Red Star Over Chinaby Edgar Snow
A reissue of Edgar Snow’s classic account as the first Westerner to meet Mao and the Chinese Communist leaders in 1936.
Edgar Snow was the first Westerner to meet Mao and the Chinese Communist leaders in 1936 and the first to bring back an account of the men, the movement, and their seemingly impossible goals. This edition of Snow’s classic work on the subject includes extensive notes on military and political developments in China; interviews with Mao never before published; a chronology of “125 Years of Chinese Revolution”; and detailed biographies of the men and women who have played a key role in modern Chinese history.
Some Unanswered Questions
During my seven years in China, hundreds of questions had been asked about the Chinese Red Army, the Soviets, and the Communist movement. Eager partisans could supply you with a stock of ready answers, but these remained highly unsatisfactory. How did they know? They had never been to Red China.
The fact was that there had been perhaps no greater mystery among nations, no more confused an epic, than the story of Red China. Fighting in the very heart of the most populous nation on earth, the Celestial Reds had for nine years been isolated by a news blockade as effective as a stone fortress. A wall of thousands of enemy troops constantly surrounded them; their territory was more inaccessible than Tibet. No one had voluntarily penetrated that wall and returned to write of his experiences since the first Chinese soviet was established in southeastern Hunan, in November, 1927.
Even the simplest points were disputed. Some people denied that there was such a thing as a Red Army. There were only thousands of hungry brigands. Some denied even the existence of soviets.
They were an invention of Communist propaganda. Yet Red sympathizers extolled both as the only salvation for all the ills of China. In the midst of this propaganda and counter-propaganda, credible evidence was lacking for dispassionate observers seeking the truth. Here are some of the unanswered questions that interested everyone concerned with politics and the quickening history of the Orient:
Was or was not this Red Army of China a mass of conscious Marxist revolutionaries, disciplined by and adhering to a centralized program and a unified command under the Chinese Communist Party? If so, what was that program? The Communists claimed to be fighting for agrarian revolution, and against imperialism, and for soviet democracy and national emancipation. Nanking said that the Reds were only a new type of vandals and marauders led by “intellectual bandits.” Who was right? Or was either one?
Before 1927, members of the Communist Party were admitted to the Kuomintang, but in April of that year there began a great “purgation.” Communists, as well as unorganized radical intellectuals and thousands of organized workers and peasants, were executed on an extensive scale under Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of a Right coup d’état which seized power, to form a “National Government” at Nanking. Since then it had been a crime punishable by death to be a Communist or a Communist sympathizer, and thousands had paid that penalty. Yet thousands more continued to run the risk. Thousands of peasants, workers, students, and soldiers joined the Red Army in armed struggle against the military dictatorship of the Nanking regime. Why? What inexorable force drove them on to support suicidal political opinions? What were the fundamental quarrels between the Kuomintang and the Kungch’antang?
What were the Chinese Communists like? In what way did they resemble, in what way were they unlike, Communists or Socialists elsewhere? The tourist asked if they wore long beards, made noises with their soup, and carried homemade bombs in their briefcases. The serious-minded wanted to know whether they were “genuine” Marxists. Did they read Capital and the works of Lenin? Had they a thoroughly Socialist economic program? Were they Stalinites or Trotskyites? Or neither? Was their movement really an organic part of the World Revolution? Were they true internationalists? “Mere tools of Moscow,” or primarily nationalists struggling for an independent China?
Who were these warriors who had fought so long, so fiercely, so courageously, and—as admitted by observers of every color, and privately among Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s own followers—on the whole so invincibly? What made them fight like that? What held them up? What was the revolutionary basis of their movement? What were the hopes and aims and dreams that had made of them the incredibly stubborn warriors—incredible compared with the history of compromise that is China—who had endured hundreds of battles, blockade, salt shortage, famine, disease, epidemic, and finally the Long March of 6,000 miles, in which they crossed twelve provinces of China, broke through thousands of Kuomintang troops, and triumphantly emerged at last into a new base in the Northwest?
