The work of Edgar Parks Snow helped promote normalization of the U.S.-China relationship. As a journalist, Snow is known as the first and last foreign journalist to interview Chinese leader Mao Zedong. As an author, Snow is recognized for his book Red Star over China, which gave insight into the Chinese Communist Party and Red Army leaders.
Edgar Snow was an American journalist who authored eleven books and worked as a highly successful foreign correspondent during World War II. His most famous publication, Red Star over China (1937), provided the West with its first glimpse of the revolutionary Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its Red Army leaders. Many Chinese were inspired to join the Communists after reading the Chinese-language edition. Snow was the first (and the last) foreign journalist to privately interview Mao Zedong. He helped promote understanding between America and China and the normalization of U.S.-China relations.
The Early Days
Edgar Snow was born 19 July 1905. He grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, graduating from West Port High School and attending Junior College of Kansas City. He transferred to the University of Missouri in Columbia but left after one year; he moved to New York City and began a career in advertising. He also studied journalism briefly at Columbia University. After making eight hundred dollars from a modest stock investment, Snow decided to see the world. In 1928 he arrived in Shanghai and met his destiny: China, which became his home for the next twelve years. His travels took him throughout Asia, including the Philippines (where he lived for two years), Indochina, Burma, and India. He also lived just less than two years in Russia.
In Shanghai, Snow took a job at the China Weekly Review. Given an assignment to write about tourist attractions of town and cities along the Chinese railways, Snow was able to travel outside the foreign concessions of Shanghai and to see things other Westerns could not see. He was appalled by China’s poverty: Westerners received special privileges, as did Chinese city dwellers, but the vast majority of rural Chinese were trapped in dire poverty with little hope of escape.
In 1929, at the beginning of China’s great famine of 1929–1931, Snow visited the ravaged northwestern countryside. On the way he met Rewi Alley, an expatriate from New Zealand who spent his life working for the Chinese government and was to become Snow’s lifelong friend. In Saratsi, located in Inner Mongolia south of the Gobi Desert, Snow witnessed mass starvation and other horrors he would never forget. These experiences helped formulate his sociopolitical perspective. He remained sympathetic to the Communist Party’s emphasis on agrarian poverty in promoting a successful revolution. Unlike Russia’s Communist revolution, which emphasized class struggle based in the cities, with the proletariat (working class) overthrowing the bourgeoisie (wealthy upper class), over eighty per cent of China’s people lived in the countryside. Agrarian reform in China was the method employed by the CCP to gain control and unite the country.
First Marriage and Life in Beijing
Snow married Helen “Peg” Foster (who wrote under the name Nym Wales), a private secretary to the American consul general in Shanghai, on Christmas Day, 1932. They moved to Beijing the following year and spent five years there. Snow took the helm of Consolidated Press for all of China and he also taught part-time at Yenching University, which connected him with liberals and the resurgent student nationalism. He learned basic Chinese and compiled Living China: Modern Chinese Short Stories (1936), a translated collection of short stories written by Chinese authors.
Red Star over China
In 1936, after the conclusion of the Communists’ Long March, Snow visited the territory held by the Communists, including the caves of Yan’an and the town of Bao’an in northwestern China. He was the first Western journalist to interview various Red Army leaders, including Zhou Enlai (1898–1976) and Mao Zedong (1893–1976), who was rumored to have died while escaping Nationalist Guomindang (GMD) forces during the 9,600 kilometer (6,000 mile) Long March. At the time, the Chinese Communists were believed to be merely bandits, a ragtag, unorganized group. Snow, however, found dedicated revolutionaries, organized and confident they would prevail.
Snow spent many weeks with the Red Army and countless hours recording the first and only authorized biography of Mao Zedong, published in Red Star over China. The book is considered of prime historical significance because it was translated into Chinese and helped educate the entire nation about the CCP movement. It is still regarded a classic by scholars for many reasons, including the extensive and exclusive biographical interviews with Mao Zedong. According to Snow’s account, after thousands of years of imperial rule and serfdom in China, Mao saw peasant-led revolution as the only path that would unite the people and be capable of expelling foreign imperialists—both Japanese and Western. Snow also brought back Mao’s proposal to the GMD: an end to civil war and a joint united front to resist the Japanese.
Snow found Mao to be an accomplished scholar of classical Chinese, educated in both history and philosophy, and a genius in both military and political strategy. The two men developed a mutual trust and respect, and a lasting friendship. It was the story of a lifetime, and Snow captured it in both words and photographs; this included his iconic photo of Mao wearing Snow’s red-star cap.
