Message from Mao

In Kansas City, Missouri, the family of Edgar Snow, whose Red Star Over China was to introduce Mao Zedong to the world, employed a black washerwoman, Crazy Mary, who hated one of her Chinese competitors. To enrage the man she taught young Edgar to recite:

Chinaman, Chinaman,
Eat dead rats!
Chew them up
Like gingersnaps!

This story in Snow’s memoir Journey to the Beginning1 does not appear in John Maxwell Hamilton’s new biography. But it is clear that Snow spent much of his grown-up life trying to atone for generations of American insensitivity about China.

Snow’s scoop in writing Red Star Over China can hardly be exaggerated. In 1936, after spending four months with Mao Zedong and his guerrillas at their headquarters in Baoan in west China and thirteen years before the Communists came to power, with the Japanese war just beginning and Pearl Harbor five years away, Snow wrote:

The movement for social revolution in China may suffer defeats, may temporarily retreat, may for a time seem to languish, may make wide changes in tactics to fit immediate necessities and aims, may even for a period be submerged, be forced underground, but it will not only continue to mature; in one mutation or another it will eventually win, simply because (as this book proves, if it proves anything) the basic conditions which have given it birth carry within themselves the dynamic necessity for its triumph.

This widely publicized prediction immediately won Snow the devotion of the Chinese Communists. In 1937, the year Red Star Over China became an international best seller, Zhou Enlai, who had welcomed Snow to Baoan, and was to become premier in twelve years, said of him, “To us Snow is the greatest of foreign authors and our best friend abroad.” When Snow was dying in self-imposed Swiss exile in 1972, Zhou sent four doctors, a nurse, and an anesthesiologist to care for him. After he died he became the first foreigner to be commemorated in the Great Hall of the People. Half of his ashes lie in Peking (the other half are buried near the Hudson River, as he asked) and his face appears on a Chinese stamp.

On October 1, 1970, years after he foresaw the Communist triumph, Snow stood to the right of Mao Zedong, now Chairman, Great Teacher, Great Helmsman, and the Red Red Sun in Our Hearts, on the reviewing balcony of the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Peking. Once again Mao needed him. In 1936 the Chairman could have asked Agnes Smedley, the reliably pro-Communist journalist living in Shanghai, to come to Baoan to receive the authorized version of the Communist movement to date, including a carefully selective account of Mao’s life. But as Mr. Hamilton points out, Smedley couldn’t get her stories published in the New York Herald Tribune, The Saturday Evening Post, or Foreign Affairs. Then, as in 1970, Snow was the writer they thought could publicize Mao’s views.

By 1970 Mao had decided that the Americans were losing the war in Vietnam and wanted to make peace in Asia. Richard Nixon, the chairman calculated, would want to shake his hand; no one could accuse this fiercely anti-Communist president of being soft on communism. Although, as Hamilton concedes, the rapprochement was already being negotiated, who better than Snow could pass the word, that Nixon would be welcome “either as a tourist or as President,” as Snow wrote in Life magazine.2

* * *

Snow had plainly done the Chinese state some service, and its leaders knew it. How are we to evaluate him and his work? In the first biography of him to appear, Mr. Hamilton, a former journalist and government official, gives a plodding and generally uncritical account of Snow’s career, which nevertheless shows how a Missouri boy, longing for adventure, found it, along with a sense of mission, in China.

Snow was born in 1905 in Kansas City, then a fast-growing town. His father, a hard-working commercial printer, loved books and would shout out passages from Shakespeare while his presses were running. Hamilton describes him as an absent-minded idealist, words that were later used about his son. Snow’s mother was a devout Catholic. His father despised Catholicism and chose books on the Index to read aloud to young Edgar. In 1925, after a short stay in New York, studying at Columbia night school, where he got an “A” in advertising writing, Snow enrolled in the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri. The first journalism school to be set up in the US, by the late Twenties it had more than fifty of its alumni working in the Far East. After an indifferent year he left and returned to New York. He wrote to his father, “I am determined to raise my head above the crowd and amount to something in a larger way than at present seems possible in Kansas City.” In late 1927 Theodore Roosevelt’s son Kermit offered him a job as deckhand on the Roosevelt Line’s Radnor bound for China and India. He wrote his parents: “Adventure! Experience! I wanted to overcome difficulties—physical hardships—and enjoy the tokens of triumph!”

After a stopover in Hawaii he submitted a travel article to Harper’s Bazaar and received the then huge fee of $500. It made him feel, he said, like “treading with winged sandals on clouds of pink bliss.” He headed for Shanghai, arriving in July 1928, and got a job on the China Weekly Review edited by J.B. Powell, a graduate of the Missouri Journalism School. Powell was an outspoken opponent of Western imperialism and foreign privilege in China, and sent Snow on reporting trips through the countryside. During the great famines of the late Twenties, Hamilton says, “Snow walked past scenes…that haunted him the rest of his life.” Before long he was also reporting from the Far East for the Chicago Tribune.

