This is an exhaustively researched book on the China phase of the life and thought of Edgar Snow, best known as author of the epic Red Star Over China. Bernard Thomas seems to have left no stone unturned as he supplements his close reading of Snow's books and articles by making use of extensive archival and published materials and interviews with scores of people who knew Snow.
What emerges is not a dull academic tome but a highly readable and at times exciting account of how a middle-class mid-western American who in 1928 embarked on a youthful Asian odyssey in search of high adventure grew into a passionately engaged journalist who not only recorded events but helped shape their course.
Thomas says that Snow took with him to China "the democratic individualist values and outlook, as well as some parochial remains, of his quintessentially American family background". Snow himself referred to his "passionate faith in the idea of Justice and fair play for everyman as the keystone of the conduct of human affairs".
Early on the journalistic activities of this high-minded youth brought him into direct contact with the grim realities of a country demoralised by foreign encroachment, warlordism, corruption, and greed and polarised between two extremes of Right and Left. His sympathy for the downtrodden masses and his contacts with Chinese intellectuals who gravitated to the Left led him to view a Communist-led revolution an the only way out for the country. And this in turn earned him an unprecedented opportunity to visit the Communist-held area in 1936 and report on his visit in Red Star Over China.
In addition to recounting the well-known acclaim that the book received in the West, as well as the general satisfaction expressed by the Chinese Communists, Thomas presents an illuminating analysis of the hostility it engendered in the Soviet Union and among American Communists, who tended to follow the Moscow line. This hostility stemmed largely from Snow's approving presentation of the Chinese Communists as basically independent of Moscow. As events later showed, Snow was decades ahead of those who finally came to realise the Communist world was not a monolithic structure that had to be uniformly countered wherever it manifested itself.
In general Snow's views in the 1930s and 1940s, when he denounced imperialism in its various shades, hoped for a united front against Japanese and Axis aggression, and pleaded for a understanding between Chinese Communism and the United States as part of a rational world order, have stood up fairly well with the passage of time. Snow's early publications were based on extensive first-hand immersion in whatever he reported on. In contrast, his later visits to China in the 1960s and early 1970s were largely limited to guided tours and audiences with Mao Zedong, Zhou En-lai, and other top officials, and as a result his writing came to be marked by a more uneven quality, especially when viewed from the perspective of later hindsight.
Snow had reservations on the Mao cult, but he failed to appreciate how profound was the harm done by the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. And in his hope that the revolution, with all its imperfections, would really be of benefit for the people as a whole, he tended to accept the repressiveness of the regime as a necessary evil in a backward society, thereby overlooking its impediment to the achievement of the humane society that he so ardently hoped for.
One of the pleasures of this book is the ability to share the feelings and thoughts of a very decent person as he first groped to understand and then sought to interpret for others what he saw in a part of the globe that was undergoing cataclysmic change. Another pleasure is the opportunity to look back at Snow's journalistic efforts and to check off where he seemed to hit the mark and where he went astray. Still another pleasure is the opportunity to speculate on where history might have taken a different course if Snow the journalist had also been heeded as Snow the oracle and policy advisor.
John DeFrancis is emeritus professor of Chinese, University of Hawaii.
Season of High Adventure: Edgar Snow in China
Author - S. Bernard Thomas
ISBN - 0 520 206 7
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £28.00
Pages - 398