Edgar Snow

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Edgar Snow (left) with Zhou Enlai and his wife Deng Yingchao, circa 1938.
Half of Edgar Snow's ashes are buried on the campus of Peking University, Beijing, alongside Weiming Lake.

Edgar Parks Snow (17 July 1905 – 15 February 1972) was an American journalist known for his books and articles on Communism in China and the Chinese Communist revolution. He was the first Western journalist to give a full account of the history of the Chinese Communist Party following the Long March, and was the first to interview many of its leaders, including Mao Zedong. He is best known for his book, Red Star Over China (1937), an account of the Chinese Communist movement from its foundation until the late 1930s.


Early career

Edgar was born in Kansas City, Missouri. Before settling in Missouri, his ancestors had moved to the state from North Carolina, Kentucky, and Kansas.[1] He briefly studied journalism at the University of Missouri,[2] and joined the Zeta Phi chapter of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity,[3] but moved to New York City to pursue a career in advertising before graduating. He made a little money in the stock market shortly before the Wall Street Crash of 1929. In 1928 he used the money to travel around the world, intending to write about his travels. He made it to Shanghai that summer, and stayed in China for thirteen years.[2]

He quickly found work with the China Weekly Review, edited by J.B. Powell, a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism.[4] He became friends with numerous prominent Chinese writers and intellectuals, including Soong Ching-ling.[1] In his early years in China he supported Chiang Kai-shek, noting that Chiang had more Harvard graduates in his cabinet than there were in Franklin Roosevelt's. In 1932 he married Helen Foster, who was working in the American Consulate until she could begin her own career in journalism, writing under the pen-name "Nym Wales."[4] Through much of the 1930s, while living in Shanghai, Snow traveled widely through China, often on assignment for the Chinese Railway Ministry.[2] While working in Shanghai he toured famine districts in Northwest China, visited what would later become the Burma Road, reported on the undeclared war with Japan, and became a correspondent for the Saturday Evening Post.[1]

In 1933, after a honeymoon in Japan, Snow and his wife moved to Beiping, as Beijing was called at that time. They taught journalism part-time at Yenching University,[4] one of the most prominent Christian universities in China. He and his wife studied Chinese and became modestly fluent. In addition to writing a book on Japanese aggression in China, Far Eastern Front, he also edited a collection of modern Chinese short stories (translated into English), Living China.[5] They borrowed works on current affairs from the Yenching library and read the principal texts of Marxism. The couple became acquainted with student leaders of the anti-Japanese December 9th Movement. Through their contacts with the underground communist network, Snow was invited to visit Mao Zedong's headquarters.[4]

Writing Red Star Over China

In June 1936, Snow left Beiping with a letter of introduction from Soong Qing-ling (who was a politically important supporter of the Communists) and arrived at Xi'an. The Nationalist army was formally blockading areas controlled by the Communists, but the Manchurian army soldiers stationed in Xi'an wanted to work with the Communists to oppose the Japanese, and allowed Snow to enter. Snow was accompanied on the journey by George Hatem (a friend of Agnes Smedley), who had written of the Chinese communists, but whose presence was kept secret for many years. Snow had been preparing to write a book on the Communist movement in China for several years, and had even signed a contract at one point. However, his most important contribution was the interviews he conducted with the top leaders of the party. When Snow wrote, there were no reliable reports reaching the West of what was going on in the Communist-controlled areas. Other writers, such as Agnes Smedley, had written in some detail of the Chinese Communists before the Long March, but none had visited them or had first hand interviews with the new leadership which had emerged during the Long March.[6]

Snow was taken through the military quarantine lines to the Communist headquarters at Bao'an, where he spent four months (until October 1936) interviewing Mao and other Communist leaders. He was greeted with crowds of cadets and troops who shouted slogans of welcome, and Snow later recalled "the effect pronounced upon me was highly emotional." Over a period of ten days, Mao met with Snow and narrated his autobiography. Although Snow did not know it at the time, Mao was quite cautious in these interviews, and although claimed that he had been under no constraint, Snow made a number of revisions at the request of Mao or Zhou.[7]

