Edgar Snow’s “Red Star Over China”

The American journalist Edgar Snow earned a place in history as the first journalist from the United States given permission to interview the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, Mao Zedong, in 1936. The fruit of Snow’s interview, Red Star over China, became the first document to detail the personality, character, goals, and achievements of Mao’s revolution, while still in its infancy. Snow’s book offered the Western world a glimpse of the rapid rate of change taking place in China at the time and provided Western readers “reliable, first-hand information about the strengths and weaknesses of the Chinese Communist Party, gathered by an independent journalist” (Garner 94).

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Red Star over China describes a five-month period in 1936 during which Snow accompanied the Red Army on its march to Soviet China. Snow’s photographs, stories, and interviews appeared in the London Daily Herald and the Saturday Evening Post and ended a news blackout that had been in place for almost a decade prior (Contemporary Authors Online n.p.). Red Star over China details the intensification and concentration of power within the Chinese Communist Party in the mid-1930s. The highlight of the book remains Snow’s interview with Mao. This historic conversation happened not too long after the momentous “Long March,” wherein Mao’s forces narrowly escaped the Kuomintang – the Chinese Nationalist Party led by Chiang Kai-shek – and regrouped near Mongolia. Red Star over China is also notable in that the interview initiated a friendship between Snow and Mao which endured for 30 years (Contemporary Authors Online n.p.).

Critics and historians differ greatly in their treatment of Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party and system. Author Peter Moody has compared Mao to infamous dictators such as Hitler and Stalin, and argued “why should not Mao, who also slew his millions, share in their ignominy? Is it because the regime he founded survives as a respectable member of international society, and that regime has not itself officially repudiated its founder?” (Moody 535). Mao’s importance to the Communist system that survived him has also been severely discredited by Moody. In his words, “beyond Mao’s personality is the Maoist system, for which he personally has only partial responsibility. The system was shaped by China’s modern history and that of the world, by technological and demographic changes, and by organizational and ideological innovations informing the contemporary world” (Moody 535).

Author Lucian Pye highlights historical “material that depicts Stalin as having had a bigger hand in the founding of the Chinese Communist Party than previously thought” and ponders a pertinent dilemma when he asks if Mao was such a “cruel tyrant who did not even believe in the ideology he imposed on China…how [then did] so many people, both Chinese and foreigners, fall under the spell of him and his myth” (Pye 153-154)?

Snow, for his part, did not ask such questions. He maintained journalistic objectivity in terms of politics. Though not a communist, Snow considered the communist movement in China viable and honorable and characterized it as “an attempt by the Chinese to rid themselves not only of foreign imperialistic designs but also of centuries of old oppression by bureaucratic officialdom, greedy bankers, and others” (Contemporary Authors Online n.p.). According to his biographer John Maxwell Hamilton, Snow “deeply desired American acceptance, but not the kind that comes from temporizing one’s views. He wanted Americans to see what he saw in China” (Hamilton 92). No small feat, given the political landscape of his day. In the United States, the 1930s began with an open-hearted attitude toward the “ordinary, impoverished Chinese of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth” (Giles 9). Toward the end of that decade – around the time that Red Star over China was published – China went to war with Japan, and “reporting became more political and romantic in support of Chinese nationalism,” a trend which Red Star over China cemented (Giles 9). However, the sentiment soured by the late 1940s, once Mao’s Communists “came to power and relations deteriorated to the point of war over Korea in 1950” (Giles 9). According to Giles, this shift in American public opinion toward the Chinese was “cathartic, [and gave] full play to the emotional dimension of the relationship that has produced to this day wild swings between positive and negative imagery and public opinion about China” (Giles 9). By the end of World War II, Snow’s relationship with Mao and other senior members of the Chinese Communist Party took its toll on his career, as the tide of public opinion in the United States, as well as the governing powers, turned staunchly anti-Communist. This political swing culminated in Snow’s resignation from his post as an associate editor with the Saturday Evening Post (Contemporary Authors Online n.p.).

