Rickshaw Boy

BY Lau Shaw, translated by Evan King
SQUINTING through a microscope at a drop of ditch water, one can watch the animalculi squirm and eat each other and subdivide and shift their groups and fight and die. So in the ditch water of Peking, almost as dispassionately, one examines the rickshaw-pullers’ world.
Dublin slums (in literature at least) seem relieved by Irish gayety, and Steinbeck’s creatures, too, always beckon up through the eyepiece of the microscope, inviting us to join them in their delightful debauches. But, whether it is because translation from the Chinese prevents the image from arriving in true color to Anglo-Saxon eyes or because our eyes are not sharp enough to catch it, Peking filth reaches us drab, without moving tragedy or lusty humor.
Literature aside, really to see rickshaw boys huddled in a North China winter over their steaming bowls of broth, or to hear and to half-understand their picturesque cursing is a vital human experience. No doubt the Chinese original by Lau Shaw carries to Chinese readers all the authenticity that art can carry and transmute. And certainly Mr. Evan King, the translator, has made us forget the medium of language. There is obviously stuff here for tragedy as intense as the Greeks’ or as Shakespeare’s.
In Rickshaw Boy there is a treasure of folk proverbs and pithy street metaphor. Literally translated it falls on foreign ears like some delightfully imaginative author’s invention. Soon, however, one realizes that this is the very coin that has been current during a thousand years in China, trite to those who use it daily, but to us clear-cut and valuable.
The book is the more convincing because everyone in it is ignorant of the politics and the international affairs familiar to us from our newspaper reading. A sure instinct tells us that currency scandals, new constitutions, and the Communist armies of faraway Yenan leave the rickshaw-pullers undisturbed in their drop of Peking ditch water. But how goes it with them today when rice no longer reaches town. and kaoliang and summer cabbage are requisitioned from the country carts by Japanese soldiers? What of the bitter Japanese jest about co-prosperity under new masters?