The Long Revolution
The Morning Deluge: Mao Tsetung and the Chinese Revolution 1893-1954
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.