By 1929 Snow had characterized Chiang Kai-shek as a mediocre dictator and told his parents that what China needed was a “crusader, a towering pillar of strength, a practical idealist who can lead his people out of the stench and decay…in which she now languishes.” Soon he was writing for more than fifty newspapers belonging to the Consolidated Press Association. He spent a year traveling in Burma, Indochina, and India, and became sympathetic to the anticolonial movements he reported on there. He had begun to read Marx. Hamilton says that “exposure to Marxism gave Snow a new vocabulary explaining the oppressive nature of imperialism.”

Back in Shanghai in 1931, Snow came under the spell of Sun Yatsen’s widow, Soong Ch’ing-ling, sister of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, to whom he remained devoted all his life. Hamilton says Mme. Sun told Snow that the Communists were “the only truly revolutionary force in China.” In that year, too, Snow married the glamorous and ambitious American writer Helen Foster, known as Peg, and the couple set up house in Peking. Besides writing for The Saturday Evening Post and other well-paying journals, Snow tried to help the patriotic university students in Peking who were demonstrating against their government’s indifference to Japanese encroachments into northern China.

It was through his and Peg’s contacts with these students and the Communist agents who had infiltrated their movement that Snow received the invitation to Baoan to meet Mao Zedong. From that experience, which made Snow internationally famous, Mr. Hamilton follows him into the war years, when he covered the Soviet front and Europe, usually for The Saturday Evening Post. During the period of McCarthyism in the 1950s Snow lost his income and his reputation; he could no longer publish in popular US magazines, and went to live in Switzerland. He made two more trips to China before his death in 1972 and saw the beginnings of the thaw in relations with the US.

* * *

Hamilton makes absurdly grand claims for Snow, for example that he was “the single most important link between China and the United States,” as if the long history of relations between the two countries did not exist. Red Star Over China, he writes, “will probably be the greatest book of reporting by an American foreign correspondent in this century,” a claim that would be reasonable only if greatness were judged by public effect.

Hamilton is right to say that Snow “saw socialism as a logical answer to poverty and oppression” and that he “kept faith in the possibilities of socialism.” This faith Hamilton ascribes to Snow’s “American story-book ideals nurtured on the prairie—ideals that elevated the dignity of the individual, the ‘little man,’ and that honored self-determination and glorified its ultimate expression, revolution.” His sympathy for revolution, sustained by reading Marx and seeing the results of colonialism, didn’t prevent him from calling Stalin’s rule “by knout” oppressive. But when it came to Mao and the Chinese Communists, Snow found it almost impossible to be outspoken about their failings.

Mr. Hamilton cannot make up his mind about how much Snow’s Missouri idealism contributed to his personal cult of the Chinese Communists or how much his naive admiration for strong leaders like Mao may have affected his writing. After eight years in China, Snow 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.” The Communists, Mr. Hamilton says, had a “common touch,” and Mao himself “cut a remarkably American figure in some respects,” described by Snow as “Lincolnesque.” But within a page, Hamilton, almost as if he realizes that he is falling in with Snow’s “romanticism,” while aware of how the Communists actually behaved, assures us that Snow “realized that the Chinese Communists were not Missouri democrats. The CCP was authoritarian and wanted control of the entire country.”

Still, in Baoan Snow felt, as he himself put it, “completely at ease as if with some of my own countrymen.” “He played basketball and tennis with the guerrillas, taught a one-armed commissar how to play rummy, and introduced poker as an evening entertainment. Snow saw that Mao had what Mark Twain called ” ‘that calm confidence of a Christian with four aces.’…In his case the aces were Asian Marxism, his knowledge of China and Chinese history, his boundless faith in the Chinese people, and his practical experience in ‘making generals out of mud.’…Here was a man, I wrote in 1936, in whom ‘you feel a certain force of destiny, a kind of solid elemental vitality.’ ”3

* * *

The Chinese are adept at handling foreign guests and at making them feel like old friends; the Communists were gambling on Snow to write about them in The Saturday Evening Post and they gave him exceptionally attentive treatment. As he descended into the valley of Baoan bugles blew and crowds shouted “welcome to the American journalist to investigate Soviet China.” Snow wrote: “It was the first time I have been greeted by the entire cabinet of a government, the first time a whole city had been turned out to welcome me…. I was overcome at the warmth of the greeting.” That same day Mao came by to shake Snow’s hand and soon was spending hours in his cave telling Snow his life story; translated from Red Star, it remains the basis of Mao biographies in China today.

