Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Shanghai. Port city at the mouth of the Yangtze River that was—and still is—the most populous city of China, housing an estimated three million people in 1927, thirty-five thousand of them foreigners. Shanghai then was also uniquely international, made so by European imperialism. Europeans in China enjoyed extraterritorial rights and were beyond the jurisdiction of Chinese law. Hence, although Shanghai was a Chinese city, it was actually divided into three administrative and juridical sectors: the Chinese sector, the British sector (known as the “international settlement”), and the French sector (or “concession”). In each sector, Chinese inhabitants were in the majority. Shanghai in 1927 was a divided city somewhat like Berlin, Germany, following World War II.

Although Malraux had lived in Asia, it is doubtful that he knew Shanghai firsthand in 1927; his descriptions therefore resemble a newsreel. More important, because of Shanghai’s international nature, Malraux could assemble a multinational cast for his epic—French, Germans, Russians, Chinese, and mixed-race characters. Malraux’s Shanghai can thus be seen as a political microcosm of his contemporary world during an existentialist moment of history when the communist revolution was challenging capitalist imperialism as a global ideology.

Hotel room

Hotel room. Setting of the opening scene, in which Ch’en, a Chinese communist leader, assassinates an arms dealer. Malraux transforms this room into a metaphoric place with metaphysical significance. Beginning here, Malraux divides his novel’s places (also characters, actions, ideas) into two...

(The entire section is 687 words.)