on DVD in the Celebration of Chinese Cinema series, Rickshaw Boy tells the story of Xiangzi, a young peasant from the countryside who works as a rickshaw puller in Beijing in the 1920s, trying to save enough money to buy his own vehicle. The first film from Communist China to open in an American theater, Rickshaw Boy is not just a story about rickshaw pullers, but about the ugliness of a city run by dueling warlords where many of the poor turned against each other for survival. While at times overly melodramatic, the film transcends its "socialist realism" limitations to become a deeply involving portrait of the optimism and courage of the common people in old China. .
In the film, Xiangzi (Zhang Fengyi) struggles to establish a business but is seduced by the owner of the Rickshaw Company's daughter, the crafty and manipulative but good-hearted Hunui, brilliantly performed by Siqin Gaowa. Despite a ten-year difference in age, she tires to lure him to the altar but he runs away to work as a rickshaw puller for a scholar, Mr Cao (Li Tang). Huniu tracks him down and tries to trick him into marrying her by pretending to be pregnant. Xiangzi agrees to be married, believing her to be pregnant and resumes his quest to buy his own vehicle until battered by repeated tragedies. Desperate conditions of life in pre-Revolutionary China are shown in the growing relationship between Xiangzi and Xiao Fuzi (Yin Xin), a young woman who is forced into prostitution to earn money to buy food to keep her young brothers alive.
Directed by Ling Zefing, a member of China's Third Generation (1949-78) of filmmakers, Rickshaw Boy is based on the 1936 novel Camel Xiangzi by proletarian author and playwright Lao She, one of the first novels about a laborer in modern Chinese literature. The impact of Lao She (who sadly committed suicide after being persecuted during the Cultural Revolution) and Xiangzi are still felt today. According to an article in China Pictorial magazine by Pang Liping, in recent years it has become common to see rickshaw boys dressed in traditional clothes worn by rickshaw boys of the past, waiting for customers on the side of the road. Beijingers call them "Xiangzi"; celebrating the struggles of a hero from the past.
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