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[Road to Triumph] Edgar Snow: A life dedicated to reporting Chinese Communism's Heroic Age

JUL . 02 2021
Peking University, July 2, 2021: Edgar Snow, born on July 19, 1905, is an American journalist who is well recognized for his books and reports on the communist movement in China and his key role in facilitating mutual understanding between China and other countries of the world. He is notably one of the first foreign journalists to interview the Communist Party of China (CPC) in Northern Shaanxi and provide a full and objective account of the history of CPC, unfiltered by personal political ideology or bias, to the rest of the world. One of his most famous works, Red Star Over China, which describes in detail the lives and spiritual outlook of the Communist Party, remains one of the most influential books written about the Communist movement in China.

Snow was born in Kansas City, Missouri and studied journalism at the University of Missouri. In his early years, his wanderlust led him to travel around the world, in a search for new horizons and adventures. He laid foot in China in 1928, when China was experiencing a period of tumult and political unrest. In Shanghai, he landed a job at China's Weekly Review, which offered him many opportunities to travel numerous cities in China. Snow was a first-hand witness to the disruptions and sufferings of the Chinese people during the period of social upheaval. Gradually, he realized the context of the Chinese Revolution and realized that the Western media coverages on China were generally hindered with heavy bias and narrow mindedness. With a deepened understanding of China and Chinese culture, Snow became determined to report the real and untold stories of China to the West. Over the next 13 years, Snow became a prolific contributor to magazines and newspapers in China, America and Britain, and was given the title of America's foremost journalist-analyst of Asian affairs.

Yan Yuan: Forever Home

Snow's affinity to Peking University goes back to 1934, when Yan Yuan, the current PKU campus, belonged to the former Yenching University. From 1934 to 1935, Snow was a lecturer at the Department of Journalism at Yenching University, teaching a course to students on feature writing. Students vividly recall that on the first day of his lecture, Snow walked into class telling the students that he “came to China not to teach, but to study” and that “there was much to learn from China” (Hamilton 1988, 56). Indeed, Snow found himself deeply connected to China and the people here. It is due to this special sense of belonging that he decided to learn Chinese during his tenure at Yenching University. Snow's journalism course became very successful and gained immense popularity amongst the students at Yenching, and soon, even the guestroom in his house was transformed into a place of gathering for political discussions. There, Snow worked on his Living China project with Chinese students and scholars who would assist him with the translations. Throughout this period of time, Snow was exposed to different views and opinions and gained a new-found respect for the patriotism expressed by the young progressive students. In an effort to engage in free discussions with students while protecting them from arrest, his home near the campus of Yenching transformed into a safe haven for the students, which many affectionately referred to as “a window to the fresh air” (Thomas, 1996: 120).

Edgar Snow in China (Source: Edgar Snow Memorial Foundation)

In the autumn of 1935, when the political situation in Northern China became increasingly tense under threats from the Japanese forces, the Kuomintang government suppressed student movements and made efforts to compromise with the Japanese. This resulted in uproar and disapproval amongst the suppressed student groups who demanded resistance from the Chinese government against Japanese aggression. Under such circumstances, the Chinese communists called for a voluntary mobilization of all Chinese students to protest against the Kuomintang government and demand a resistance policy against the Japanese aggression, eventually forming into a large-scale protest later known as the December 9th Movement.

21st Anniversary of the Founding of the People's Republic of China (Source: People's Daily

Snow and his students were not only the participants and witnesses of the movement but also reporters who played a vital role in covering the development of the patriotic movement in foreign presses, which gained support from people around the world. After the strike, the Yenching University Student Self-Government Association took Snow’s suggestion and held a reception for foreign journalists to show the world the fruits of their demonstrations. The success of the anti-Japanese demonstration strengthened Snow’s belief in Chinese people's determination and will to unitedly fight for a common cause. The young Chinese students possessed such eagerness and courage to pursue great dreams despite a difficult time and Snow was extremely certain that they carried the torch of hope for new China.

Returning from his adventurous journey to the Chinese Red Army base area, Snow returned to Peiping and was invited to give lectures on his visit to Yan’an in a meeting held at the lakeside of Yenching University in February 1937. Snow presented the films and photos showcasing the reality of the Red Army base area to his audience, introducing many to a place where the promising New China was taking shape. Snow also encouraged students to make their way to visit the Chinese Red Army in person if they could.

After the founding of New China, Snow revisited China twice, in 1960 and 1964, respectively. For Snow, Peking University was always on top of his must-visit list. In his 1963 book, The Other Side of the River, he commented, “foremost of the colleges was the Pei-ta, Peking National University, which produced the foremost founders of the Communist party. Pei-ta is still the goal of ambitious arts and sciences students and graduate research workers” (Snow, 1963: 243).

