The Temporality of Poverty:
Realism in Lao She’s Camel Xiangzi

By Keru Cai

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 32, no.1  (Spring 2020), pp. 1-36

This essay challenges preexisting scholarship on realism in Lao She’s Camel Xiangzi (1936-7) and in the modern Chinese literary context at large. I read Camel Xiangzi’s narrative rhythms in both content and form to show that the novel’s mimesis of proletarian temporality constitutes its formal realism. Insistence on thematic temporal rhythms is the result of a narrative fixation on the travails of surviving day by day, moment by moment, squalor by squalor, in conditions of poverty and limited agency. The objects of narrative attention are precisely those mundane and often sordid objects that make up Xiangzi’s material economy and the conditions of their physiological or psychological exigency: bodies and bodily effluvia, disease, coins, weather, clothing, food, shelter. These details of daily subsistence are described with a continuous, relentless rhythm that unfolds in chronological sequence mimicking the actual lived experience of poverty. Concomitantly, the rhythms structuring the narrative itself (especially the sped-up generalizations) enact Xiangzi’s single-minded focus on survival, while singular wrenching events become increasingly iterative in the context of inescapable poverty. In this text extraordinary travails become ordinary, with Xiangzi ultimately offered no respite: an inconclusiveness that is fundamentally constitutive of Lao She’s unflinchingly realist mimesis of a vast, crushing, systemically produced vortex of poverty in defiance of which both individual and collective will seem equally unavailing. Camel Xiangzi depicts an endless repetition of suffering, and in such a way that no catharsis is possible. In this sense it calls into question Marston Anderson’s notions of the limits of realism.

The essay ends with an account of how this realist mimesis of the lived temporalities of poverty makes itself felt not just within the text but beyond it as well. According to Lao She’s 1945 essay, “How I came to write the novel ‘Camel Xiangzi,’” the temporally exigent drudgery of his writing process mimics and provides him affective access to the experience of poverty that he writes. Mimetically represented poverty is shown to be inescapable and produces a transitive effect whereby even the author, as documented in his autobiographical account, seems to feel what he describes. Lao She and Xiangzi alike must submit to the disciplining rhythm of labor-time. Whether or not we believe Lao She to be fully successful in portraying the socially downtrodden without smothering the voice of the subaltern, his novel deploys the temporal affordances of realism in an attempt to bridge the gap between the intellectual and the rickshaw puller.