Edgar Snow–The Turning Points (Part I)

Nineteen twenty-eight was a busy year for Edgar Snow. He had been living in New York for a few years and, having already been bitten by the ‘travel bug’ a couple of times, hopped a ship to Hawaii. From there he stowed away on a steamer to Japan, and then finally made his way to Shanghai–all in one year. And, I say finally only to imply that Snow had arrived in China, but his travels were just beginning.

Nineteen twenty-nine took Snow on a journey all over China where he learned about and saw first-hand the corruption under the Kuomingtang which was, “just a new flag under old warlords.” (Snow, pp. 49) He saw how this corruption affected millions of starving people and he didn’t like it. This trip into China, I believe, was a game-changer for him. Snow was disgusted to see that there was not even an attempt to hide the ugliness behind this fascinating country’s economic and political situation. He began to sympathize with the peasants and students that were fed up with being the shrimp in the Chinese saying: “Big fish eat little fish, little fish eat shrimps, shrimps eat mud!” (Snow, pp. 49) But, the travel bug wasn’t going to let him hang around too long just yet.

Nineteen thirty and thirty-one took him further south to Formosa (Taiwan), Indo-China, Burma, and India where he saw more corruption. I think seeing corruption out in the open was a shock to him, at first. While there is plenty of corruption here in the U.S., it’s kept well out of the public sphere, for the most part. In Asia most officials were comfortable with the oppression they inflicted upon the poor in order to line their pockets. I’ve closed my eyes to try to put myself in Snow’s shoes and I think I would have been shocked and disgusted, too. In Yunnan and Burma he was further disappointed by religious institutions and their practice of manipulation. (Snow, pp. 68-70) Then, in India he met Ghandi and this, I believe, was another game changer.

Ghandi influenced Snow greatly. Even though he claimed to like Jawarhalal Nehru’s approach better than Ghandi’s, he ended up alongside Ghandi as a partisan for the Indian cause. (Snow, pp. 77) He followed Ghandi to Bombay where he met a Communist and learned how Marxism was a religion to Indians. (Snow, pp. 79-80) And, just like Ghandi concluded that India was not yet ready for swaraj, or independence, Snow would come to a similar conclusion about China not yet being ready for civil rights. (Snow, pp. 76, 87) His travels throughout Southern Asia would take him back to China.

Nineteen thirty-two brought Snow a wife, Helen Foster, A.K.A., Nym Wales. They married in Tokyo, however, I don’t see this event as a turning point since little else changed about his life. Traveling was still his first love and his dedication to ‘getting the story,’ trumped a wife any day.

Nineteen thirty-five saw famine and devastation in the Yangtze Valley for twelve million people. (Snow, pp. 136) Another game changer–Snow decided to meet with the “Reds.” He wrote: “…I am very far from being a Communist. I dislike dogmatism and the treatment of Karl Marx’s writing as revealed scripture which cannot be challenged…I also decided, as did Nehru, that whatever the ultimate truth about Russia might turn out to be, as between Nazi-Fascism and Communism my sympathies were with Communism, not of love for its friends but of dislike of its enemies.” (Snow, pp. 138) The student protests and famine prompted him to meet Mao Tse Tung.

Nineteen thirty-six took Snow north to the Red Army where he met with Mao and stayed for several weeks, interviewing him for the book that he would eventually write about him and the Chinese Communist movement. As far as turning points, these are the big ones. After meeting Mao he seemed pretty committed to the Communist cause and the encroaching Japanese only made his decision to side with them that much more rational. I think if I were to try to define Snow I’d have to look at where he’s been and see what he’s seen and, as you can see from just eight short years, he’s seen a lot.

Snow, Edgar. (1958) Journey to the Beginning: A Personal View of Contemporary History. New York: Vintage Books.

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