Message from Mao

Edgar Snow
Edgar Snow; drawing by David Levine

In Kansas City, Missouri, the family of Edgar Snow, whose Red Star Over China was to introduce Mao Zedong to the world, employed a black washerwoman, Crazy Mary, who hated one of her Chinese competitors. To enrage the man she taught young Edgar to recite:

Chinaman, Chinaman,
Eat dead rats!
Chew them up
Like gingersnaps!

This story in Snow’s memoir Journey to the Beginning1 does not appear in John Maxwell Hamilton’s new biography. But it is clear that Snow spent much of his grown-up life trying to atone for generations of American insensitivity about China.

Snow’s scoop in writing Red Star Over China can hardly be exaggerated. In 1936, after spending four months with Mao Zedong and his guerrillas at their headquarters in Baoan in west China and thirteen years before the Communists came to power, with the Japanese war just beginning and Pearl Harbor five years away, Snow wrote:

The movement for social revolution in China may suffer defeats, may temporarily retreat, may for a time seem to languish, may make wide changes in tactics to fit immediate necessities and aims, may even for a period be submerged, be forced underground, but it will not only continue to mature; in one mutation or another it will eventually win, simply because (as this book proves, if it proves anything) the basic conditions which have given it birth carry within themselves the dynamic necessity for its triumph.

This widely publicized prediction immediately won Snow the devotion of the Chinese Communists. In 1937, the year Red Star Over China became an international best seller, Zhou Enlai, who had welcomed Snow to Baoan, and was to become premier in twelve years, said of him, “To us Snow is the greatest of foreign authors and our best friend abroad.” When Snow was dying in selfimposed Swiss exile in 1972, Zhou sent four doctors, a nurse, and an anesthesiologist to care for him. After he died he became the first foreigner to be commemorated in the Great Hall of the People. Half of his ashes lie in Peking (the other half are buried near the Hudson River, as he asked) and his face appears on a Chinese stamp.

On October 1, 1970, years after he foresaw the Communist triumph, Snow stood to the right of Mao Zedong, now Chairman, Great Teacher, Great Helmsman, and the Red Red Sun in Our Hearts, on the reviewing balcony of the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Peking. Once again Mao needed him. In 1936 the Chairman could have asked Agnes Smedley, the reliably pro-Communist journalist living in Shanghai, to come to Baoan to receive the authorized version of the Communist movement to date, including a carefully selective account of Mao’s life. But as Mr. Hamilton points out, Smedley couldn’t get her stories published in the New York Herald Tribune, The Saturday Evening Post,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

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.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.