Xiangzi is the metaphoric camel — the camel, Xiangzi. For Lao She, to introduce Xiangzi’s tragic fate entails a comparison between camels and his life. Both, needless to say, share the harshest environment known to mankind: as one bears the deathly condition of the desert heat, the other suffers the socioeconomic realities of Chinese society in the 1920s. This association between Xiangzi and the camels is first introduced in the novel when Xiangzi is abducted by a band of soldiers who, after stripping him off his belongings including his rickshaw, are leading camels as they wander in unfamiliar land. The presence of camels, however, awakens Xiangzi’s familiarity of the rural area. As he succeeds in escaping from the soldiers one night, Xiangzi brings the camels with him, though not knowing what to do with them.
In the deep and total darkness of the countryside, Xiangzi – enlightened by his “uncertainty and utter loneliness” – realizes he cannot exist in isolation. That he needs another life form to reach a nameless village reveals two things about him: 1.) it gives a hint of the looming failure of his individualist stance against the uncertainties and instability of his socioeconomic setting; and 2.) it suggests his favoring attitude towards ownership and its promised “freedom”. Overnight, as can be noted in the novel, his treatment of the camel shifts from viewing them as living companions when he is in the dark, into treating them as objects of ownership as he moves towards daylight when the village is in sight.
The idea of marketing the camels continues to occupy his thoughts; this despite the fact that Xiangzi’s own nature meshes well with that of the camels: well-behaved and meek, alone and rootless, assessed and valued for their strength. Indeed, his decision to sell these camels – his only true possession notably without his toil – demonstrates the irony of his participation in the ownership trade: determining the value and affecting the fate of these “working animals”; in the same way that his worth as a rickshaw puller is determined by the social forces around him. The act of selling camels, moreover, in the hopes of buying another rickshaw not only reveals his attachment to possessing a material object, but most importantly, misrecognizing this entity as the means to achieve individual freedom.
Unbeknownst to Xiangzi, this encounter with camels already prefigures the series of misfortunes that spells his fate. And so, what he describes as the “huge beggars of the animal kingdom” is an ironic representation of himself — a “laboring animal” too, who belongs to a class of rickshaw pullers, occupying one of the lowest strata in urban society. Xiangzi, in inhabiting Beiping’s economic life, participates as a cheap source of labor, involved crucially in the interconnection and movement of people and goods all over the city. To partake in this economic system, Xiangzi uses his body as a capital to earn fares through his labor. In the process, his body then becomes “alienated” from him; precisely since the meager profit, which he earns from capitalizing on his physical strength, is again invested in purchasing a material object – the rickshaw, a property which he again misrecognizes for freedom and release from poverty.
As Xiangzi keeps on performing alienated and dehumanized labor, the existing structures of the urban society continues to reiterate that he neither owns his body, nor has control over his fate. The body depreciates in strength and value; worse, it is susceptible to irrational desires and sickness. Indeed, similar to the camels he once possessed and sold, there is no freedom for “working animals” belonging to his class. But perhaps, this is only because Xiangzi lives like a camel, unconscious on the existence and solidarity of his pack.