Not everyone was so susceptible to Mao. Agnes Smedley said of the Chairman, “I found him at first physically repulsive.”4 Theodore White, whose reporting of the Chinese civil war was no less distinguished than Snow’s, and who disliked the Nationalists at least as much, wrote of Mao, “Yet when he spoke, he spoke dogma—he spoke always in the most rigid Marxist terms, discoursing on anything in the world with no uncertainties…. His ideas seemed so unrealistic and orthodox that I found them not worth reporting; they were too simple to be taken seriously…. These were the ideas he was later to enforce by police all over China.”5

Mr. Hamilton, who occasionally observes that Snow’s combination of romanticism and radical commitment affected his judgment of the post-1949 Communists, nonetheless attributes to him special powers. Three times, as if repeating a mantra, he refers to an appraisal of Snow by a schoolmate: “Ed was not a Communist. He had been raised like the rest of us. He just saw more.”

But Edgar Snow did not see more. What he did was to describe the Chinese Communists before anyone else, and thus score a world-class scoop. He was soon followed by his wife, Peg, who under the name Nym Wales wrote Red Dust, sketches of the top Communist leaders, and Agnes Smedley, the biographer of General Zhu De, then by other newspapermen, and eventually by Chinese-speaking foreign service officers such as John Stewart Service. Most of these young diplomats were to lose their jobs during the McCarthy period for having seen, like Snow, that the Communists were a better bet than the Nationalists, and for advising the State Department to keep open its links with both sides.

But Snow went much further than those who reckoned that Mao and his comrades would take power. As Mr. Hamilton concedes, “By 1960 [Snow] was linked to the Chinese Communists. He had forged personal bonds with many of them. His extraordinary access to senior leaders had contributed to his early success. Like any reporter, he was concerned about maintaining those contacts. Snow’s predictions about the Chinese Communists also constituted a part of his personal history. A positive picture of China validated his past reporting.” In short, Snow had become so close to the official family that he had unequaled access to it, something an experienced newspaperman should have learned to distrust. He felt, moreover, according to Hamilton, that he had to “go beyond reporting Chinese errors,” because, in Snow’s words,

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.

* * *

Mr. Hamilton assures us that despite such commitments “Snow did not skirt the hard issues in 1960 China.” Reading Snow’s writing of 1960 and afterward, however, reveals that he did indeed evade hard issues even while appearing to confront them. In 1960, for the first time in twenty years, Snow had reentered China. For five months, Hamilton says, he “recreated his dramatic discovery of the Chinese Communists in 1936,” and gathered material for a new book, The Other Side of the River: Red China Today. Now, as in 1936, he interviewed Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong. But this time the trip was more closely controlled. Mr. Hamilton tries to show that Snow did his best to look beneath the surface. A woman told him that a child had black teeth because of eating too much sugar. Snow investigated and discovered that there was sugar rationing; he concluded the child lacked vitamins. He was told that a writer friend was “happily working in a commune” and was “no longer much interested in writing”…”a change of character which I could not at all imagine.”6

But when it came to larger matters, Snow asked questions and did not follow them up. Not long before he arrived in China the Party had concluded its Anti-Rightist campaign against intellectuals. According to Merle Goldman, “it is estimated that 400,000 to 700,000 intellectuals lost their positions and were sent to the countryside and factories for labor reforms.”7 China’s most famous woman author, Ding Ling, was imprisoned, not to be freed for twenty years. Snow had known her at Baoan (when she also ran afoul of the authorities) and, after asking after her, he repeats without question the canard the Party was spreading about her: “If what I was told by a Very High Official is true, her exile from Peking may have had little to do with her writings and is a much more serious affair.”8

Snow was unable to believe that the family to which he yearned to belong was beginning to destroy itself. His old comrades from Baoan, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, were now running the country, but no one told him what was really going on. So much for “access.” At least Snow didn’t go to Tibet, which he said “must learn to adapt or perish.”9 Thousands there were already starving because the Chinese army was eating the sparse supply of locally produced food.

Hamilton seems uneasy about some of Snow’s failures to report the harsh side of the regime. He says that Snow’s “long perspective” could lead him into “a semantic thicket,” and “gave an apologetic air to the narrative, though his points were often important.” But such equivocal statements are inadequate to deal with the great famine between 1959 and 1961, very likely the worst in human history. In The Other Side of the River Snow devotes two chapters to this catastrophe and in one of them he pokes fun at those who claimed it existed. There was a severe food shortage, he wrote, but “no visible starvation and the population was in good health.”10 “Whatever he was eating, the ‘average Chinese’ maintained himself in good health, as far as anyone could see.”11 “No visible” and “as far as anyone could see” are the vulnerable phrases here. Snow, who in the Twenties and Thirties had dared to expose great disasters, in 1960 contented himself with assurances from Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong that while there was a food problem, it was being dealt with successfully.