Chinese Industrial Cooperative Organization (Gung Ho)
In 1938, Snow, his wife Helen, and Rewi Alley founded the Chinese Industrial Cooperative Organization (known as Indusco, or in Chinese as gung ho). The Work-Together movement was sponsored by Soong Qing-ling (political leader and wife of Sun Yat-sen) and Sir Archibald Clark-Kerr (British ambassador in China). Snow had been moved by the devastation of Shanghai homes and businesses by the occupying Japanese military and wanted to help rebuild cooperatives to offer education and work opportunities to the destitute Chinese. They also enlisted Soong Qing-ling’s brother-in-law, Finance Minister H. H. Kung. Lack of support from the Nationalist GMD government limited the venture’s success, however.
World War II and the 1940s
Snow returned to the United States in 1941. The same year, he published The Battle for Asia. For ten years he had claimed that World War II actually began with Japan’s 1931 invasion of Manchuria, and in his book he claimed that the destruction of Japan’s Pacific fleet was imperative. (This was written before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941.) In 1942, Snow became associate editor at The Saturday Evening Post. As a distinguished war correspondent, he worked in India, Russia, Africa, and Europe. Three extended tours in the Soviet Union yielded two books on the USSR. His Far East reportage included Indochina, the Philippines, Japan, and Korea. He wrote for many other publications, as well, including the Chicago Tribune, New York Herald Tribune, London Daily Herald, and Foreign Affairs.
During the 1940s Snow made two brief return visits to China, but in 1945 he was denied a visa by Chiang Kai-shek due to his ongoing criticism of the Nationalist government’s unwillingness to engage the Japanese and Chiang’s seeming inability to unite the country. When the GMD fell to the Communists in 1949, Generalissimo Chiang moved its government to Taiwan. The U.S.
government banned all travel to the new People’s Republic of China (PRC). Snow would not return to China until 1960.
The Cold War Years and McCarthyism
Edgar Snow’s career as a journalist tailed off during the 1950s. He had supported China’s peasant-led Communist movement and often criticized the U.S.-backed Nationalist Party, now located in Taiwan. In 1949, Snow and his first wife divorced. He married the actress Lois Wheeler. Both their careers suffered greatly from the repression and innuendo of McCarthyism and the Cold War. They had two children and lived a quiet life in a semirural setting near the Hudson River, not far from New York City; Snow taught and did some lecturing. The family moved to Switzerland in 1959. Snow published two books during the 1950s, including Journey to the Beginning, which helped pave the way for his 1960 return to China. This and later visits would play a role in breaking isolationist policy between the United States and China.
Return to China (1960 and 1964)
Travel between America and China was off-limits due to the political mood (and State Department policy) throughout the decade following World War II. In 1960, Snow finally obtained a visa and flew to Beijing on 28 June for a five-month visit. He was reunited with friends Rewi Alley, George Hatem, and Huang Hua (one of his translators in 1936 and the future first Chinese ambassador to Canada). He visited fourteen of China’s twenty-two provinces, nineteen major cities, and numerous communes.
Snow spent several days with Zhou Enlai and had an extended dinner visit with Chairman Mao Zedong at his home adjacent to the Forbidden City. Mao claimed success for the Great Leap Forward (1958–1959) program, but his claim has been sharply disputed in other accounts. Mao did concede that China was still extremely poor and would remain so in the foreseeable future. The struggle to survive brought hardship, yet this “challenge” was capable of strengthening the people. Mao refused to talk about Sino-Soviet relations. He would, however, discuss Taiwan: Taiwan remained a domestic issue, and the United States needed to withdraw its troops from the region before talks with China could begin.
Although his travel in China was carefully choreographed, Snow felt he came away with a better understanding of modern China’s people. He saw vast improvements compared to his arrival in 1928. Snow was impressed, although skeptical of some government claims. He felt inspired to write a book that stood in sharp contrast to the usual Cold War portrayals of the PRC.
The Other Side of the River: Red China Today (1962) was acknowledged as a sign of Snow’s continuing goodwill towards China. On 9 January 1965, Mao and Snow met for dinner and four hours of conversation. This represented the most direct U.S.-China link during the entire Johnson administration (1963–1969). Mao spoke about a number of subjects. On U.S.-China relations, Mao felt deep regret that the forces of history had divided the two nations, but he also felt these forces would inevitably bring them together. War could come only if the United States invaded China; that would not be tolerated. Also, Mao declared no Chinese troops were stationed anywhere in Asia, including Vietnam. He sincerely hoped Sino-U.S. relations would improve.
