To China and Back

The Long Revolution

by Edgar Snow
Random House, 269 pp., $6.95

The Morning Deluge: Mao Tsetung and the Chinese Revolution 1893-1954

by Han Suyin
Little, Brown & Co., 571 pp., $12.95

China’s convalescence from the Cultural Revolution seems marked by a high degree of togetherness. Euphoria is to be expected in the first flush of industrialization, when new electric pumps can flood rice paddies around Peking as easily as they drain low-lying fields around Canton. Increased production enhances the aura surrounding Chairman Mao. His big white statues may be coming down as the cult of personality diminishes, but his writings still bulk large in the people’s thin supply of reading matter. His turn toward Sino-American rapprochement continues publicly unchallenged, and since the demise of Lin Piao the military seem less evident in the command posts of administration. All this makes it a good time to appraise his achievement.

The leading interpreter of Mao to Americans has been Edgar Snow, who died last February in Switzerland just as the rapprochement he had helped to start was getting under way. His last weeks were eased by a skilled team of cancer specialists from Peking, a humane gesture that has already been added to Snow’s legend as a friend of China, the foreign biographer of China’s greatest leader.

Red Star Over China did indeed make Mao a world figure in 1937. Though unforeseen, it turned out that Edgar Snow’s previous seven years in China, his warm sympathy for the millions of famine sufferers, the unkempt troops battling Japan, the Peking students struggling to save China, had disposed him to the vision of revolution and regeneration that Mao unfolded in his North Shensi cave when Snow got there in 1936. He could understand the message. He recorded it well, got a world scoop, and began to live with his legend, which kept him thereafter facing two ways, between two worlds. In Maoist China, Snow was the special foreign friend of the revolution, in Dulles’s America a dangerous man.

Edgar Snow survived because he remained himself, a professional Missouri-born journalist, concerned mainly to get the facts to the public, not to push any particular doctrine. But being the only insider among the world press with a special relationship to Chairman Mao brought its problems. Snow became an editor of the Saturday Evening Post and a war correspondent, but during the 1940s he was dog-housed by the Nationalists, and during the 1950s by the Americans. John S. Service, in a perceptive tribute,1 has described how in 1959 he finally wound up in Switzerland to eke out a living free of annoyance from his fellow citizens.

When the Chinese leaders finally became disenchanted with the Soviets, they invited Edgar Snow back into history as a special channel to the Americans again. He returned to China in 1960, 1964-1965, and 1970-1971, and saw Mao and Chou. During the long decade of the 1960s, when the Sino-Soviet split had obviously put a Sino-American get-together on the cards, Snow was thus a chief means through whom Mao and Chou tried to reach Americans. It was rather frustrating. After a seven-hour day of conversation with the Chairman, Snow came back to Washington and offered to talk to the new Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, who, however, having just come in a Dulles’s successor, had only twenty minutes for him (presumably when your mental sinews are flexed to combat evil, it is hard to relax and listen).

Nevertheless, his big book, Red China Today: The Other Side of the River,2 was a worthy successor to Red Star, a broad look at the Chinese Party’s accomplishments during fifteen years in power, twenty-five years after North Shensi. It described the situation factually and told us things we needed to know: that the Chinese revolution had come to stay and was a great step forward for the mass of the people. Yet it really posed no threat to the United States. Finally in October, 1970, the photo of Snow and Mao atop T’ien An Men signaled Mao’s turn toward the United States.

Snow’s last book, The Long Revolution, is not the big detailed work it might have been had he lived to complete it, but it is a succinct and cogent book nevertheless, with pithy accounts of acupuncture and public health, population growth, the army at work, and similar topics. Principally the book reports on Snow’s long talks with Mao and Chou in 1964-1965 and 1970, for which it provides extensive texts. His interview with Mao in January, 1965, here runs to thirty-two pages.

Where The Other Side of the River was the report of a uniquely placed observer who could compare what he had seen before with the present, The Long Revolution appears at a time when many others are going to China and giving us well-informed accounts of daily life. Its primary value is to present Mao’s side of the Cultural Revolution, which is, of course, the only side available. Snow makes it highly intelligible. His exposition begins with the point that the cult of Mao in the mid-1960s was evidently promoted by enemies who wished him no good. “In one sense the whole struggle was over control of the cult and by whom and above all ‘for whom’ the cult was to be utilized. The question was whether the cult was to become the monopoly of a Party elite manipulated for its own ends, and with Mao reduced to a figure-head”; or whether it could be used by “Mao Tse-tung and his dedicated true believers to popularize Mao’s teachings as a means to ‘arm the people’ with ideological weapons…against…privileged, reactionary, and even counter-revolutionary groups amounting to a ‘new class”’ [page 66].

The struggle between the two lines had been emerging clearly enough from at least 1959. The build-up of a generally Russian-style apparatus with its prerogatives and controls is perhaps more easily understandable than the spirit and style of the cultural revolution in which Mao set about to attack and overthrow it. Snow now suggests that when Mao told him in January, 1965, that he was “soon going to see God,” he was probably trying to throw the opposition off his track, because he had already begun to organize his revolt-from-above by finding supporters in Shanghai against the Peking Party Committee and the central establishment there. The story is well-known by now, but adds still another exploit to the Mao saga—how, on his pedestal, he could not get his counterattacks published in Peking, how he organized secretly and in the background, backed by the army under Lin Piao, in order to get the Cultural Revolution campaign under way in 1966. Mao then “resurfaced dramatically on July 16 at Wuhan…to swim across the Yangtze River” [page 91]. By the time Liu Shao-ch’i realized he was the target of the new campaign, it was too late to organize his defenses. The Red Guards and the masses were mobilized against him from outside the party apparatus.

