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Rickshaw Beijing: City People and Politics in the 1920s

March 19, 2010

David Strand. Rickshaw Beijing: City People and Politics in the 1920s. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

Sharon Chen (2003)

David Strand presents his readers with a meticulous account of urban politics in Beijing in the tumultuous decade of the 1920s. But beyond an analysis of urban politics, this book is also a social commentary as well as an examination of the evolution of labor dynamics and identities. Strand uses as his point of departure the rickshaws and their pullers; these dubious badges of modernity are his entry into the complex world of Beijing politics, society, and labor. The rickshaw pullers emerge as a class of men who were exploited by their social superiors, but who were also able to “use their wiles and superior knowledge of the city to take advantage of passengers” (p.51). Strand’s analysis of the rickshaw men leads into an examination of other urban figures who affected them – the nascent police force, local leaders, labor leaders and unions. These figures all shaped and reacted to the inconstant cityscape of the 1920s Beijing that was struggling to hold itself together.

Strand uses these elements of urban life to illuminate the various aspects of Beijing. The rickshaw men and the police force were symbols of Beijing’s somewhat inconsistent attempts to modernize; Strand details tensions within and between those groups to illustrate the interesting complications Beijing faced in its foray into modernity. For example, Strand points out the contradictory nature of the rickshaw as the representation of technical progress and modernity, yet at the same time “the sight of one human being pulling another also became a symbol of backwardness” (36). Strand’s analysis of rickshaw pullers and policemen is also rich for the social politics that informed and guided their actions, and Strand carries his social commentary further by showing that rickshaw men struggled to assert their “humanness” in a society that often regarded them as tools.

Along with rickshaw men, the different political players Strand details all illustrate the complexity of Beijing politics. His focus on local political leaders and labor bosses such as An Disheng, Zhou Zoumin, and Zhang Yiqing is instrumental in revealing the ability of such leaders to maneuver in and control (to an extent) Beijing in a time when Beijing was torn by power struggles between warlords. Even in this chaotic and unordered atmosphere, there was a remarkable amount of cohesion; when national governments failed, local forms of government stepped in.

Strand also discusses chambers of commerce, guilds and unions; the tension between guilds and unions exemplifies not only Beijing’s intricate politics and the tension between tradition and modernity, but it also points to Beijing’s struggles to find a political identity as well as a labor consciousness. Finally, the complicated politics and interactions of all those groups exploded in 1929. The rickshaw men were at the center of this political storm that encompassed political infighting, worker’s rights, and the ever-present push for modernity; this storm catalyzed in the explosive riot by the rickshaw men against the streetcars in 1929. At a time when the central government was disjointed, even the rickshaw men – the lowest of the low – were able to, through political processes, “rule the streets for a day.”

Strand’s book is rich for its multiplicity of meanings, but this also makes it hard to follow at times. Furthermore, as Mary Backus Rankin puts it, “‘modern’ is used repeatedly but never defined” (The Journal of Asian Studies, 49.2:384-5). However, these are minor issues in light of all that Strand offers. Not only does he present comprehensive insight into Beijing politics of the 1920s, but he also highlights the tension between tradition and modernity and the difficulties of fostering an emerging labor and political consciousness.

© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.

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