Red Star Over Edgar Snow

Edgar Snow’s birthday is sometime this week but they can’t agree on which day it is. The 1972 obituary in the omniscient NY Times had it as July 19, 1905, as does his most careful biography1. But maybe it’s July 17 if you go with the University of Missouri Archives, which has his papers and should know. Wikipedia also has the 17th, unless somebody’s gone and changed it to the Fourth of July. 2.

Nowadays we can’t agree if Snow was a hero or a dupe — probably both — but all agree that Snow’s Red Star Over China and Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth were the two most widely read western books on China in the 1930s. They both still have some zip in them, never mind that they showed completely different Chinas. Buck portrayed a petty capitalist farm family which was age old and not in need of revolution. Snow dramatized “the intellectually sterile countryside, the dark-living peasantry….” to which the Communists, he said, “stirred to great dreams by their ‘scientific knowledge,’ ” had brought to the peasant millions, “by propaganda and by action, a new conception of the state, society, and the individual.” 3

Snow’s book went off like a bombshell. Mao’s “autobiography” was the scoop, but the redefinition of his revolution in Snow’s account was even more important. The only thing it didn’t have was sex. It was travel adventure in which Snow played the intrepid explorer going where no white man had gone before.

It was well timed: The London first edition came out in October 1937 just as the Japanese Army was advancing on Nanjing, linking the China war with the global resistance to Fascism. It sold 100,000 copies.

The book was engaged: Snow, whose Irish father implanted a hatred of the British in him, was as much excited by anti-imperialism as by social liberation. Snow had mentored students who mounted the famous December 1935 demonstrations against the Japanese and was reading up on Marxism and world affairs. He adopted Chinese patriotism.

The book was news: Mao was well enough known that Time magazine referred to him in 1935 as the “Chinese Lenin” who was so sick that he had to be carried on a stretcher. But foreign accounts of the Communist movement stressed radical land revolution and anti-foreign attacks which brought the Boxers to mind. Mao rose to the top level of leadership on the Long March by “resolving the contradiction” between radical politics and the politics of survival, that is, what American politicians call triangulating.

With Snow seated on a backless stool, Mao lounged on the stone bed, once turning down his pants to scratch for an “intruder,” and in ten evening sessions told his story. The story was no more spontaneous than were FDR’s fireside chats, but it was no less masterly for having been carefully scripted and the transcript vetted and revised by Party leaders. 4

The story was a tour de force of political spin. Mao had to be both loyal to the international communist movement and a patriot, and both dedicated to China’s long term socialist revolution and an enthusiastic member of the bourgeois United Front, a move which Stalin ordered and the logic of domestic politics drew him into. He had to address the needs of his rural constituents but keep his eye on long run revolution.

The problem for Snow was both tactical and moral. When Western governments refused to counter Hitler and Mussolini’s intervention in the Spanish Civil War, Stalin seemed the only effective anti-fascist. The question was both tactical and moral. Most of the Left shunned Leon Trotsky for undermining Stalin by charging him with bureaucratic tyranny and the London Left Wing Book Club had refused to publish George Orwell’s report on the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia, because it exposed Stalin ‘s ruthless extermination of non-communist rivals. American leftist reviewers gave the London edition of Red Star mixed notices for relaying Mao’s judgment that Stalin’s advice had been disastrous in the 1920s. Fearing that the whiff of Trotskyism would cut sales, Snow edited the New York edition to tone down the explicit criticisms of Stalin while preserving their essence.

A great deal has been made of this willingness to revise, allegedly “to fall in with policies of the Communist International in Moscow after pressure of the Communist Party of the USA” or “to please critics in Moscow,” and several have quoted from Snow’s fawning letter to Earl Browder, head of the CPUSA. But the more detailed account in S. Bernard Thomas’ biography makes Snow’s revisions seem tactical rather than obsequious. Mao later defended him in a backhanded way: “Snow came here to investigate our situation when nobody else would and helped us by presenting the facts,” he said, “and even if he later did something we detest, we will always remember that he a great service for China.” 5

Mao spun him, but Snow also spun Mao in order to become one of the top correspondents for the next decade. Other reporters followed his model 6 and used his analysis, sometimes without even realizing that there had been any other way to do it.

Snow, compared to those went before, got the big things right and got them first: Mao was a Marxist revolutionary leading an independent Chinese franchise not a wholly owned subsidiary. His allegiance was to world revolution but he had to “sinifiy” Lenin’s strategies. He adopted the party structure and party army, but developed a base in the countryside. After Red Star, Mao went beyond Lenin to develop a party held together by ideology with a discipline that allowed the party line to swing vigorously from year to year – sometimes from month to month, but the Mao in Red Star is essentially the Mao who led the party to power. Mao in power was a different story.

Snow can hardly be blamed for not predicting a future which was inherently unpredictable, but in the 1950s, Snow returned to China as a friend, not the investigative reporter. His book The Other Side of the River is a huge wooly travelogue in which the travel is not very interesting. The most notorious chapter denies that there was wide spread hunger at a time when tens of millions were starving to death. He returned again in 1965 and Mao summoned him for an extensive interview in 1970, when Snow stood alongside Mao atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace for the October 1 National Day parade. He died just as Nixon was going to China. Maybe it’s too bad that he missed the excitement, but maybe it’s just as well he didn’t have to be pestered on Meet the Press.

