井底之蛙

7/17/2008

Red Star Over Edgar Snow

Filed under: — C. W. Hayford @ 9:32 pm

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. (more…)

  1. S. Bernard Thomas, Season of High Adventure: Edgar Snow in China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996). []
  2. http://www.umkc.edu/University_Archives/INVTRY/EPS/EPS-INTRO.HTM []
  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 []

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