Final Trip to China (1970)
On his last trip, Snow again had an extended private meeting with Mao; he had questions to ask. What about Mao’s personality cult? Although Mao was not very happy with it, he felt that after three thousand years of emperor worship in China, old habits were hard to break. But he did not want to be remembered as a glorious, all-powerful leader. He had begun as a primary school teacher in Changsha in Hunan Province, which was how he wanted to be remembered: as a teacher.
Regarding the Soviet Union, there was indeed ongoing tension. According to Mao, the Soviets considered China inferior, and advised them to move away from being so dogmatic. In turn, the Chinese saw the Russians as revisionists who were turning their backs from pure Marxism. Contentious criticism of both Mao and Edgar Snow from Russian scholars continues to this day.
Concerning the Cultural Revolution, Mao admitted it was a case of unintentional consequences. Mao condemned the mistreatment of captives—party members removed from power and subjected to reeducation. This created bad blood and made it difficult to rebuild and change the Party. In the years to follow, many books and articles detailed the horror unleashed by Mao’s movement to remove Party-chosen successor Liu Shao-ch’i and prevent other Party members from taking the capitalist road. Snow would not read them. He did, however, tell the story from Mao’s perspective, along with details from his final look at China, and presented it in his last book, titled The Long Revolution (1972).
Perhaps most importantly, Mao told Snow he was open to a visit from President Richard Nixon, whether as an official or simply a tourist. The continuing war in Vietnam—the Chinese felt America was prepared to withdraw—and the ongoing problem of Taiwan should not preclude opening a dialog between the nations. Unfortunately, Snow would not live to see the historic moment.
Farewell Friend of China
Edgar Snow conducted many extensive interviews with key Asian leaders during his lifetime, ranging from Mao Zedong to Mahatma Gandhi. Snow always sought the truth but along the way learned that the truth depends on one’s point of view. He believed in America’s democratic ideals and hoped they might be implemented in China. However, he increasingly saw the U.S.–backed GMD as incapable of warding off Japanese imperialism and unifying the Chinese people under a common government able to address the abject poverty in China.
Edgar Snow died of pancreatic cancer on 15 February 1972 at age sixty-seven, three days before President Nixon’s historic visit to China; he was to have accompanied Nixon as a member of the President’s party. On 16 February 1972, Mao Zedong sent Lois Snow his personal condolences and heartfelt sympathy at Edgar Snow’s untimely death. He called him a true friend of the Chinese people who worked tirelessly throughout his life to promote mutual understanding and friendship between the people of China and United States. The Chinese people would remember him.
Zhou Enlai also wrote a warm eulogy, noting that Snow’s writings were widely appreciated in China. Zhou had often said Snow was not a journalist but rather a historian. He lamented the passing of a true friend of China’s.
Madame Sun Yat-sen (Soong Qing-ling) also offered her condolences in a personal message. She wanted Mrs. Snow to know that her husband’s unyielding support for China’s struggle against native fascism and the Japanese invasion and occupation would never be forgotten. Edgar Snow’s memory would remain forever alive and vibrant in the hearts of the Chinese people.
Red Star over China
In the journalist Edgar Snow’s book Red Star over China, first published in 1937, he wrote:
As early as Chingkangshan [a base held by the Red Army in the winter of 1927] the Red Army had imposed three simple rules of discipline on its fighters, and these were: prompt obedience to orders; no confiscation whatsoever from the poor peasantry; and the prompt delivery directly to the government, for its immediate disposal, of all goods confiscated from the landlords. After the 1928 conference, emphatic efforts to enlist the support of the peasantry were made and eight rules were added to the three listed above. These were as follows:
1 Replace all doors when you leave a house.
2 Return and roll up the straw matting on which you sleep.
3 Be courteous and polite to people and help them when you can.
4 Return all borrowed articles.
5 Replace all damaged articles.
6 Be honest in all your transactions with the peasants.
7 Pay for all articles purchased.
8 Be sanitary, and especially establish latrines at a safe distance from people’s houses.
Source: Snow, E.. (1968). Red star over China. New York: Grove Press, 172–173.
University of Missouri-Kansas City Archives. (2005, November). Edgar Parks Snow (1905–1972). Retrieved January 16, 2009, from http://www.umkc.edu/University_Archives/INVTRY/EPS/EPS-INTRO.HTM
Source: Poon, Cecilia Siu-Wah, & Richards, Craig (2009). SNOW Edgar Parks. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1998–2002. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
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