An American Friend of the Chinese People

Over the years, Snow has continued his quest to acquaint the Western world with the Communist movement in China. Notably, one of his most brilliant contributions was the series of interviews he had conducted with the top leaders of the CPC. In 1936, Snow ventured his way through the heavy military blockades of the Nationalist army and into the Communist headquarters at Bao’an. At that point, the Red Army, which had just won the Long March and had managed to escape the siege of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist forces, was kept secret for many years. In the cave of the security guard, Snow interviewed Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, as well as other CPC leaders, and lived there for five months, penning down stories that had never been made public before presenting them objectively to the world. It was during this period of time, Snow gained further insights into their grand vision and great blueprint for building the Communist Party of China. Based on the information gathered from the interview, he issued his own prediction: in the increasingly sharp conflict between the Kuomintang and the Communist Party, the Chinese people will continue to support the Red Army, and that the Red Army would ultimately succeed. His predictions turned out to be completely right.

Edgar Snow with Mao Zedong (Source: China Center For Edgar Snow Studies

As the first Westerner to meet Mao Zedong and the CPC leaders, Snow wrote ferociously after coming back to Peking with the purpose of improving the welfare of the Chinese people. He penned a book, Red Star Over China, in 1937, which revealed detailed and realistic accounts of the brilliant revolutionary events  people in other parts of the world were unaware of or knew little about. This book took over the West by storm. It was hailed as the "most exclusive reports in history" and sold more than 100,000 copies in the UK alone only one month after its publication. To this date, it is still one of the most important books ever written about the birth of the Communist movement in China.

Red Star Over China (Source: China Daily)

Before Red Star Over China was published, people knew little about the number, scale, history and goals of the Red Army in the Northwest. Snow's book offered an objective and comprehensive insight on the Red Army of CPC to both Chinese and foreign readers. The then US President, Franklin D. Roosevelt was deeply impressed by the book and invited Snow to engage in discussions about China, thereby enabling the stories on China to reach larger audiences.

Noticeably, in many of Snow's works like Red Star Over China, Snow depicted Mao Zedong and his followers not as the opportunistic “red bandits” described by the Nationalists but rather as dedicated revolutionaries who advocated for domestic reforms and were eager to resist Japanese aggression in China. Soldiers of the Red Army were described as "unbeatable" with "sheer dogged endurance" and the "ability to stand hardship without complaint. This won him the admiration and respect of many Chinese people.

Edgar Snow talks to Communist officials in 1936 (Source: Xinhua)

A Hero to an Entire Nation

Snow’s contributions are celebrated by people in China to this day. Every year, Snow’s birth and death anniversaries as well as his milestones are commemorated throughout the country. Snow’s entire life was devoted to promoting Chinese culture and improving China-US relations, which inadvertently also led him to form an indissoluble bond with Peking University. Before Snow died, he said, “then if you don’t mind, someone please scatter some of the ashes over the city of Peking, and say that I loved China, I should like part of me to stay there after death as it always did during my life.” In accordance with his will, after Snow passed away in 1972, part of his ashes was buried on PKU campus alongside the Weiming Lake, well protected by members of PKU. The epitaph on his tombstone, carved in both English and Chinese, reads "Edgar Snow, American friend of the Chinese people." Over the years, the PKU community showed their remembrance towards Snow in various ways. Some would pay tribute to his tomb on a regular basis, adorning it with flowers, while others would write academic articles on his contributions.

Tomb of Edgar Snow in PKU campus (Source : China Center for Edgar Snow Studies)

In addition to that, PKU established China Center for Edgar Snow Studies, which has served as a platform for academic research and the promotion of cultural communication and cooperation between China and the US. Every year, the research center would host a series of symposiums, seminars and activities to commemorate Snow’s outstanding contribution to the enhancement of mutual understanding and the establishment of contacts between China and the United States. Many of these events feature panel discussions that reflect upon successive efforts made by the governments of the two nations to support people from all circles.

15th Edgar Snow Symposium (Source: PKU News)

Till date, members of PKU still continue the legacy left behind by Snow through various means including introducing and explaining his works to the public, showcasing the latest development of China to the world, and holding friendly academic exchanges with relevant institutions, entities or individuals around the world, all of which were inspired by Snow’s lasting legacy. To this day, Chinese people are still extremely grateful for Snow and he will always be regarded as a hero for centuries to come.

Written by: Zhao Mengyu, Li Huanqing, June Tan Rui Min
Edited by: Rose Li, Zhang Jiang
Photo credit to: China Daily, China Center for Edgar Snow Studies, Edgar Snow Memorial Foundation, PKU News
Hamilton John Maxwell Edgar Snow: A Biography, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1988.
Snow Edgar, The Other Side of the River: Red China Today, New York: Random House, Inc., 1963. 
Thomas S. Bernard, Season of High Adventure: Edgar Snow in China, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London. University of California Press, 1996.