Edgar Snow

Edgar Snow

Edgar Snow, the son of a printer, was born in Kansas City on 19th July 1905. After graduating from the University of Missouri School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York, Snow worked for several newspapers.

In 1928 Snow travelled to China and became assistant editor of the China Weekly Review in Shanghai. His first book on China, Far Eastern Front: An Eyewitness Account of the Sino-Japanese War, was published in 1933.

Snow moved to Beijing in 1933 where he lectured at Yenching University. He also became foreign correspondent for the Saturday Evening Post. He also provided articles on China for the Daily Herald, New York Sun and the Chicago Tribune. In 1936 Snow visited northern Shaanxi where he interviewed the leaders of the revolutionary Red Army. The following year he published Red Star Over China (1936).

Snow reported on the Second World War and after visiting Hong Kong and the Philippines published Battle for Asia (1941). He also reported on the ambush and massacre of the Communist-led New Fourth Army by KMT government troops.

In 1942 Snow became war correspondent for the Saturday Evening Post. This included covering the war in India, China and the Soviet Union. In 1944 Snow was one of only six American correspondents accredited to cover the Eastern Front.

After the war Snow returned to the United States. However, Snow and his friend Agnes Smedley, was accused of being a communist by Joseph McCarthy. Snow eventually decided to leave the country and went to live in Switzerland.

Snow continued to write on China and important books by him include The Other Side of the River (1962) and The Long Revolution: Red China Today (1972). Snow commented: "The truth is that if I have written anything useful about China it has been merely because I listened to what I thought I heard the Chinese people saying about themselves. I wrote it down, as honestly and as frankly as I could - considering my own belief that it was all in the family - that I belonged to the same family as the Chinese - the human family."

Edgar Snow died in Switzerland on 15th February 1972.

Primary Sources

(1) Huang Hua, China Remembers Edgar Snow (1982)

Edgar Snow's life bears amplest testimony to the friendship between the Chinese and American peoples. In 1928, he came to China, then a country in the depth of miseries, where he lived and worked for 13 years. After China's liberation, he returned to China on three occasions, during which he made long and extensive tours and visits.

He had the personal experience of three periods of great changes in contemporary China: the period of Agrarian Revolution, the period of the War of Resistance Against Japan and the period of socialist revolution and construction. Throughout those forty years, he always sympathized with and supported the just struggle of the Chinese people, leaving behind a brilliant chapter in the annals of the friendship between the Chinese and American peoples.

Edgar Snow came to China as an honest journalist. With keen insight, unaffected sympathy and the realistic spirit of seeking truth, and through his independent observation and contemplation, he' gradually came to know the main trend and orientation of the development of Chinese history. The miserable sight of the industrious and honest Chinese people struggling in famine and on the verge of death gave him a clear picture about the intolerable dark rule over old China. On the other hand, he saw the future of China and a source of strength in the heroism of the Chinese Communists and the patriotic youths carrying on ceaseless and unflinching struggles for national independence and social emancipation

(2) Edgar Snow, Scorched Earth (1941)

The Japanese entered Nanking on December 12th, as Chinese troops and civilians were still trying to withdraw to the north bank of the Yangtze River, debouching through the one remaining gate. Scenes of utmost confusion ensued. Hundreds of people were machine-gunned by Japanese planes or drowned while trying to cross the river; hundreds more were caught in the bottleneck which developed at Hsiakuan gate, where bodies piled up four feet high.

Anything female between the ages of 10 and 70 was raped. Discards were often bayoneted by drunken soldiers. Frequently mothers had to watch their babies beheaded, and then submit to raping. One mother told of being raped by a soldier who, becoming annoyed at the cries of her baby, put a quilt over its head, and smothered it to death, finishing his performance in peace. Some officers, who led these forays, turned their quarters into harems and fell into bed each night with a new captive. Open-air copulation was not uncommon. Some 50,000 troops in the city were let loose for over a month in an orgy of rape, murder, looting and general debauchery which has nowhere been equalled in modern times.

Twelve thousand stores and houses were stripped of all their stocks and furnishings, and then set ablaze. Civilians were relieved of all personal belongings, and individual Japanese soldiers and officers stole motor-cars and rickshaws and other conveyances in which to haul their loot to Shanghai. The homes of foreign diplomats were entered and their servants murdered...

"Practically every building in the city", wrote one of the foreign observers, "has been robbed repeatedly by soldiers, including the American, British and German Embassies... Most of the shops, after-free-for-all breaking and pilfering, were systematically stripped by gangs of soldiers working with trucks, often under the observed direction of officers."

