Man's Fate

La Condition Humaine by André Malraux. Published, 1933

The April 12, 1927 incident officially destroyed what cooperation existed between the United Front of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Kuomintang (KMT). The events leading up to the Incident began with the Northern Expedition, launched by the two groups to root out the northern warlords and bring unity to China. At heart it was meant to defeat a common enemy, and in that there was some early success. Yet, in the spring of 1927, all that changed. The CCP (and the KMT left) was determined to gain its support through the peasants and the proletariat, and in Shanghai it succeeded in doing that by forming labor movements. It was an important watershed moment for the emerging Chinese nation, the result of which carved out some of the most important characters of the Chinese Revolution, both revolutionaries and reactionaries.

The April 12 incident coalesced around the reactions and revolt to the CCP’s success at unionizing and militarizing the workers. The Northern Expedition was now focused primarily on Shanghai, dominated by both parties bid to counter the revolution. Yet, while the

spring of 1927 was to be…dominated by the fate of Shanghai…the outcome depended on the interconnections among a considerable number of factors: the reactions of various northern warlords to events in south China; the strength of the local labor movement; the nature of the anti-labor forces in the city; the attitudes and actions of the foreign community and troops in the concessions; the position of the Guomindang leaders in Wuhan; and the long-range strategy for the CCP action decided on by Stalin and relayed through the Comintern. (1)

It was in this milieu that Chiang Kai-shek waged a war of terror against the Communists and local labor movements, first in Shanghai and then around the country. During these same years, André Malraux, in his propitious catlike way, documented the events into his classic novel Man’s Fate.

While Malraux himself wasn’t in China long, his book details intimately the scenes and figures surrounding the April 12 incident, and the emotional and physical reaction of the characters involved. Those characters (both local and foreign) found themselves in the center of a fight for the future of the KMT, and of China itself. In the concessions of Shanghai, the merchants and consulates gravitated increasingly toward the side of the strongman, Chiang. For them, the preservation of a capitalist environment was more important than anything else. Above all, keep the pot boiling.

The chief protagonist of Man’s Fate is Kyo Gisors, son of the opium addict and former sociology professor Old Gisors. Kyo was the communist leader of the insurrection in Shanghai. His character is based on Zhou En-lai, who was “ordered to prepare an insurrection and help the Nationalist Army seize Shanghai…Chou and such Shanghai labor leaders as Chou Tse-yen, Chao Shih-yen, Ku Shun-chang, and Lo Yi-ming…succeeded in organizing 50,000 pickets.” (2) They succeeded in winning everything except the foreign concessions. With this early victory for the CCP, the “foreign community in China was nervous,” (3) in particular because the Northern Expedition’s successes in Nanjing turned into a looting of the foreign consulates. The reaction in Shanghai to this seeming anti-foreign campaign forced them to choose carefully which figure they would embrace.

Foreign business interests, like Ferral in Man’s Fate, understood which side of the revolution proved a continuation of their capitalist affairs. In the novel, Ferral strong-arms the chief of the Shanghai Bankers’ Association into coughing up fifty-million dollars to support Chiang, offering in the process a bit of advise: “There is also our money, and there is no question of promises. He [Chiang] cannot do otherwise. And mark my word: it’s not because you pay him that he is going to destroy the Communists: it’s because he is going to destroy the Communists that you pay him.” Within this atmosphere, Ferral, President of the French Chamber of Commerce, considers his position: “This is one of the moments when the world’s destiny hangs in the balance.” (4)

What the CCP didn’t know, but certainly should have suspected, was that “in the French Concession and the International Settlement, Chiang’s envoys had secretly conferred with representatives of foreign powers. They reached agreements to cooperate against the Chinese Communists and their Russian allies.” (5) This spelled certain disaster to the labor movement and to the chances of the CCP in Shanghai. Its arming and organizing of the proletariat would be challenged, and without ammunition equaling that of the Nationalist Army, they were certainly ruined.

Of course not all foreigners were on the side of the Chiang Kai-shek. As seen in André Malraux’s novel, one of the main characters of the insurrection is Katov, a Russian. The significance of Moscow's role in the insurrection is a repeated theme in Man’s Fate. In a sense, the Russians were trying to control the method and channel the revolution took, molding it to look similar to that of Bolshevik Revolution. Through the words of Malraux, one is painfully and repeatedly reminded of the crippling effect the partnership is having on the efficacy of the CCP.

In the novel we see the slow existential crisis of the characters unfold, from early successes against the police units, to a failed attempt by Ch’en Ta Erh to assassinate Chiang Kai-shek with a suicide bombing. They are under-funded, without a proper arsenal, and facing an increasingly bifurcated leadership. “Moscow and the enemy capitals of the West could organize their opposing passions over there in the night and attempt to mold them into a world. The Revolution, so long in parturition, had the moment of its delivery: now it would have to find birth or die.” (6) It is this sense that surfaces through in the words of Malraux. This crisis of meaning in the face of opposition appears episodic throughout the novel, and in the end we are left sympathizing with the insurrectionists, much as I would presume Malraux originally intended. As the leaders of the insurrection were marginally controlled by Moscow throughout this period, we also see a split with the ideology formed by the Russians about what a revolution should and does mean, and how to achieve it.

For Moscow, the peasants were off the map. The Comintern considered the bourgeoisie to be the true fuel of revolution, and in that sense urged the leaders of the CCP to not break entirely with the KMT. The repeated advise out of Russia was to maintain the propaganda of the United Front. As Kyo explained: “To break means certain defeat. Moscow will not tolerate our leaving the Kuomintang at this time. And the Chinese Communist Party is even more favorable to an understanding with Chiang than Moscow.” (7) Of course, this was the attitude of the top officials of the CCP, and not the proletariat or the fighters who had been remarkably successful in forming their unions. It was certainly not the attitude of Kyo or Ch’en, the two principle revolutionary characters of Man’s Fate.

The Nationalists were facing a similar dilemma, namely how far to go in supporting the mobilization of the proletariat. “For Chiang Kai-shek and the leaders of the Kuomintang it was possible, after the success of the Northern Expedition in 1926-27, to dispense with the support of popular forces against the northern militarists. Indeed it became a necessity to dissociate from such allies, whose activities threatened the position of the privileged classes in town and countryside.” (8)

In Man’s Fate, we see the growing dilemma of where the CCP intends to focus the revolution. For the Nationalists, it was an obvious choice of supporting the economic status quo, which amounted to really nothing more than a military coup within the country. But for the CCP, the choice was now really existential, facing as they were their immediate demise. The revolutionaries would have to morph and innovate, something the Comintern was unlikely to fully accept. Out of the Shanghai spring came a torrent of revolutionaries and reactionaries who, like Chiang Kai-shek, had proved themselves and their relative worth. After the purge, the Communists fled to the countryside to regroup and lick their wounds, and no single revolutionary figure came out on top, as leader. It would not be until the Long March that the CCP would find its leadership in Mao, but that is another story.


1. Spence, Jonathan D., The Search For Modern China. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990. p. 349.
2. Snow, Edgar. Red Star Over China. New York: Grove Press, 1961. p. 75
3. Spence, Jonathan D., The Search For Modern China. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990. pp. 352-353
4. Malraux, André. Man’s Fate. New York: Vintage, 1990. p. 116
5. Snow, Edgar. Red Star Over China. New York: Grove Press, 1961. p. 75
6. Malraux, André. Man’s Fate. New York: Vintage, 1990. p. 152
7. Ibid. p. 145
8. Chesneaux, Jean. Peasant Revolts in China 1840-1949. London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1973. p. 99

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Reese Zollinger

Man's Fate