This essay employs Red Star over China as its primary source and demonstrates that the tactic devised by Mao Zedong when recruiting followers for the Chinese Communist Party strategically utilized both the growing sense of nationalism amongst the peasants and the class struggle which had already begun to take shape in the early 20th century, to consciously galvanize this massive population into an organized revolutionary class. Interestingly, the root of the class struggle originated in the heart of the Chinese Communist Party itself. Before Mao established himself as Chairman, the Party underwent significant vacillation in its agrarian policies and political stances for, or against, redistribution of land to the peasants. Mao understood that masterminding a revolution began and ended with the peasants – they were a liberation front waiting to be armed – yet his colleagues in the Party resisted. Mao’s colleagues – as portrayed in Red Star over China and by Mao himself – still held on to the vestiges of class distinction, and many of them quailed at the thought of a militant peasant class, so entrenched were their classist ideals and petty-bourgeois pretensions. The eventual success of the Chinese Communist Party, though attributed to Mao, in actuality drew its strength from the peasant class.

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In the early 20th century monumental changes were already afoot in China. For thousands of years, the country had lived under a feudal system controlled by powerful dynasties. Class roles were rigidly defined: the peasants were the peasants, and the elite was the elite, and every iota of power remained concentrated in the hands of the feudal lords. Peasants lived and died on land they didn’t own, with no education and no hope for advancement beyond an agrarian life of toil and poverty.

By the early 1900s however, things began to shift. Education became more accessible to the lower classes following the abolition of the imperial examinations, “long…considered a major criterion of elite status in China” (Averill 282). Once the examination system ended in 1905, schools patterned after Western models emerged, and within this new Western style of education, the seed of revolution sprouted. The schools “became a prime impetus to nationwide revolutionary change” (Averill 282). Accessible education gave rise to new ways of thinking about class and fostered political ideas and radical discussions. At that time China was hungry to join the modern era, and the Western-style schools soon established themselves as the “prime organizing sites for the various political parties that sprang up to transform the newly introduced ideas into political realities” (Averill 282).

Mao’s own feelings toward nationalism and the class struggle in China evolved over the revolutionary period between the failure of the Communist party in 1927 and the land law of 1930 that detailed his Communist-inspired agrarian redistribution plan (Kim 121; Snow 162). In Snow’s interview with Mao in Red Star over China, the political leader offered his version of the events that transpired in 1927, which saw the Communists suffer a crushing defeat at the hands of the Kuomintang (Snow 162). Mao described the Fifth Congress of the Party that assembled at Wuhan in the spring of 1927 as being “still under the domination of Ch’en Tu-hsiu” (Snow 162). Despite military aggression on the part of Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek, who had openly struck the Communist Party strongholds in Shanghai and Nanking, according to Mao the leader Ch’en “was still for moderation and concessions to the Wuhan Kuomintang” (Snow 162). Ch’en, in Mao’s words, “followed a Right-opportunist petty bourgeois policy” (Snow 162). Mao admitted to Snow in Red Star over China that he differed significantly from the Party line in regards to the peasant movement. In Mao’s words, “I think today that if the peasant movement has been more thoroughly organized and armed for a class struggle against the landlords, the soviets would have had an earlier and far more powerful development throughout the whole country” (Snow 162). At that time, however, Ch’en Tu-hsiu held the reins, and “violently disagreed” with Mao’s strategy to mobilize the peasants. According to Mao, Ch’en Tu-hsiu “did not understand the role of the peasantry in the revolution and greatly underestimated its possibilities at this time” (Snow 162).

The Fifth Congress could not pass a land reform program, and Mao’s ideas “which called for rapid intensification of the agrarian struggle, were not even discussed for the Central Committee, also dominated by Ch’en Tu-hsiu, refused to bring them up for consideration” (Snow 162). Mao strongly disagreed with the Congress’s definition of a landlord as “a peasant who owns over 500 mou of land” (Snow 162). Mao lamented this definition as “wholly inadequate, and [an] unpractical basis on which to develop the class struggle, and quite without consideration of the special character of the land economy in China” (Snow 162).

At this time Mao helped to organize the All-China Peasants’ Union and took over as its president. His action coincided with the increased peasant militancy stirring in the provinces of Hupeh, Kiangsi, Fukien and Hunan. Mao asserted to Snow that the peasants located in these regions “had developed a startling militancy, despite the lukewarm attitude of the Communist Party to [them], and [to] the definite alarm of the Kuomintang” (Snow 162). Kuomintang officials grew nervous, and rejected the peasants as a “vagabond union”, while Ch’en Tu-hsiu ordered Mao to leave Hunan (Snow 162).

