When I close my eyes and think of the most common images of Beijing, the first ones that come to mind are Mao’s portrait at the gate of the Forbidden City and a rickshaw leaning against a grey wall outside of a Hutong. The history behind this second mental image is described in the second chapter of David Strand’s “Rickshaw Beijing: City People and Politics in the 1920s.” The chapter, titled “The Rickshaw: machine for a mixed-up age” illustrates the social dynamics of rickshaw pullers in 1920s Beijing. The early 20th century was an extremely turbulent time in Beijing. In 1900, Boxer rebels besieged the city. Eleven years later, the Qing dynasty fell and a republican government came to power under Yuan Shikai. The republican government was not able to consolidate control over the country and many smaller cities and rural areas were plagued by varying degrees of lawlessness and the corrupt rule of warlords. Over this chaotic period, rickshaws became a tool of survival for those whose lives were upended. The famous author Lao She noted that the population of rickshaw pullers in Beijing was largely made up of those who had been laid off as a result of the end of the Qing dynasty and the subsequent breakdown of the bureaucracies and institutions that had brought stability to the city.
Strand’s remarkably readable and detailed history of Beijing’s rickshaw pullers strikes me as significant because of the way it transcends its micro-historical scope to comment on broader class relations. Rickshaw pullers embodied the collapse of Qing-era social relations and Beijing’s transition into the contemporary world. Strand remarks that if “rickshaw pulling provided a channel for upward and lateral mobility among immigrants and the urban poor the job also functioned as an occupational life raft for downwardly mobile urban residents.” The rickshaw itself, despite ostensibly being a simple piece of technology, was a very modern form of transport at the time. It could be taken on both paved major roads as well as mud and dirt side streets. Between 1910 and 1920, rickshaws overtook mule-carts as the main mode of transport and tripled in number. The more they proliferated, the more convenient they became for people who could afford it. Rickshaw pulling became an accessible and stable form of labour for those who had no alternative occupation. Strand alludes to the notion that the rickshaw pulling business stimulated a form of urban class consciousness. For the “downwardly mobile” like former Qing bannermen or officials, pulling a rickshaw was degrading, almost inhumane labour. The end of the dynasty and the advent of republican rule had caused their downfall and perhaps they sought an alternative that would promise them dignity if not prosperity. For the upwardly mobile, pulling granted them relative comfort. While they made a meagre wage, they could afford to feed themselves and live humbly provided they didn’t have many dependents. By being a part of an urban poor that were struggling but not totally deprived, they became a part of the largest social class in the city. They were also making daily contact with those of higher social status – making them reliant on the good-will of their passengers but also degraded by their physical juxtaposition. For both upward and downwardly mobile rickshaw pullers, one can speculate that the social dynamics of their occupation contributed to an elevated awareness of their social status and – subject to more research – more inclined to support the communitarian ideals that would soon sweep across China.
David Strand, “The Rickshaw: Machine for a Mixed-up Age” in Rickshaw Beijing: City People and Politics in the 1920s (Berkeley; London: University of California Press, 1993).
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