Portrait of a Monster

Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong; drawing by David Levine


It is close to seventy years since Edgar Snow, an ambitious, radical, and eager young American journalist, received word from contacts in the Chinese Communist Party that he would be welcome in the Communists’ northwest base area of Bao-an. Traveling there by train, by truck, on foot, and finally on horseback accompanied by a twenty-man escort of Chinese Red Army troops, Edgar Snow reached Bao-an, and was granted several long evening interviews by Mao in his lamp-lit cave. Mao’s secretary served as Snow’s interpreter, and Snow’s 20,000-word English draft of the interview was then translated back into Chinese and transcribed by a young student named Huang Hua, for submission to Mao. Mao made corrections and cuts, and Huang thereupon translated that approved version back into English for Snow.1 With Snow’s extended commentaries and additions to supply historical context, the resulting book, Red Star Over China, was published in the United States and in Britain in 1938; an underground and abbreviated edition had already appeared in Chinese shortly after Snow returned to Beijing, and circulated widely in the Communist base area. Snow later reflected on his book with these words:

I had gone to the Northwest before any Westerner and at a dark moment in history for the Chinese Communists as well as for all China. I had found hope for the nation in that small band of survivors of the Long March, and formed a favorable impression of them…and their policies…. I admired their courage, their selflessness, their single-minded determination to save China (under their leadership) and the outstanding ability, the practical political sense, and personal honesty of their high Commanders.2

Snow’s book was, indeed, highly flattering to both the Chinese Communist leaders and their followers: the forty-three-year-old Mao, wrote Snow in Red Star, was “a gaunt, rather Lincolnesque figure,” and his rank and file, whether at work or on the march, seemed to be always singing. Snow noted in his diary that the Chinese Communists he met “go about remaking the world like college boys to a football match,” and the Mao he portrayed was earthy, earnest, informal, jocular, and visionary.

Though sales of Red Star in the United States were disappointing—at 23,500 they were less than a quarter of the sales in Britain, where the book was published in Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club—the book had a profound influence on American thinking about China. Snow’s detailed account of Mao’s early life, education, first experiences as a revolutionary and on the Long March became staples of later biographical writings about Mao, and parts of them remain accepted to this day. In the period since Red Star first saw the light of day, this laudatory tradition was carried on by various writers who either traveled to the base area of Yenan during World War II or watched with awe as the Communists defeated Chiang Kai-shek in the civil…

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