After he returned to Beiping in the fall, he wrote frantically. First he published a short account in China Weekly Review, then a series of publications in Chinese. Red Star Over China, published first in London in 1937, was given credit for introducing both Chinese and foreign readers not so much to the Communist Party, which was reasonably well known, but to Mao Zedong. Mao was not, as had been reported, dead, and Snow reported that Mao was a political reformer, not the purely military or radical revolutionary he had been during the 1920s.[8]

In the first four weeks after its publication, Red Star over China sold over 12,000 copies,[9] and effectively made Snow world famous. The book quickly became a "standard" introduction to the early Communist movement in China.[2]

Activities in China during World War II

After the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, the Snows became founding members of the Chinese Industrial Cooperative Association (Indusco). The goal of Indusco was to establish workers' cooperatives in areas not controlled by the Japanese, through which Chinese workers would be provided with steady employment, education, consumer and industrial goods, and the opportunity to manage their own farms and factories. Snow's work in Indusco mainly involved his chairmanship of the Membership and Propaganda Committee, which managed public and financial support.[2] Indusco was eventually successful in creating 1,850 workers' cooperatives.[10] Snow again visited Mao in Yan'an in 1939.

Edgar Snow recorded the Japanese atrocities in Nanking, and even recorded Japanese reactions to the massacre, stating:

"In Shanghai a few Japanese deeply felt the shame and the humiliation. I remember, for example, talking one evening to a Japanese friend, a liberal-minded newspaper man who survived by keeping his views to himself, and whose name I withhold for his own protection. 'Yes, they are all true,' he unexpectedly admitted when I asked him about some atrocity reports, 'only the facts are actually worse than any story yet published.' There were tears in his eyes and I took his sorrow to be genuine.".

His records on the Nanking Massacre appeared in his 1941 book Scorched Earth.[11]

Snow met Japanese resistance fighters Kaji Wataru, and his wife, Yuki Ikeda. Both Kaji and Yuki survived a Japanese bombing attack on Wuchang and met him at the Hankow Navy YMCA. Snow met them again a year later in Chongqing and was reminded that "Japan was full of decent people like them who, if they had not had their craniums stuffed full of Sun goddess myths and other imperialist filth, and been forbidden access to 'dangerous thoughts,' and been armed by American and British hypocrites, could easily live in a civilized co-operative world if any of us could provide one."[12]

Later journalism

Shortly before the United States entered World War II, in 1941, Snow toured Japanese-occupied areas of Asia and wrote his second major book, Battle for Asia, about his observations.[2] After writing the book, Snow and his wife returned to the United States, where they separated. [13] In April 1942 the Saturday Evening Post sent him abroad as a war correspondent. Snow traveled to India, China, and Russia to report on World War II from the perspective of those countries. In Russia he shared his observations on the Battle of Stalingrad with the American Embassy. At times, Snow's defense of various undemocratic Allied governments were attacked as blatant war propaganda, not neutral journalistic observation, but Snow defended his reporting, stating:

In this international cataclysm brought on by fascists it is no more possible for any people to remain neutral than it is for a man surrounded by bubonic plague to remain 'neutral' toward the rat population. Whether you like it or not, your life as a force is bound either to help the rats or hinder them. Nobody can be immunized against the germs of history.[14]

By 1944, Snow was wavering on the question of whether Mao and the Chinese Communists were actually "agrarian democrats," rather than dedicated communists bent on totalitarian rule.[14] His 1944 book, People On Our Side, emphasized their role in the fight against fascism. In a speech, he described Mao and the Communist Chinese as a progressive force who desired a democratic, free China. Writing for The Nation, Snow stated that the Chinese Communists "happen to have renounced, years ago now, any intention of establishing communism [in China] in the near future."[14] After the war, Snow retreated from this view of the Chinese communists as a democratic movement.

