“Red Star Over China” by Edgar Snow – Book Review

In one of my favorite classes during my time as an undergraduate studying East Asian Studies, I was required to read Red Star Over China by Edgar Snow, a classic account of the American journalist’s months spent with the Chinese Red Army in 1936. If you want some more information on the book itself, check out this brief synopsis from the Foreign Affairs website.

by Edgar Snow

by Edgar Snow

Notably, Edgar Snow was the first Westerner to interview Chairman Mao. He became historically significant as an outsider who was granted privileges and information during a turbulent time in Chinese history. Snow outlined his findings in his “classical account of the birth of Chinese Communism”, which claimed the authority of investigative, objective journalism, and was crucial in shaping the Western understanding of China and Chinese Communism.

Snow does display some signs of objectivity throughout his work, especially when he describes Zhou Enlai’s thoughts on the journalist himself: “I have a report that you are a reliable journalist, friendly to the Chinese people, and that you can be trusted to tell the truth…It does not matter that you are a not a communist…You can write about everything you see”. By demonstrating that the Chinese Communists valued truth and were tolerant of different ideologies (tenants of the brand of Enlightenment Liberalism upon which the United States were founded), Snow attempts to create sympathy for the Communist cause in the West. With this statement, he also implies that his account is uncensored, and thus alludes that the information he provides in the following pages is accurate and objective.

Although the author attempts to be objective by asking tough, expository questions throughout the work, “Red Star Over China” must be interpreted with an understanding of Snow’s biases, which arise because he does not adequately evaluate the answers he is supplied with by the Communist leaders, the peasants, the members of the army, and from his own personal experiences. Snow compares the Red army to the White army by interviewing mainly victims of the White army and mainly soldiers in the Red army, and depicting mainly the positive aspects of the Red army and the negative aspects of the White army (unfortunately for Snow, comparing apples and oranges is rarely a convincing strategy). He quotes from members of the Red army: “The Red Army helps the poor”, “It is not like the White districts, where poor people are slaves of the landlords and the Kuomintang” “He [a Red soldier] was fighting for the revolution, which would free the poor”. Of course, utilizing motivational quotations and gross generalizations is not sufficient evidence to prove that the Red army, and by extrapolation the Communist cause in China, is intrinsically “better” (i.e., more humane, more concerned with the general welfare of Chinese citizens, more logical or practical than other ideologies) than the Kuomintang and feudalism, or any other combination of army and government. Despite this, Snow’s testimonies and reasoning did indeed foster a significant amount of sympathy for Chinese Communism.

Snow’s partialities are possibly most apparent in his descriptions of Mao Zedong, of whom he thought very highly. He admired Mao’s intellect, ideology, willingness to live in the exact same conditions as his troops and comrades, talent as a military strategist, charm and appeal, and artistic creative ability. Snow even translated one of Mao’s poems about the Long March, and described Mao as “a rebel who could write verse as well as lead a crusade”. Again, Snow appeals to Western ‘Enlightenment liberalism’, arguing that Mao’s ideologies were well thought out and were constructed according to logical transitions and progressions: “He had in his youth had strongly liberal and humanistic tendencies, and the transition from idealism to realism evidently had first been made philosophically”.

Interestingly, Snow’s fascination and admiration of Mao sets Snow apart from many Westerners who also wrote about China. While authors like Paul Claudel, James Hilton, and Henri Michaux had written about the East as though it were an exotic garden, or a beautiful but stagnant fantasy-land, Snow argued that China was in fact a very dynamic country with change on the horizon. In his description of Mao, Snow writes: “one felt a certain force of destiny in Mao…If their [the peasant’s] “demands” and the movement which was pressing them forward were the dynamics which could regenerate China, then in that deeply historical sense Mao Zedong might possibly become a very great man”. 

While I was abroad in Fall 2009, our group traveled to Yan’an, the birthplace of the Chinese Communist revolution. It was cold and desolate, and I personally found it very difficult to gain an understanding of how the movement was inspired and carried out by merely visiting the place where it began. Edgar Snow’s account offered a lot of insight into this complicated historical event, but also raises a lot of questions: did Snow initially intend to showcase the Communists in such a positive light, or did this evolve as he learned more about the cause? Were Snow’s biases a result of his personal predisposition to socialist ideologies, or did they develop as Snow began to admire Mao Zedong as a personality and leader? How can the reader gain objective insight into the rise of Chinese communism, especially since this particular political ideology is so polarizing?

Perhaps rendering Snow’s account “a classic on the birth of Chinese Communism” is somewhat of a misnomer; as Snow’s work does not merely function as a piece of objective, expository journalism but also proved influential in shaping Western attitudes toward Chinese Communism through the author’s own nuanced partialities. Regardless of one’s views on the biases in Snow’s account, however, the reader must concede that Snow has been able to successfully “penetrate China” on at least two levels; firstly, by simply gaining access to the Communist movement and Party members when no other Westerner was able to do so, and secondly, by identifying Chinese history as intrinsically dynamic and transformative.

So if you’re ever in the mood for some leisurely reading about the historical birth of Chinese Communism, I urge you to give Edgar Snow’s “Red Star Over China” a quick look!