Snow, White & Seven China Revolution Classics

American reporters have been framing and reframing the China Story ever since the 19th century, says Charles W. Hayford

By Charles W. Hayford
AsiaMedia Contributing Writer

Friday, December 1, 2006

When Richard Nixon went to China in 1972, the American mainstream China Story was based in classic reporters' books of the 1930s and 1940s. The canon included Edgar Snow's Red Star Over China (1937), whose interviews with Mao Zedong in 1936 were called the "scoop of the century," Theodore White and Annalee Jacoby's Thunder Out of China (1946), an expose of wartime China, and Jack Belden's China Shakes the World (1949), an eye witness account of village revolution. The story in these books was, in Mao's words "China stands up."

Yet these classics have fallen -- or were they pushed? The American journalists and scholars who followed Nixon found that Mao's Revolution was not what they had thought. Red Star, much of which was published in Chinese before in English, was made out as key in bringing Mao to power, but the interviews with Mao proved to have been scripted word for word by Party authorities. Most devastating, when he returned to China in the late 1950s, Snow failed to report on massive famines in which tens of millions died. The word on Snow went from "scoop" to "dupe." Jonathan Mirsky, a long time watcher of China watchers once observed that Edgar Snow and liberal Americans suffered from a "melange of idealism, anti-imperialism, hypocrisy, middle class guilt, fantasies about People's Democracies briefly visited, and vaguely pro-People sentiments that provoked misreportings and skewed analysis..."

To regain perspective we must recall Timothy Garton Ash's urging that there is "nothing to compare with being there." In his 1999 History of the Present: Essays, Sketches, and Dispatches from Europe in the 1990s, he said that reporters record "what people did not know at the time" and thus avoid the "illusions of retrospective determinism." Yet if "seeing is believing," it is also true that "believing is seeing." Even eye witnesses frame their observations in terms of Big Stories.

From 1898, when Kipling summoned Americans to "take up the White Man's Burden," to World War II, the American China Story changed. For 19th century Americans China was a primordial, unchanged civilization which was our mirror image. Following the Open Door, China was gradually and unevenly reframed as a place which could become "just like us" and which we would wake from an age old sleep. Chinese were potential customers, converts or victims.

Reporters in the 1920s wrote from treaty port Shanghai describing the Nationalist revolution as a violent popular and xenophobic uprising against Civilization which heralded the return of the Boxers. China's poverty and military weakness led State Department realists to argue that it was futile to aid China against Japanese incursions. The Japanese claimed to represent Civilization in the face of Bolshevism.

But in the 1930s, a new crop of reporters, mostly American and largely college educated, aspired to be professional journalists and to take the side of China. They read the works of scholars who applied sociology and anthropology to Sinology. They cast the older generation of newspapermen as treaty port hacks, alcoholics and soft on Japan to boot. They looked for a new China Story.

This new China Story came from young Chinese who rejected Confucian culture as "feudal" and wanted to build a strong nation to defend China against imperialism. Historians complain that China was by no means "feudal," since it was a centralized, civilian, market society from at least the 16th century, and that "imperialism" was grounded in the Law of Comparative Advantage. Never mind, said these new reporters. The progressive story reframed China's weakness and poverty as Feudalism; revolution was simply the power to save China.

Edgar Snow found a rising Red Star and hitched his wagon to it. In the voice of a convert he tells us what it was like to "be there." Snow accepts on faith the narrative truth that the Communist Party could mobilize the people, fight Japan, and form a powerful nation. If Snow shaped and tweaked what he saw -- as he surely did -- it was in service of a story which had more explanatory power than any earlier one. The Communists he interviewed had returned, he said, to the "intellectually sterile countryside, the dark-living peasantry." Fired by the "belief that a better world could be made, and that only they could make it," they "brought to the millions, by propaganda and by action, a new conception of the state, society, and the individual."

Theodore White, a history major at Harvard, was, as far as I can tell, the first American reporter to have studied Chinese before coming to China. White and Jacoby were frustrated that their wartime coverage for Time magazine was shredded by Chinese censors and rewritten by Henry Luce. Thunder Out of China, which they wrote on their return the States, unselfconsciously portrayed China as feudal. They wrote that the "Chinese who fought this war were peasants born in the Middle Ages to die in the Twentieth century." Though they clearly describe the violence and costs of Mao's emerging Revolution, they note that we "revere the memory of [the French] Revolution, but we regard such uprisings in our own time with horror and loathing." Mao's juggernaut would create a Chinese nation which Americans had to deal with, not dismiss.

Critics and enthusiasts alike mistook Belden's China Shakes the World for a Maoist book. Along with White and Jacoby, Belden talks of "feudalism," but actually describes a dynamic rural economy. Where Snow played Boswell to Mao and spoke of "dark living peasantry" who needed force and leadership, Belden portrays autonomous village personalities capable of self determination. Most reporters went to Mao's Yan'an, but Belden chose not to go to that "tourist center," fearing that it "might be very hard for me to get in close contact with the people, the war or their revolution." Instead he bummed around North China, finding that the Communists "won the people to their cause" by meeting their needs. But Belden warned that the Party built a "wholly new power apparatus" which would "elude their intentions and tend to exist for its own sake." Long before the Cultural Revolution, Belden predicted that if the intellectuals in the Party prevailed, they would "force their dreams on others, blunder into grave political mistakes and finally plunge into outright tyranny." He concluded that "many supporters of the Chinese Communists have made what Montesquieu called the mistake of confusing the power of the people with the liberty of the people."

Snow, White, and Belden did not have the words either to conceptualize what they saw nor to convey their story to the 1940s American public. Words like "feudal," "peasant," and even "revolution" did not fit their China but better ones were not at hand. Now, two generations later, our China Stories have changed once again. The story of New China has given way to Rising China discussed with words such as "capitalist" and "democratic." These wartime books still help us to avoid Ash's "retrospective determinism" and draw our attention to the ways in which our perceptions are shaped by unexamined words and Big Stories.


This column is based on a paper given at the Association for Asian Studies Annual Meeting in San Francisco on April 9, 2006, and is drawn from a manuscript, America's Chinas, which analyzes books written for the home public by Americans living in China from 1839-1989.

The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.