As to the turning toward Nixon,

In the dialectical pattern of his thought Mao had often said that good can come out of bad and that bad people can be made good—by experience and right teaching. Yes, he said to me [in December 1970], he preferred men like Nixon to Social Democrats and revisionists, those who professed to be one thing but in power behaved quite otherwise.

Nixon might be deceitful, he went on, but perhaps a little bit less so than some others…. If he were willing to come, the Chairman would be willing to talk to him…whether Nixon came as a tourist or as President. [Page 179]

This Snow reported in Life and a translation was circulated among the Chinese leadership.

The Chairman’s persuasive style comes through. He told Snow that

China should learn from the way America developed, by decentralizing and spreading responsibility and wealth among the fifty states…. China must depend upon regional and local initiatives….

As he courteously escorted me to the door, he said he was not a complicated man, but really very simple. He was, he said, only a lone monk walking the world with a leaky umbrella. [Page 175]

Snow remarks that “no one could speak seriously to responsible Chinese leaders without noticing their intense interest in the signs they detected of disintegration of American capitalist society.” His last paragraph is sobering:

The millennium seems distant and the immediate prospect is for the toughest kind of adjustment and struggle…. The danger is that Americans may imagine that the Chinese are giving up communism…to become nice agrarian democrats…. A world without change by revolutions—a world in which China’s closest friends would not be revolutionary states—is inconceivable to Peking. But a world of relative peace between states is as necessary to China as to America. To hope for more is to court disenchantment. [Page 188]

The popular Chinese view of Mao today is faithfully reflected in Han Suyin’s The Morning Deluge. She has assiduously studied Mao’s writing and the literature about him and has done extensive field work, interviewing people, retracing Mao’s steps. From this immersion in Mao’s life she has written a book that is eloquent, colorful, and dramatic—almost everything but critical. It takes Mao through the various stages of his career from school in Hunan to his period of early radicalism in Peking in 1919, to Shanghai in 1921, where he founded the party, into the hills in 1927, through the Long March, the Yenan decade, the battle for China, and the founding of the new order up to 1954. Mao’s life lends itself to popular history, and the story is vividly told.

Historians interested in what really happened will soon realize the obvious, that Han Suyin is a gifted novelist. Critical second thoughts are not her usual response to evidence. Rather, she unconsciously pushes the other way to heighten the effect. Examples: between age sixty-three and seventy-three, Mao “swam the Yangtze River eight times at its widest point—about four miles back and forth” [page 14]. Supposing he swam across, why back? Again, the Luting Bridge over the Tatu River, crossed by the heroes of the Long March on its bare chains, she tells us is “over a mile long” [page 289], though her photo shows it obviously more like 150 yards. Page 368: “From 1937 to 1945 the Red armies would fight 92,000 battles.” That makes thirty-one battles a day every day for eight years.

Such reaching for super-facts bigger than life makes for excitement. Mao is always right, always foresees, and always wins, while American imperialists plot the worst but bite the dust. Still, The Morning Deluge is evocative and colorful. Miners at Anyuan, dutifully interviewed in 1968-1970, dutifully describe Mao’s brilliant leadership in 1922. The intervening forty-six to forty-eight years have sharpened their memories, and why not? Han Suyin is dealing here with one of the great myths of national leadership of all time. We should not complain that in her account it is too many-splendored.

Is the real Mao ever going to stand up and be seen by American readers, errors and all? To ask this is like asking for the real Jesus. Meantime expansive Americans and self-sufficient Chinese grope for contact. Since returning from Peking I have read a number of books by visitors to China, but they all say substantially the same thing and describe the same situation with little variety. I have also talked to a number of other travelers and they have been in the same places we were in and met the same people. The big generalizations are all agreed upon: There has been a tremendous betterment of the material life and morale of the common people. Incredible hard work has produced a credible miracle reshaping both land and people, just as Edgar Snow reported. But China is not America. Individualism is not esteemed. Art and letters are at a mass propaganda level. The national political process remains shrouded in mystery. Higher education is slowly reviving after a four-year shutdown. But all this is China’s problem, not ours.

In the midst of Mao legend and Nixon pap the need for realism mounts on both sides. Afficionados of “international understanding” as promoting human betterment may be disconcerted. The resumption of contact after twenty-five years may make each side more inscrutable than ever. When the Nixon gap between words and deeds leaves Americans baffled about what is really going on here, we sympathize with a Chinese observer’s obfuscation. By training he must see in the United States of 1972 an inevitable trend toward anti-capitalist revolution by the American workers and peasants. But while agriculture employs at least 75 percent of the Chinese it employs only 6 percent of the Americans.

What both countries need most of all is to be equally observed and reported, each side to the other. How else can we rectify the imbalance of the old relationship, American aggressiveness and Chinese defensiveness? The published interpreting is still almost entirely one way, telling the still powerful Americans about the still strange Chinese. When can we be given Chinese interpretation of the presentday United States that avoids rhetorical Marxist jargon and pins our ears back with readily available facts? Where are the Chinese America specialists who can damn us with data we recognize? All they have to do is quote the Wall Street Journal, but in a context related to American history, not Chinese or Marxist history. When, in short, are those keen-minded Chinese observers going to come and look at us close to?

  1. 1

    China Quarterly, April-June 1972, p. 216.

  2. 2

    Random House, 1962; Vintage Books, 1971.