Selected Modern Chinese Essays: A Rickshaw Boy

By Ba Jin

These few days I have been staying in the home of my friend Fang.

One day, it had rained until we finished supper. The sky was gradually clearing up, and the evening air was nice and cool. Fang suggested that we go to the park.

“Rickshaw, rickshaw!” we called out from a street corner. “To the back gate of the park!”

Soon we found ourselves surrounded by a group of rickshaw men with their vehicles.

No sooner had we each quickly got on a rickshaw than the rickshaw pullers started to run.

Seating myself leisurely, I was surprised when my eye fell on the swaying thin back of the rickshaw puller. Oh my, it’s a small kid! He must be no more than fourteen.

“Kid, how old are you?” I asked.

“Fifteen!” he answered with so much self-assurance and pride as if he had already come of age at fifteen. He took hold of the shafts and started running ahead — the very picture of unflagging energy.

“How long have you been in this trade?” I continued.

“More than six months,” said he with no less pride.

“How much do you earn a day?”

“After paying the rent for hiring the rickshaw, I still have 20 strings of cash left!”

I understood it was equivalent to 40 cents.

“20 strings of cash!” the middle-aged man pulling Fang’s rickshaw chimed in admiringly. “No easy job for a small kid to earn that much.”

“20 strings of cash!” Fang put in, showing interest in what the small kid had said. “Is it enough for your family to live on? How big is your family?”

The small kid kept quiet as if he had not heard Fang’s question. Why didn’t he answer? I guessed there must be something behind it. Maybe he didn’t like to be asked about it at all. Maybe he had no father, nor even mother.

“Do you have a father?” Fang, nevertheless, kept on questioning.

“No!” The reply was unhesitating.

“A Mother?”

“No!” The answer was as laconic as firm, apparently in a different tone. There was a note of pain in his voice. I thought he might not have told the truth.

“I have a younger sister,” said he without being asked, as if impatient of his own reticence. “He sold her.”

I immediately understood who was meant by “he”. I realized this boy must have been suffering great misery in his life.

“Where’s your father now?” I demanded.

He went on without answering my question, “He took drugs, he deserted my mother, he sold my sister, he ran away.”

The four short sentences spoke volumes for the family tragedy. What bitter experiences he must have gone through since early childhood!

“What a heartless father!” sighed the middle-aged rickshaw man. “Where do you live now?” He kept up the conversation with the little boy while running along with the rickshaw. “You’d better slacken your pace a little bit to conserve your energy,” he said. “The gentlemen won’t care.”

“I live in chechang. For that I have to pay a rent of 100 coppers daily. I put away what’s left to buy… clothes.”

As 100 coppers was equal to 20 cents, he could save up 20 cents a day.

“The child is a real marvel,” the middle-aged rickshaw man said to us with a note of admiration. “He knows how to save up money for clothes.” Then he again asked the child, “Did your father ever come to see you?”

“No, he dared not!” The brief answer, uttered in an uncompromising tone, showed great grievance against his father.

Words failed us. His answer had taken me by surprise. What could I say as regards his misfortune?

The middle-aged rickshaw man, however, reacted otherwise. He unhesitatingly aired his opinion from a moral point of view.

“Listen to me, kid. You’re now doing quite well. After all, he’s your father. You should give him some money when he comes to see you.”

“No, I won’t!” the boy answered unhesitatingly in a forceful tone. “I’ll beat him up when I meet him.” I was surprised that the hatred he harbored against his father should be so deep-seated. His tone, his attitude, his hatred… seemed to have affected me deeply. I too began to hate his father.

The middle-aged rickshaw man, having met with rebuff, fell into silence. The two rickshaws kept moving along Beichang Street. I couldn’t read his countenance without seeing his face. However, judging from what he had said, he was evidently living in a world of his own — bereft of home, love or warmth, and flogged by the scourge of life. But he acted unyieldingly and was filled with bitter hatred. He was using both hands to bear the burden of life. He was never scared or discouraged. He could achieve what children from well-to-do families could never do, and he had ideas that they didn’t dare to have.

Life is a melting pot which hardens the will of children like him so that they are able to withstand the bitterest blows of life ever.

Just then we found ourselves at the back gate of the park. We got off and paid the fares. As I eyed the boy by lamplight, I unexpectedly saw a very ordinary round face with plain features. I was, however, surprised when I met his eyes — eyes which looked down upon everything of this world and showed no indication of regard for authority. I had never seen eyes showing so much pride, indomitability and resoluteness.

While entering the park after buying the tickets, I turned round to take a last look at the boy. Holding his head high, he was about to start running with a new customer on his vehicle.