Edgar Snow exemplary in journalism

China Daily

Copyright China Daily
Updated: 2005-07-22 09:16
When Edgar Snow (July 19, 1905February 15, 1972) came to China in 1928, he did not expect his whole life would be closely tied to this ancient, vast and then, poor country.
But in the following years, he made history in journalism by becoming the first Western journalist to visit Yan’an, the then “red capital” of the Communist Party of China (CPC), in 1936. His interviews resulted in his masterpiece “Red Star Over China.”
Snow was exemplary with his reporting of China, as the participants expounded during the two-day international conference “Understanding China: Centennial Commemoration of Edgar Snow’s Birth” on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The forum, marking the centenary of the birth of Edgar Snow, was jointly hosted by the Peking University, the State Council Information Office and the University of Missouri.
Wu Tingjun, professor and dean at the School of Journalism and Communication of the Huazhong University of Science and Technology, said: “He just took an unbiased attitude and tried to reveal the accurate facts of what he thought to be a correct enterprise for China.”
Yin Yungong, director of the Institute of Journalism and Communication under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, agreed. He quoted the facts that Snow had criticized China’s Great Leap Forward (19581959) and the “cultural revolution” (19661976) during his talks with Mao Zedong.
Yin also cited the fact that Snow even reported an aborted family planning programme in 1956, which had been ignored by Chinese historians.
Gong Wenxiang, executive dean of the School of Journalism and Communication at the Peking University, said besides giving more accurate information to the outside world, competing interpretations on the same issues should be encouraged to allow readers to make decisions for themselves.
Road to Yan’an
Born in Kansas City in the State of Missouri, a small hinterland city where people had “little knowledge about foreign lands,” Snow decided to travel around the world.
After taking his undergraduate studies in journalism at the University of Missouri, Snow came to Shanghai at the age of 23.
He planned to stay in Shanghai for six weeks, but then found a job writing for the English language newspaper, The China Weekly Review.
Maybe the most important factor in Sonw’s decision to stay in China was his employer, US journalist John Powell. Powell told Snow that China was to experience a tremendous change and it would become the world’s biggest news story, said Zhao Yuming, president of China Society of Journalism History.
In 1929, invited by the then Minister of Railways Sun Ke of the Kuomintang (KMT) government, Snow travelled along 8,000-miles of railways in China, writing reports on his experiences.
But in Saraqi, a small town in Suiyuan Province, part of today’s Inner Mongolia, Snow was shocked to see farm fields covered with corpses, due to three consecutive years of drought.
He wrote: “Have you seen a man who has gone hungry for a month? Poor Children are just bags of bones. Their bellies, filled with bark and saw dust, look like tumours” in his famous feature “Save 250,000 lives” published in The China Weekly Review.
In an essay published in 1958, Snow recalled that his trip to Saraqi was a key turning point in his life.
From that time on, he began to write and work towards improving the welfare of the Chinese people.
In 1931, Snow met the talented US travel writer Helen Foster and the two soon fell in love. They married and moved to Peiping, then name of Beijing in 1933. While working as a journalist for several US newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times, Snow was hired by Yenching University which was merged into the Peking University in the 1950s as a lecturer of journalism.
“We often went to his home to discuss how to save China. Snow supported our views and tried to protect us from arrest and persecution,” the 93-year-old Huang Hua recalled at the conference.
In 1936, the CPC invited some progressive foreign journalists to visit Yan’an to report on its efforts to defend the country against the aggressive Japanese invaders, who were positioned in the suburbs of Peiping and Tianjin.
Through the introduction of Madam Soong Ching Ling (18931981), wife of the founder of the Republic of China Dr Sun Yat-sen (18661925), Snow accepted the invitation. He pretended to go to Inner Mongolia for an interview but in fact went to Xi’an, from where he was escorted by plainclothes Red Army soldiers to the blockaded areas governed by the CPC.
Snow met Zhou Enlai (18981976) and interviewed Mao Zedong (18931976) in Bao’an, near Yan’an. In a small cave-house, Mao related his life story and his account of the revolution. To help Snow finish his interviews and objectively and accurately describe the Red Army and its people, Zhou drafted a 96-day interview itinerary for Snow.
Under Zhou’s suggestions, Snow spent one month on the Red Army frontline, living together with Red Army soldiers.
Snow wrote a range of news stories and features for Western newspapers and agencies during his four-month stay in Yan’an. But what made him famous was his book “Red Star over China,” published in London in 1937.
The book was the first Western book to give an accurate first-hand account of how the CPC, the Red Army and the people under the CPC’s governance were struggling to defend their country against the Japanese invasion and improve people’s welfare.
The book was so popular in the West that it sold out rapidly. “Some people even denied that there was such a thing as a Red Army. There were only thousands of hungry brigands,” according to one of Snow’s accounts of the period written in 1958.
Witness to revolution
After returning from Yan’an, Snow introduced the struggle of the CPC and the Red Army to the wider world. Many progressive youths went to Yan’an to attend the Red Army under his advocacy.
In 1937, after the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression broke out, Snow wrote extensively on how Chinese people fought the invaders bravely.
He visited Yan’an in 1939 again and lobbied the US government to give support to the movement.
After major Chinese cities were occupied by the Japanese army, Snow went to Hong Kong to collect money to finance the China Industrial Cooperation Campaign. It was aimed at absorbing displaced workers in order to build small factories in rural areas to produce life essentials and war materials for the Chinese armies.
In 1941, Snow returned to his hometown after 13 years. Thanks to his lobby, US President Franklin Roosevelt (18821945) directed several million US dollars to the campaign.
In 1950s, shortly after the People’s Republic of China was founded, McCarthyism spread across the United States and Snow was persecuted as a friend of the CPC. He lost his job and his books could not be published in the United States. Eventually, Snow had to move to Switzerland with his family but kept his US citizenship.
Historians reveal that in mid 1950s, Snow applied to take a trip to New China, but his request was refused by the US Government. His long term struggle to provide independent coverage of China eventually resulted in a visit to the country in 1960. Snow became one of the few Western journalists who truthfully reported the new China to Western readers.
During his trips in 1960 and 1964, Snow spent several months investigating and interviewing in cities, factories and the countryside.
In 1970, he was invited to inspect the National Day Parade on the Tian’anmen Rostrum with Mao Zedong, which was seen as a signal of friendship by the Chinese Government to the US Nixon Administration.
In February 1972, just weeks before Nixon launched his historic visit to Beijing, Snow died of cancer. In his final hours, Snow said “I love the Chinese people,” according to the memoir of Lois Snow, his then wife.

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