Edgar Snow

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Edgar Snow (left) with Zhou Enlai and his wife Deng Yingchao approx. 1938.
Half of Edgar Snow's remains 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 is believed to be the first Western journalist to interview Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong, and is best known for Red Star Over China (1937) an account of the Chinese Communist movement from its foundation until the late 1930s.


Snow was born in Kansas City, Missouri. He studied journalism at the University of Missouri, where he joined the Zeta Phi chapter of Beta Theta Pi, but moved to New York City before graduating. He made some money in the stock market and sold out before the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Wanting to use the money he embarked on an around the world tour in 1928, but never made it past Shanghai. He stayed in China until 1941.

He quickly found work with the China Weekly Review, edited by J.B. Powell, a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism. In his early years he was an enthusiast for Chiang Kai-shek, noting that he 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. In 1933, after a honeymoon in Japan, the couple moved to Beiping, as Beijing was called at that point. He prepared his book Far Eastern Front, filed occasional articles for American outlets, and taught journalism part-time at Yenching University. They borrowed works on current affairs from the Yenching library and read classics 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.[1]

Writing 'Red Star Over China'[edit]

In June 1936, Snow and his friend George Hatem (a friend of Agnes Smedley), whose presence was kept secret, went to Xi'an and from there were taken through the military quarantine lines to Bao'an, where he spent nearly three months. 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. After he returned to Beijing 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. After the outbreak of war in 1937, the Snows were founding members of the Chinese Industrial Cooperatives. Edgar again visited Mao in Yan'an in 1939.

Japanese reactions to the The Nanking Massacre[edit]

Edgar's Scorched Earth (1941) contains records of the Japanese atrocities in Nanjing (Also known as Nanking). He reported of a few Japanese in Shanghai deeply feeling the shame and the humiliation. A Japanese friend of his, a liberal minded newspaper man who was forced to keep his views to himself to survive, and who Edgar named anonymous for his protection, said "Yes, they are all true," when Edgar asked him about the atrocity reports. The anonymous Japanese would then say "Only the facts are actually worse than any story yet published." There were tears in the anonymous Japanese's eyes and Edgar took his sorrow to be genuine.[2]

Edgar meeting the Japanese People's Anti-War League[edit]

Edgar got to meet Japanese resistance fighters Kaji Wataru, and his wife, Yuki Ikeda, leaders of the Japanese People's Anti-War League, a Japanese resistance group made of mostly Japanese POWs disillusioned with the Empire of Japan who now work for Chinese resistance. Edgar found both of them worth reporting to his American audience. Both Kaji, and Yuki surviving a Japanese bombing attack on Wuchang to meet him at the Hankow Navy YMCA, where they shared chocolate nut sundaes. Snow met them again a year later in the Chinese wartime capital of Chongqing and was reminded "Japan was full of decent people like them who, if they had not had their craniums stuff 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.". [3]

Later Journalism[edit]

Snow and his wife returned to the United States in 1941, but they soon parted, and divorced after the war. 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 took on the character of 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.[4]

By 1944, Snow was wavering on the question of whether Mao and the Chinese Communists were actually "agrarian democrats" and not dedicated Communists bent on totalitarian rule, a view encouraged by Mao and his party leadership.[5] 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.[5] 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."[5] After the war, Snow would retreat from this view of the Chinese communists as a democratic movement.

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 Communist activities. 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 research aid for scholars containing previously unused China material; and Journey to the Beginning (1958), an autobiographical account of events prior to 1949. However, Snow found it increasingly difficult to make a living through his writing, and he decided to leave the United States in the 1950s. He moved with his second wife, Lois Wheeler Snow, to Switzerland, but retained his American citizenship.

Return to China[edit]

He returned to China in 1960 and 1964 and interviewed Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, as well as traveling extensively and talking to people. His 1963 book The Other Side of the River details this, 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 that President Richard Nixon would be welcome to visit either officially or as a private citizen.[6] The White House followed this visit with interest but distrusted Snow and his pro-communist reputation.[7] 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.[8]

Snow died, aged 66, in Geneva. After his death, his ashes were divided into two parts, one of which was buried near the Hudson River and the other scattered at Peking University, which had taken over the campus of Yenching University, where he had taught in the 1930s.

Recent evaluations[edit]

Snow's reporting from China in the 1930s was both praised as prescient and blamed for the rise of Mao's communism. His biographers present him as an important link between China and the United States.

However, 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.[9] Similarly, Simon Leys does not think highly of Edgar Snow's depiction of China.

Jonathan Mirsky, a critical voice, conceded 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." [10] 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.[11]


  • 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

Further reading[edit]

  • 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. Edgar Snow: A Biography. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.
  • 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. 


  1. ^ Thomas, Season of High Adventure, 107-125.
  2. ^ http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAsnowE.htm
  3. ^ From Vagabond to Journalist: Edgar Snow in Asia, 1928-1941 By Robert M. Farnsworth Page 326 -327
  4. ^ Hamilton, John M., Edgar Snow: A Biography, LSU Press, (2003) ISBN 0-8071-2912-7, ISBN 978-0-8071-2912-8, p. 229.
  5. ^ a b c 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
  6. ^ http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB145/index.htm
  7. ^ Tyler, Patrick (2000). A Great Wall: Six Presidents and China: An Investigative History. New York: Public Affairs. pp. 81–86. 
  8. ^ Thomas, Season of High Adventure pp. 335-6.
  9. ^ Chang, Jung and Halliday, Jon, Mao: The Unknown Story, Jonathan Cape, London (2005), ISBN 0-224-07126-2, p. 106.
  10. ^ Jonathan Mirsky, "Message from Mao (review of Hamilton. Edgar Snow: A Biography) New York Review (February 16, 1985).
  11. ^ Feigon, Lee, Mao: A Reinterpretation, Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002,

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