While working as a correspondent in Russia, he wrote three short books about Russia's role in World War II and in world affairs: People on Our Side (1944); The Pattern of Soviet Power (1945); and, Stalin Must Have Peace (1947). In 1949 Snow divorced Helen Foster and married his second wife, Lois Wheeler.[2]

Because of his relationships with communists and his highly favorable treatment of them as a war correspondent, Snow became an object of suspicion following World War II. During the McCarthy period, he was questioned by the FBI and asked to disclose the extent of his relationship with the Communist Party. In published articles, Snow lamented what he saw as the one-sided, conservative, and anti-communist mood of the United States. Later in the 1950s, he published two more books about China: Random Notes on Red China (1957), a collection of previously unused China material of interest to China scholars; and, Journey to the Beginning (1958), an autobiographical account of his experiences in China before 1949. During the 1950s, Snow found it difficult to make a living through his writing, and he decided to leave the United States. He moved with his wife to Switzerland in 1959, but remained an American citizen.[2]

Return to China

He returned to China in 1960 and 1964, interviewed Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, traveled extensively, and talked with many people. His 1963 book, The Other Side of the River, details his experience, including his reasons for denying that China's 1959-1961 crisis was actually a famine.

In 1970, he made a final trip to China and was told by Chinese officials that President Richard Nixon would be welcome to visit, either officially or as a private citizen.[15] The White House followed this visit with interest but distrusted Snow and his pro-communist reputation.[16] When Snow came down with pancreatic cancer, Zhou Enlai dispatched a team of Chinese doctors to Switzerland, including George Hatem. Snow died on February 15, 1972, the week President Nixon was traveling to China, and did not live to see the normalization of relations.[17]

Snow died of cancer, aged 66, in Geneva. After his death, his ashes were divided into two parts at his request. One half was buried at Sneden's Landing, near the Hudson River. The other half was buried on the grounds of Peking University, which had taken over the campus of Yenching University, where he had taught in the 1930s. His final book, The Long Revolution, was published posthumously by Lois Wheeler Snow.[2]

Evaluation by China scholars

Snow's reporting from China in the 1930s has been both praised as prescient and blamed for the rise of Mao's communism. Some China historians have judged Snow's writing very positively. John K. Fairbank praised Snow's reporting for giving the West the first articulate account of the Chinese Communist Party and its leadership, which he called "disastrously prophetic". Writing thirty years after the first publication of Red Star Over China, Fairbank stated that the book had "stood the test of time... both as a historical record and as an indication of a trend."[18]

Other historians have been more critical of Snow. Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's biography, Mao: The Unknown Story, describes Snow as a Mao spokesman and accuses him of supplying myths, asserting that he lost his objectivity to such an extent that he presented a romanticized view of communist China.[19]

Jonathan Mirsky, a critical voice, stated that what Snow did in the 1930s was "to describe the Chinese Communists before anyone else, and thus score a world-class scoop." Of his reporting in 1960, however, he says that Snow "went much further than those who reckoned that Mao and his comrades would take power." He contented himself with assurances from Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong that while there was a food problem, it was being dealt with successfully," which was not true, and "had Snow still been the reporter he had been in the 1930s he would have discovered it." [20] In Mao: A Reinterpretation, a work sympathetic to Mao, Lee Feigon criticizes Snow's account for its inaccuracies, but praises Red Star for being "[the] seminal portrait of Mao" and relies on Snow's work as a critical reference throughout the book.[21]


  • Living China: Modern Chinese Short Stories
  • Red Star Over China (various editions, London, New York, 1937–1944). Reprinted Read Books, 2006, ISBN 978-1-4067-9821-0; Hesperides Press, 2008, ISBN 978-1-4437-3673-2.
  • The Battle for Asia
  • Far Eastern Front
  • People On Our Side. Random House, 1944.
  • Stalin Must Have Peace. Random House, 1947.
  • China, Russia, and the USA
  • Red China Today: The Other Side of the River. Gollancz, 1963. New edition, Penguin Books, 1970. ISBN 0-14-021159-4.
  • The Long Revolution


