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Man's Fate (1927 Shanghai Rebellion)
April 15, 2024
by William P. Meyers

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French author Andre Malraux was an adventurer as well as a writer. He was living in French Indochina (Vietnam) at the time of the Shanghai communist rebellion (and massacre) of 1927. He visited China in 1931 and published the book in 1933. The book is about two-thirds existentialist contemplation of fate and death (most of the principle characters die at some point in the novel). It is about one-third action. The Shanghai rebellion is an important historical event, so I will focus on putting the action in context. There are some philosophical speculations that I think are also worth relating, including about assassinations, terrorism, and fighting when there is no hope of winning or even surviving.

China in 1927 was very different from modern China and from ancient China. So some context helps when reading this book. Of course when it was published readers likely had a better understanding of conditions in China in that era. China had gone from being the world's richest nation in 1800 to being a disaster in 1900. Conservatism, reinforced by a monarchy, led to failure to keep up with a rapidly changing world. European nations circled like sharks and took bites out. China lost the Opium Wars to England (with secondary partner the United States), resulting in social disintegration. Christian missionaries prepped the way to economic exploitation and a civil war. In 1912 the monarchy ended, but the Republic, set up in theory, quickly gave way to rule by local warlords. The economy continued to disintegrate. Unbelievable poverty was the lot of most Chinese. While reform movements of many kinds existed, after about 1920 the main players were the Nationalists, who wanted a strong central government that could free the Chinese from foreign subjugation, and the Communists.

Fast forward to 1927 and the key player is Chiang Kai-shek. The General leads the Kuomintang, the Nationalist Party, and his armies have had some success defeating some of the rival Chinese warlords. The communists form the left wing of the Kuomintang, but while it also includes socialists and democrats, its majority is nationalist and from the middle or upper class. The communists take orders from Moscow (in theory from the International, but Moscow runs that), but argue among themselves about how best to proceed, and sometimes do not follow Moscow. In fact the desperately poor, often starving, working people of China are far more rebellious than their Communist leaders, who tend to be better educated. Each faction expects to be turned on by the other. Despite some pretences to like Democracy, each faction glorifies violence, and neither faction ever holds a genuine election where citizens can vote.

Shanghai in 1927 is the breaking point. Tales told about the rebellion, whether by Malraux or by people we call "historians" should be taken with a grain of salt. The foreign powers wanted order restored, but Chiang was not a fan of theirs. The Chinese business interests, and gangsters (Chiang was a former gangster), wanted to both restore order and destroy the communists. The last thing they wanted was a successful Bolshevik style revolution. The most militant communists wanted an end to misery and revolution today. Moscow wanted to use Chiang to unify China, throw out the capitalist, imperialist powers, and then overthrow the Kuomintang if is would not conform to communist plans. Doubtless individuals were all over the spectrum. Many poor workers likely supported the Kuomintang, many supported the communists, and doubtless many were too tired to get involved.

Man's Fate presents this complexity through the eyes of about a dozen substantial characters, along with occasional outlines of the details of events. Chiang is mentioned often, but mainly as an enemy. Mao is not in the book, because he was not known to be important yet and was not in Shanghai at the time (but I note that Mao and Chiang knew each other, having served on the same committee of the Kuomintang). As the novel opens the main characters are already part of the communist insurrection. Their focus is to find arms for the rebels, both to defeat the (anti-Kuomintang) government, and to present a fact-accomplished communist city able to resist Chiang's army if it turns on them. Chiang considers this (successful) rebellion to be a breaking of the pact between the Communists and the rest of the Kuomintang.

There are non-communist major characters as well. One is a French smuggler and arranger of deals, legal and illegal. There is the head of the powerful French consortium that works in China and Vietnam. There are also a couple of police chiefs representing Chiang's repressive apparatus.

The main character is Ch'en, who is a communist organizer and assassin. At the beginning of the story he is tasked with murdering a man to get information the communists want. This prompts a great deal of existential angst, but the murder does lead to the communists being able to seize of shipload of guns. Later Ch'en goes against party discipline to try to kill Chiang. His accomplice asks him: "You want to make a kind of religion of terrorism?"

His response: "Not a religion. The meaning of life, the complete possession of oneself." Given his personality and grim experiences, he finds terrorism to be an escape from his anguish. While terrorism long predates 1927, this did make me think of contemporary Islamic and other terrorists. Ch'en is a Marxist; he does not believe in an afterlife. Death is the end of suffering for him. Throw in the promise of paradise for a Christian or Muslim and you might be able to see the appeal for certain types of people.

Another passage that struck me, also narrated from Ch'en's point of view, occurs as he waits to try to blow up Chiang with a bomb. "He would blow up with the machine, in a blinding flash that would illuminate this hideous avenue for a second and cover a wall with a sheaf of blood. The oldest Chinese legend came to his mind: men are the vermin of the earth. It was necessary that terrorism become a mystic cult. Solitude, first of all: let the terrorist decide alone, execute alone."

Thus we have a precursor to the modern lone-wolf terrorist. That may help prevent discovery by the police, but there is only so much damage one human can do. It reminds me, as the World Trade Center bombings did, of the glorification of American volunteer suicide missions in movies and TV about World War II. Usually the hero ends up surviving, in those scenarios. The usual nationalist dichotomy stands out: the exact same mission, when carried out by Americans, is heroic, but when carried out by our enemies is terrorism.

The idea that Communism, the triumph of the proletariat, is inevitable, has clearly failed the test of time. However, writing about the Shanghai Rebellion a few years later colors people's sacrifices with the odor of futility. Chiang came out on top, but could not successfully resist the Japanese invasion of the 1930s. When the Japanese lost the war to the American atomic terrorists, Chiang had been around long enough that almost everyone hated him, particularly those who had served in the lower ranks of his armies (whose generals were mostly former war lords). It took a few years, but the communists swept to victory. Chiang's soldiers often deserted him and joined the Red Army. The Communists would have take Taiwan as well, but the U.S. navy illegally intervened to protect Chiang and his remnant of loyal followers.

Everybody dies, no denying, but a book of people spending a lot of time contemplating death is not everyone's cup or tea. Only so much is worth noting about life and death, in my opinion. Nevertheless Man's Fate casts an interesting light on the events in Shanghai in 1927. The long ideological arguments may also seem dated, but they were important then, and they might become important again, somewhere in the world, sometime.

Given the horrors of ordinary life under the imperialists, the war lords, and then Chiang, the ability of the communists to recruit large numbers of poor people to fight and dies with them should not be a surprise. Sometimes slaves accept their position, sometimes they rebel. I know of no predictor for which type of behavior will be chosen.

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