In 1960 this was not true, and had Snow still been the reporter he had been in the 1930s he would have discovered it. Observers in Hong Kong noted the huge volume of food packages going into the mainland and the talk of famine was common among the Hong Kong experts on China. The Chinese have admitted since the 1982 census that at least 16 million people died as a result of the 1959–1960 famine.12 The Harvard political scientist Roderick MacFarquhar states that in 1960, during the Great Leap Forward, the year Zhou and Mao were briefing Snow, the population declined by 4.5 percent. “Anywhere from 16.4 to 29.5 million extra people died during the leap, because of the leap,” MacFarquhar writes.13 Nicholas Lardy, an economic historian at the University of Washington, estimates that there were 16 to 27 million extra deaths between 1958 and 1963.

In comparative historical terms, these data suggest a loss of life far surpassing that of other crop failures or natural disasters in China in the twentieth century…. One must move back in history to the pre-railway era and the famine of 1877–78 to find a disaster on the scale of the Great Leap.14

While admitting that Snow “underestimated the impact of the food short-fall” and “missed the reality of mass death,” Hamilton contrives to brush even this away by agreeing with Snow that “travel has its limits,” and he claims that Chou was not lying to Snow because he “probably didn’t know” the scope of the disaster. But China’s astute premier was not so ignorant. The truth is that by 1960 and until his death Snow inquired into, but didn’t really explore, the secrets of his adopted family. He had committed himself in 1936, as Hamilton plainly shows, and had enlisted forever on the opposite side from “the rats”; this meant “reining in his feelings in print.” Besides, during the 1950s and 1960s the US government and most of the American press had cast China as an irredeemable international villain and had largely rejected Snow’s own work as unreliable or dangerous; he saw himself as attempting to deal with this deep prejudice, at a time when the Chinese leaders themselves failed to answer his letters from year to year; he had no interest in pursuing an indictment on the few occasions when they invited him back.

* * *

In December 1970, a few months after appearing with Mao on Chinese National Day, Snow held his last interview with the Chairman. He reported without skepticism that Mao “was most unhappy about…the maltreatment of ‘captives’—party members and others removed from power and subjected to reeducation…. Maltreatment of captives now had slowed the rebuilding and transformation of the party.”15 By the time of that interview nearly all of Mao’s comrades in the pre-1966 Politburo, many of them known to Snow from the Baoan days, were either dead, tortured, in jail, or under house arrest. Where did Snow suppose they were? The Party has since pinned responsibility for their mistreatment on Mao and his closest associates. The Chairman told Snow he had “pondered over…the human need for…gods and God.” In any event, Mao asked Snow, wouldn’t he be unhappy if no one read his books and articles? “There was bound to be some worship of the individual,” Mao insisted, and that applied to Snow as well.16

Snow made no comment on this fatuity. I am reminded of a guide in China in the late Seventies who disclosed to me how, in 1972, during the Cultural Revolution, he had manipulated a party of “friends of China,” including myself, by showing us the Chinese version of Potemkin villages, including schools and housing developments where children had plenty to eat. Intellectuals under the strictest surveillance were even temporarily brought to talk to us, but they did not dare reveal the truth. “We wanted to deceive you,” my former guide told me years later. “But you wanted to be deceived.”

  1. Random House, 1958, p. 28.
  2. Life, April 30, 1971. The New York Times refused to publish an early version of this story.
  3. Journey to the Beginning, p. 162.
  4. Janice and Stephen MacKinnon, Agnes Smedley: The Life and Times of an American Radical (University of California Press, 1987), p. 193.
  5. Theodore H. White and Annalee Jacoby, Thunder Out of China (1946; Da Capo reprint, 1980), p. xiii.
  6. The Other Side of the River (Random House, 1962), p. 402.
  7. Roderick MacFarquhar and John K. Fairbank, eds., Cambridge History of China, vol. 14 (Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 257.
  8. The Other Side of the River, p. 402.
  9. The Other Side of the River, p. 590.
  10. The Other Side of the River, p. 615.
  11. The Other Side of the River, p. 627.
  12. For the background to this famine, see Roderick MacFarquhar, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution: The Great Leap Forward (Columbia University Press), p. 329; Nicholas R. Lardy, Agriculture in China's Modern Economic Development (Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 146, 148–149, 186.
  13. Roderick MacFarquhar, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution: The Great Leap Forward, p. 330.
  14. Cambridge History of China, vol. 14, pp. 370–371.
  15. Life (April 30, 1971), p. 48.
  16. Life, p. 47.