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Fairbank, John D. "Introduction". In Snow, Edgar. Red Star Over China: The Classic Account of the Birth of Chinese Communism. New York, NY: Edgar Snow. 1968. ISBN 0-8021-5093-4. p.11
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 Curators of the University of Missouri. "Edgar Parks Snow (1905-1972) Papers". University Archives: University of Missouri-Kansas City. July 08, 2010. Retrieved July 7, 2014.
  3. Curators of the University of Missouri. "About Edgar Snow". The Edgar Snow Foundation. 2013. Retrieved July 7, 2014.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Thomas, Season of High Adventure, 107-125.
  5. Fairbank, John D. "Introduction". In Snow, Edgar. Red Star Over China: The Classic Account of the Birth of Chinese Communism. New York, NY: Edgar Snow. 1968. ISBN 0-8021-5093-4. pp.11-12
  6. Brady, Anne-Marie (2003). Making the Foreign Serve China: Managing Foreigners in the People's Republic. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. ISBN 0742518612.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> pp. 42-46.
  7. Brady p. 46-47.
  8. Brady p. 47.
  9. Israel, Jerry. "'Mao's Mr. America': Edgar Snow's Images of China". Pacific Historical Review. 47.1. (Feb. 1978): 107-122. p.107. Retrieved July 7, 2014.
  10. Hamilton, John Maxwell. Edgar Snow: A Biography. United States of America: John Maxwell Hamilton. 1988. ISBN 0-253-31909-9. p.2 Retrieved July 7, 2014.
  11. http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAsnowE.htm
  12. From Vagabond to Journalist: Edgar Snow in Asia, 1928-1941 By Robert M. Farnsworth Page 326-327
  13. Hamilton (2003), p. 153.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 Hamilton, John M., Edgar Snow: A Biography, LSU Press, (2003) ISBN 0-8071-2912-7, ISBN 978-0-8071-2912-8, p. 167; Shewmaker, Kenneth E., Americans and Chinese Communists, 1927-1945: A Persuading Encounter, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press (1971) ISBN 0-8014-0617-X
  15. http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB145/index.htm
  16. Tyler, Patrick (2000). A Great Wall: Six Presidents and China: An Investigative History. New York: Public Affairs. pp. 81–86.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. Thomas, Season of High Adventure pp. 335-6.
  18. Fairbank, John D. "Introduction". In Snow, Edgar. Red Star Over China: The Classic Account of the Birth of Chinese Communism. New York, NY: Edgar Snow. 1968. ISBN 0-8021-5093-4. p.13
  19. Chang, Jung and Halliday, Jon, Mao: The Unknown Story, Jonathan Cape, London (2005), ISBN 0-224-07126-2, p. 106.
  20. Jonathan Mirsky, "Message from Mao" (review of Hamilton. Edgar Snow: A Biography) New York Review (February 16, 1985).
  21. Feigon, Lee, Mao: A Reinterpretation, Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002,

Further reading

  • Dimond, E. Grey. Ed Snow Before Paoan: The Shanghai Years. Diastole Hospital Hill, Inc., University of Missouri-Kansas City, 1985.
  • Farnsworth, Robert. Edgar Snow's Journey South of the Clouds. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1991.
  • Farnsworth, Robert. From Vagabond to Journalist: Edgar Snow in Asia 1928-1941. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996.
  • French, Paul. Through the Looking Glass: Foreign Journalists in China, from the Opium Wars to Mao. Hong Kong University Press, 2009.
  • Hamilton, John Maxwell (2003). Edgar Snow: A Biography (revised ed.). Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. ISBN 0807129127.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Mirsky, Jonathan. "Message from Mao", New York Review (February 16, 1985): 15-17. Review.
  • Shewmaker, Kenneth E., Americans and Chinese Communists, 1927-1945: A Persuading Encounter, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press (1971) ISBN 0-8014-0617-X
  • Snow, Edgar. Journey to the Beginning. New York: Random House, 1958. Memoir.
  • Snow, Lois Wheeler. Edgar Snow's China - A personal account of the Chinese Revolution complied from the writings of Edgar Snow. Random House, New York, 1981. ISBN 0-394-50954-4
  • Thomas, S. Bernard. Season of High Adventure: Edgar Snow in China, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.[1]
  • Entell, Peter (2012). "A Home Far Away". Show and Tell Films. Retrieved 16 November 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links