Snow had become an icon and fair game. By the 1980s it was possible to say a doubtful word about Snow without being a Red baiter. In “A Message from Mao,” a review of the first biography of Snow, Jonathan Mirsky laid out the case that Snow had become a dupe. To my mind, Mirsky is quite right to doubt that Snow had simply found in the Communist guerrillas “a political movement that, while not a carbon copy of the populism that existed on the Midwestern plains where he was reared, attracted and harnessed people’s energies for the common good.”7. Snow was cannier than that.

What does strike me as true is that in the 1930s Snow looked for a political movement powerful enough to reform Chinese society and defend China against Japan. Snow looked on Mao’s power as liberating and didn’t worry about how to limit the power of the state. If you didn’t have a country, he argued, there was no point in worrying about liberties in it.

Significantly, the last paragraphs of Red Star return to the international scene. A “great imperialist war,” Snow speculates, would release the forces to liberate the Asian masses, but actual success would still depend on whether the USSR would be drawn into the war. But whether or not the USSR could fight for world revolution without destroying itself, China’s movement for “social revolution” will eventually win simply because “the basic conditions which have given it birth carry within themselves the dynamic necessity for its triumph.” This triumph will “consign to oblivion the last barbarities of imperialism which now enthral the Eastern world.”

I have some sympathy for Chang Jung and Jon Halliday’s Mao: The Unknown Story. Much of their story not literally true, but their Mao – “Mao the Monster” – is. He and Snow’s Mao both existed and we can’t understand one without the other.

Happy birthday Ed, whichever day it is!

  1. S. Bernard Thomas, Season of High Adventure: Edgar Snow in China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).  


  3. Red Star Over China (Random House 1938): 106-107.  

  4. Anne-Marie Brady, Making the foreign serve China: Managing foreigners in the People’s Republic (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003): 46-48; Michael Hunt, The Genesis of Chinese Communist Foreign Policy (Columbia University Press, 1996): 236-237. David Apter and Tony Saich argue that Mao’s heroic story of Yan’an was “so powerful that it changed the way people acted, thought of themselves, and responded to others, at least for a time.” David Apter Tony Saich, Revolutionary Discourse in Mao’s Republic (Harvard University Press, 1994): 9  

  5. Hans J. Van de Ven, War and Nationalism in China, 1925-1945 (RoutledgeCurzon, 2003): 2; Jonathan Mirsky, Getting the Story in China: American Reporters since 1972 (The Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy 1999): 6, both citing Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes K. M. Anderson, The Soviet World of American Communism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998); 336-341; Part Three, “Red Star Over China, and Elsewhere,” Thomas, Season of High Adventure, 151-189.  

  6. see Charles W. Hayford, “Snow, White & Seven The China Revolution Classics,” Asia Media (December 1 2006):  

  7. Jonathan Mirsky, “Message from Mao,” New York Review (February 16 1985): 17.  


  1. Wonderful posting. I also really enjoyed your “Snow, White & Seven The China Revolution Classics” linked to in the footnotes. I especially think this point was important:

    “To regain perspective we must recall Timothy Garton Ash’s urging that there is “nothing to compare with being there.” In his 1999 History of the Present: Essays, Sketches, and Dispatches from Europe in the 1990s, he said that reporters record “what people did not know at the time” and thus avoid the “illusions of retrospective determinism.” Yet if “seeing is believing,” it is also true that “believing is seeing.” Even eye witnesses frame their observations in terms of Big Stories.”

    This is something that has really puzzled me and which we, of course, all continue to see every day. When I read Western works, whether it is sympathetic observers in China or during the Korean war, I’m really struggling to come to terms with the fact that the same highly educated people who have such an excellent capacity to seek out the troubling reality and critique the standard view are at the same time so readily capable of ignoring that very reality when it contradicts, so obviously, that which they are called upon to describe. It makes me admire all the more those voices who managed to continue to spread the inconvenient truths even when it moved against their own cause. It is one thing to accept the inevitable selectivity of our writing, guided by our own bias, but I really yearn to know what people like Snow were thinking when they saw (if he indeed saw), for example, the famine engulfing the country.

  2. I am very much interested in getting Edgar Snow’s book “Red star over China”; can anyone help me in that matter?
    Tnanks very much.
    I live in Madrid Spain

  3. Marian,

    I don’t know if there was ever a Spanish edition (I bet there was) but Amazon UK is selling the English edition.

  4. It was Edgar’s mother, not his father who was Irish.

    I know this because Edgar’s grandmother, Mary Fogarty, and my great-grandfather, were brother and sister.

  5. Edgar snow apart from being the only intellectual who witnessed one billion people of impoverished China stand up and transform the destiny of their nation, is also fortunate to have shared his experience with millions of people all over the world. He is the greatest journalist and his work is the greatest factual reporting ever.

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