International "Safety Zone" became in reality a danger zone for non-combatants and a boomerang for its well-meaning organizers. Day after day Japanese entered the zone to seize women for the pacification of the lusty heroes. Young girls were dragged from American and British missionary schools, installed in brothels for the troops, and heard from no more. One day in a letter written by one of the missionaries in the Zone I read about a strange act of patriotism, concerning a number of singing-girls who had sought refuge with their virtuous sisters. Knowing of their presence in the camp, and urged on by some of the matrons, the missionary asked them if any would volunteer to serve the Japanese, so that non-professional women might be spared. They despised the enemy as much as the rest; but after some deliberation nearly all of them stepped forth. Surely they must have redeemed whatever virtue such women may be held to have lost, and some of them gave their lives in this way, but as far as I know they never received posthumous recognition or even the Order of the Brilliant Jade.

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.

(3) Rewi Alley, a New Zealand reporter working in China, wrote about Edgar Snow in 1882.

Edgar Snow wrote a great deal to bring things as he saw them with regard to China, to the peoples of the world. He had a sense of history, knowing well that not much more than a couple of centuries before, China had been the world's greatest and most prosperous state, and that now as she arose again what this could mean to all peoples. He wanted the good, ordinary hard-working folk everywhere to know of what simple, ordinary people like themselves in China could accomplish, ever with the hope that as the Chinese people gained new freedoms, they would look out and try to take in the best of the world around them.

(4) Edgar Snow, letter to Israel Epstein (22nd May, 1962)

In my tour (of the USA after the war) I made 38 lectures, mostly to colleges and universities, but also to forums, men's clubs, women's clubs, etc. Very great interest (in China) everywhere. I was picketed by Birchites (neo-McCarthyites) several times and had a few lectures cancelled, but this is a minority and not a very strong one. There is little real support for US-China policy but there is not any organized support to change it. The voter has no control or voice in policy.

(5) Just before he died Edgar Snow wrote about his work in China.

The truth is that if I have written anything useful about China it has been merely because I listened to what I thought I heard the Chinese people saying about themselves. I wrote it down, as honestly and as frankly as I could - considering my own belief that it was all in the family - that I belonged to the same family as the Chinese - the human family.

(6) William Corr, Asia Week (November 1997)

Edgar Snow's sympathetic portrayal of Mao Zedong in his 1938 classic Red Star Over China convinced many Americans that he was one of those starry-eyed dupes who "lost" China. But, paradoxically, during the early years of the People's Republic he was out of favor with the Communists too. In 1952, the China Monthly described Red Star Over China as a work of Titoist subversion, referring to the Yugoslav president who had taken his country out of the Soviet orbit and thus was then a dirty word in the Communist lexicon.

In reality, Snow was nobody's dupe. A stolid man from Kansas by upbringing, he described what he saw with little bias, except when writing of European imperialism, which he detested. Raw, naive and brash, in the American manner, he proved to be a quick learner and soon gained a thorough understanding of those eventful times when Japanese militarists were gnawing relentlessly at Shanghai and northern China.

Two recent books examine the Edgar Snow legend comprehensively. In Season of High Adventure (University of California Press) S. Bernard Thomas expertly sketches Snow's career from his boyhood to his death in Switzerland in 1972. As he sees it, Snow brought Mao to the attention of the wider world during the years when Mao was based in the hinterland of Yanan. Later, Snow was one of the few Western writers allowed to visit China when the Bamboo Curtain was a tangible reality. Indeed, his invitation to stand next to the Great Helmsman on the reviewing platform at Tiananmen on National Day, 1968, was intended as a signal to Washington that the door was open to better relations. But, as Henry Kissinger ruefully confessed later, nobody managed to decode the signal.

Robert M. Farnsworth's From Vagabond to Journalist (University of Missouri Press), concentrates only on Snow's years in Asia between 1928 and 1941. Drawing on personal letters, diaries and unpublished manuscripts in the U.S., as well as on the many interviews and anecdotes collected while he was a Fulbright lecturer in China in the mid-1980s, Farnsworth has produced a detailed work of scholarship.

The writer seems to have met everyone still living who remembered the Edgar Snow of the Yanan days, and, fortunately, he was astute enough to grasp that his memory, like that of other "old friends of China," is frequently evoked in China for contemporary political purposes. The two books present a sympathetic portrait of a complex human being as well as a gifted and influential writer.