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Though Mao encouraged and in Snow’s assertion “probably initiated” the Hunan Peasants’ Union resolutions that called for whole scale elimination of all significant property, he was powerless to effect change at that time, and powerless to protect the peasants from the wrath of the Kuomintang (Snow 162). In April of 1927, Chiang Kai-shek ordered “a general massacre” of peasants and workers in the provinces of Nanking, Shang hai and Canton (Snow 162). In Hunan an uprising known as the Hsu K’o-hsiang Uprising occurred on May 21, 1927, wherein “scores of peasants and workers were killed by the reactionaries” (Snow 162).

Mao placed the blame for the deaths of the peasants squarely on Ch’en Tu-hsiu, and attributed the failure of the Communist Party’s agenda at that time to the inherent class struggle going on within the Party. In Mao’s words, “Ch’en was really frightened of the workers and especially of the armed peasants. Confronted at last with the reality of armed insurrection, he completely lost his senses. He could no longer see clearly what was happening, and his petty bourgeois instincts betrayed him into panic and defeat” (Snow 164). Mao also painted Mikhail Markovich Borodin, a Soviet advisor, as a petty bourgeoisie who could not stomach the thought of the lower classes achieving power. Mao told Snow that Borodin had supported Mao radical agrarian policy in 1926 only to completely reject in 1927 with no explanation of his about face. In Mao’s words, “Borodin stood just a little to the right of Ch’en Tu-hsiu, and was ready to do everything to please the bourgeoisie, even to the disarming of the workers, which he finally ordered” (Snow 163).

Essentially Mao’s comprehension of the power lurking in the peasant class came to fruition in the years after the trouncing at the hands of the Kuomintang. In 1928 his agrarian policy argued that “all “tzu-keng-nung” (peasant proprietors) should be viewed as potential enemies…[and] he advocated the execution of peasant proprietors” (Kim 121). But by 1930 at the time of the land law, Mao began to press for the large base of power that he sensed lay in the peasant class. The land law advocated that “land and capital owned by landlords, plus the land that rich peasants rented to tenants, was to be confiscated, and this land was to be distributed to farm laborers and poor and middle peasants, under the slogan “Distribute All Land Equally to the Peasants” (Kim 121).In China at that time the peasant class comprised over 85 per cent of the population. Mao’s genius lay in his understanding that the class struggle could be manipulated to create the broadest possible base of support for the revolutionary movement, and he knew that the peasant class was the key to victory (Kim 121).

In conclusion, by 1963 Mao’s Party and its former Soviet friends were no longer on speaking terms when Mao condemned Krushchev as “a revisionist…who traveled along the capitalist road” (Chaoquan Ou 231). By that point Mao’s revolution had fully embraced the class struggle embodied by the peasant revolt and rejected the petty bourgeois tendencies of his former advisors. Red Star over China gives invaluable insight into the machinations behind Mao’s rise to power and the crucial transformation that occurred once Mao mobilized the class struggle in service of his revolution.

Works Cited

Averill, Stephen C. “Party, Society, and Local Elite in the Jiangxi Communist Movement.” The Journal of Asian Studies 46.2 (1987): 279-303. Web.

Chaoquan Ou, D. and Norman Geary. Life in a Kam Village in Southwest China, 1930-1949. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers , 2007. Print.

Contemporary Authors Online. “Edgar Parks Snow.” Detroit: Gale, 2003. n.p. Web.

Garner, Karen. “Season of High Adventure: Edgar Snow in China.” Pacific Affairs 71.1 (1998): 94-96. Web.

Giles, Robert H. et al. Covering China. Piscataway, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 2001. Print.

Hamilton, John Maxwell. Edgar Snow: A Biography. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1988. Print.

Kim, Ilpyong J. The Politics of Chinese Communism: Kiangsi under The Soviets. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1973. Print.

Moody, Peter R. Jr. “You Say You Want a Revolution.” The Review of Politics 68.3 (2006): 532-535. Web.

Pye, Lucian W. “Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang; Jon Halliday.” Foreign Affairs 84.6 (2005): 153-154. Web.

Snow, Edgar. Red Star Over China: The Classic Account of the Birth of Chinese Communism. New York: Random House, 1944. Print.

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