Lao She was apparently one of the most widely read novelists in China in the early twentieth century and even today is widely read. This novel is one of his best and most often read. I can't help but agree. It's so well written one feels deeply for the main character.
The author writes about a young country boy, Xiangzi, who moves to the city and becomes a rickshaw boy. His life is filled with tragedy and sadness, mirroring the society in which he lived. His idealism moves to acceptance of his life to just surviving.
He detests his wife who trapped him into marriage by feigning pregnancy. She dies later when she actually becomes pregnant. Through ignorance and laziness she loses the child she is carrying as well as her life.
Xiangzi falls in love with a young prostitute who has turned to making a living in this fashion to support her younger brothers. Her father is an alcoholic and cannot hold a job. However, Xiangzi, recognizes that after paying for funeral expenses he cannot afford to marry her. "Wait for me," he tells her, "I will be back." Since pulling a rickshaw pays little, it takes a long time before he can return to the young woman. Coupled with depression due to what has happened to him, it takes even longer. When he returns he finds that she has taken her life and is lost to him forever.
The back cover describes the novel as "unflinchingly honest." It details life at the fringe of society where the poor are robbed, beaten and defrauded. The ending is sad but predictable when the reader realizes what will happen to poor illiterate Xiangzi. Even so, I found the read so very interesting.