Old Shanghai was an inspiration for writers, some of them never having actually set foot in the city. The most famous book is probably 1933’s Andre Malraux “La condition humaine”, translated as Man’s fate in English. My friend Paul French will be giving a speech about it next week (see link to the event’s webpage), giving me an opportunity for a post on this book.
Man’s Fate takes place in 1927, during the Northern Expedition when the Kuomintang (nationalist party) armies along with their allies re-conquer the main part of China. After 1911’s revolution, the central government in Beijing quickly lost all control of the Chinese territories when several provincial lords took over their provincial armies and started to conquer their neighbours. Nationalist and Communist parties had been allied, a number of Russian advisors helping the Kuomintang. At the same time, Russian advisors where also helping the communist party to spread the revolution among the workers population in the large cities in particular Wuchang (South of today’s Wuhan) and Shanghai. In 1927, while the armies of the Northern Expedition where approaching, the Communist started massive strikes to try and take over the city. The Kuomintang used gangsters to break the strikes and take back the city. Many of the communist leaders were killed on the current site of the Longhua Cemetery. From that point on, Nationalists and Communists started to fight the civil war.
The novel takes place against this background, as the main character wants to assassinate Chiang Kai Shek to stop him taking over Shanghai. All characters are linked to him and this action. Andre Malraux never actually came to Shanghai, and the novel lacks in substance about the city, describing as hot and humid in March which is most often not the case. As there is little attention for the city itself, the novel is centered on the characters, some of them being inspired by real historic people. For example, Kyo who leads the uprising of the communist forces in Shanghai is probably inspired by Zhou Enlai who was actually leading the communist party and the strikes in Shanghai at that time. Living in the French Concession, he nearly escaped being captured by the French police at one point before becoming the long serving prime minister of China under Mao Zedong. Since Zhou Enlai studied in Paris in the 1920’s, it is even possible that him and Malraux actually met in the French capital. The other character clearly inspired by a real person was Vologuine, the Russian advisor to the communist who in real life was Mikhail Borodin, a soviet agent who helped both the Kuomintang and the Chinese communist party in the 1920’s. It is clear that Borodin helped Zhou Enlai and the party for the Shanghai uprising. Finally, the director of the French Chamber of commerce, called Ferral in the book, actually lived in the French Concession. The former residence of the director is now the Shanghai art & craft museum.
Man’s fate is not so much about Shanghai as about the fate of all the characters. It was much acclaimed when published and received the Goncourt Price, the highest price in French literature, in 1933.