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Ch’en Ta Erh: The Time Bomb Essay, Research Paper

In Man’s Fate, Andre Malraux examines the compelling forces that lead individuals to join a

greater cause. Forced into a life of contempt, Ch’en portrays the man of action in the early phases of the

Chinese Revolution. He dedicates himself to the communist cause. It is something greater than himself, a

phenomenal concept that he has fused into. It is something for which he will give his life. How did this

devotion come about? A combination of his personality, his interior life, as well as society’s influence,

molded him into a terrorist. Ch’en is self-destructive; he is controlled by his religion of terrorism and his

fascination with death. He is representative of the dedicated soldier who begins as a “sacrificial priest” (4)

and ends as a martyr. After all, the ideologies of communism and terrorism were practically a religion to

those involved in the revolution.

An examination of Ch’en’s past gives us an idea of how he formed his beliefs, and fell into a state of

isolation. At an early age, his parents were murdered in the pillage of Kalagan. In addition, at age twenty-

four, his uncle was taken hostage and killed because he couldn’t afford the ransom, and with no wife or

children he was severed from any attachment to a family. He was practically brought up by pastor

Smithson, representative of the thousands of Christians that were present in Shanghai, who gave him his

Christian education. However, “[a]s he was devoid of charity, a religious calling could lead him only to

contemplation or the inner life; but he hated contemplation and would only have dreamt of an apostleship,

for which precisely his absence of charity disqualified him” (64). Thus, he was unable to be a devout

Christian, and in addition to this Old Gisors makes a comment about Ch’en’s basis for a belief: “No sooner

had he observed Ch’en than he had understood that!

this adolescent was incapable of living by an ideology which did not immediately become transformed into

action….” (64).

Although he is Chinese ethnically, he felt estranged and unconnected to his heritage. His

separation from his ethnicity can be demonstrated through his physical appearance which relates more to a

Mongolian than a Chinese national. His attachment to a class rather than a nation is reflected in Suan, who

states “I don’t want to create China… I want to create my people, with or without her. The poor. It’s for

them that I’m willing to die, to kill. For them only….” (189). It is clear that Ch’en and Suan do not feel as

though they are part of China, and the quote also indicates that one of the chief reasons for feeling this way

is their economic condition. For it was a time when many were starving in China, and agrarian land reform

was most desperately needed. Colonialism causes an indeterminate quality of identity, and it creates a

need for a radical change to link people such as Ch’en to a culture. They have been tainted by foreign

culture, and no one feels like an !

insider. Ch’en has been shaped by this society and wants to diminish the suffering that it has brought about.

It is the historical situation that Ch’en is in that helps him make the choices that he does. At 24 years of age,

Ch’en had no money, but only worthless diplomas. He was a truck driver, then an assistant chemist:

“[e]verything had pushed him into political activity: the hope of a different world, the possibility of eating,

though wretchedly (he was naturally austere, perhaps through pride), the gratification of his hatreds, his

mind, his character. This activity gave a meaning to his solitude” (65). It leads him to fight to unite

everyone under a big community, where they escape from isolation and live more equal lives.

Ch’en can not live in his present situation, however “The world they were preparing condemned him –

Ch’en – as much as it did that of their enemies” (103). What would he do in a factory? He is not taken as a

working class member, as seen by the scene in which the antiquarian believes him to be of the higher class.

The store clerk is somewhat justified for Ch’en lies between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, with his

University of Peking education. However, Ch’en is not rich either. Thus, it is apparent that once the

revolution came to an end he would not fit into the new order. There is no place for him in the old world or

the new; he is an instrument of destruction.

Ch’en lives by the ideology of action – terrorism. Even his physical appearance is suggestive of his line of

work. He has hawk-like physical features, indicating a bird of prey. Ch’en clearly states his intentions:

“I’m not looking for peace. I’m looking for… the opposite. (173). In addition, Ch’en devotion to his cause

is phenomenal. To him, terrorism is even greater than a religion. This is seen through the dialogue

between Gisors and Ch’en. Gisors asks “You want to make a kind of religion of terrorism?” (192), and

Chen responds, “Not a religion. The meaning of life. The…the complete possession of oneself. Total.

Absolute. To know. Not to be looking, looking, always, for ideas, for duties” (192). It becomes clear as

to how it is possible to commit one’s life to the cause. The cause, which is a means to an end, becomes the

end in itself.

However, it is not so easy to take the life of another. He is hesitant about killing someone else, but to a

large degree he has no choice. This is perhaps the most important conflict between human impulse and his

ideology. This dichotomy is further exemplified through the transition from Ch’en’s state of mind to the

outside, and the inability to recognize one’s own recorded voice. These are representative of the switch

between the individual mind and the bigger causes to which he serves, as well as the existential dilemma

that each individual is cut off from himself. In the end it is the ideology that takes power over him. For it

is much more important to serve the higher objective, and he serves it as a sacrificial priest.

Ch’en makes his connection with others through death. This can be demonstrated through Hemmelrich’s

experience: “It came to him suddenly that life was not the only mode of contact between human beings,

that it was not even the best; that he could know them, love them, possess them more completely in

vengeance than in life….’One can kill with love’” (267). This is supported by Ch’en’s actions. For before

Ch’en kills he always inflicts upon himself some sort of physical harm. In doing so he feels what his victim

will feel, and Ch’en identifies with him in this way.

Ch’en, like many followers of the revolution, were completely dedicated to the cause. However, it is ironic

that it is still the Chinese who do the “dirty work.” It is he who kills the first victim of the insurrection to

get the document necessary to gain access to the guns, and it is he who takes the most physically active role

and eventually gives his life for the cause. It is those who are not ethnically Chinese who are giving the

orders, and assuming the highest positions. So dedicated is Chen that the fear of death does not ward him

off, it actually calls him to battle, and he decides to continue as planned to kill Chiang Kai-Shek. Despite

the fact that people who fail in an attempted suicide rarely try again, Ch’en goes out for a second assault.

He wants the action of the revolution, yet he realizes that if Chiang Kai-Shek were killed and Ch’en lived

then he would be obsolete as a terrorist. His ultimate fulfillment is brought about by dying for his cause.

For h!

e knows how much weight an idea acquires through the blood that is shed in its name. Ch’en’s thought

before he kills himself indicates that he achieves a peace through suicide: “And suddenly everything

seemed extraordinarily easy to Ch’en. Things, even actions, did not exist; they were dreams, nothing but

dreams which take possession of us because we give them force, but which we can just as easily deny”

(180). This is further reinforced by Ch’en’s idea that “In the last hour I have felt nothing of what used to

weigh on me” (192).

Ch’en is the terrorist for the insurrection. His faith had isolated himself from the world instead of

submitting to it. We have a personal need for connection, Ch’en is isolated until the end, when all

differences are subsumed. Communism gives a sense of escaping isolation. For under this ideology there is

a personal connection and an feeling of equality. It is the ultimate fulfillment to live his idea, and more

importantly to die for his cause – a cause that is much greater than the individual. In the end Ch’en becomes

the bomb.


Malraux, Andre. Man’s Fate: La Condition Humaine. New York: Vintage Books. 1990

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