Who were their leaders? Were they educated men with a fervent belief in an ideal, an ideology, and a doctrine? Social prophets, or mere ignorant peasants blindly fighting for an existence? What kind of man was Mao Tse-tung, No. 1 “red bandit” on Nanking’s list, for whose capture, dead or alive, Chiang Kai-shek offered a reward of a quarter of a million silver dollars? What went on inside that highly priced Oriental head? Or was Mao really already dead, as Nanking officially announced? What was Chu Teh like—the commander-in-chief of the Red Army, who life had the same value to Nanking? What about Lin Piao, the twenty-eight-year-old Red tactician whose famous First Red Army Corps was said never to have suffered a defeat? Where did he come from? Who were the many other Red leaders repeatedly reported dead, only to reappear in the news—unscathed and commanding new forces against the Kuomintang?
What explained the Red Army’s remarkable record of resistance for nine years against vastly superior military combinations? Lacking any industrial base, big cannon, gas, airplanes, money, and the modern techniques which Nanking had utilized in its wars against them, how had these Reds survived, and increased their following? What military tactics did they use? How were they instructed? Who advised them? Were there some Russian military geniuses among them? Who led the outmaneuver-ing, not only of all Kuomintang commanders sent against them but also of Chiang Kai-shek’s large and expensive staff of German advisers, headed first by General von Seeckt and later by General von Falkenhausen?
What was a Chinese soviet like? Did the peasants support it? If not, what held it together? To what degree did the Reds carry out “socialism” in districts where they had consolidated their power? Why hadn’t the Red Army taken big cities? Did this prove that it wasn’t a genuine proletarian-led movement, but fundamentally remained a peasant rebellion? How was it possible to speak of “communism” or “socialism” in China, where over 80 per cent of the population was still agrarian, where industrialism was still in infant garments—if not infantile paralysis?
How did the Reds dress? Eat? Play? Love? Work? What were their marriage laws? Were women “nationalized,” as Kuomintang publicists asserted? What was a Chinese “red factory”? A Red dramatic society? How did they organize their economy? What about public health, recreation, education, “red culture”?
What was the strength of the Red Army? Half a million, as the Comintern publications boasted? If so, why had it not seized power? Where did it get arms and munitions? Was it a disciplined army? What about its morale? Was it true that officers and men lived alike? If, as Generalissimo Chiang announced in 1935, Nanking had “destroyed the menace of Communist banditry,” what explained the fact that in 1937 the Reds occupied a bigger single unified territory (in China’s most strategic Northwest) than ever before? If the Reds were finished, why did Japan demand, as the famous Third Point of Koki Hirota (Foreign Minister, 1933-36), that Nanking form an anti-Red pact with Tokyo and Nazi Germany “to prevent the bolshevization of Asia”? Were the Reds really “anti-imperialist”? Did they want war with Japan? Would Moscow support them in such a war? Or were their fierce anti-Japanese slogans only a trick and a desperate attempt to win public sympathy, the last cry of demoralized traitors and bandits, as the eminent Dr. Hu Shih nervously assured his excited students in Peking?
What were the military and political perspectives of the Chinese Communist movement? What was the history of its development? Could it succeed? And just what would such success mean to us? To Japan? What would be the effect of this tremendous mutation upon a fifth (some said a fourth) of the world’s inhabitants? What changes would it produce in world politics? In world history? How would it affect the vast British, American, and other foreign investment in China? Indeed, had the Reds any “foreign policy” at all?
Finally, what was the meaning of the Communists’ offer to form a “national united front” in China, and stop civil war?
For some time it had seemed ridiculous that not a single non-Communist observer could answer those questions with confidence, accuracy, or facts based on personal investigation. Here was a story, growing in interest and importance every day; here was the story of China, as newspaper correspondents admitted to each other between dispatches sent out on trivial side issues. Yet we were all woefully ignorant about it. To get in touch with Communists in the “White” areas was extremely difficult.
Communists, over whose heads hung the sentence of death, did not identify themselves as such in polite—or impolite—society. Even in the foreign concessions, Nanking kept a well-paid espionage system at work. It included, for example, such vigilantes as C. Patrick Givens, former chief Red-chaser in the British police force of Shanghai’s International Settlement. Inspector Givens was each year credited with the arrest—and subsequent imprisonment or execution, after extradition from the Settlement by the Kuomintang authorities—of scores of alleged Communists, the majority of them between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five. He was only one of many foreign sleuths hired to spy upon young Chinese radicals and hunt them down in their own country.
We all knew that the only way to leam anything about Red China was to go there. We excused ourselves by saying, “mei yu fa-tzu”—”It can’t be done.” A few had tried and failed. It was believed impossible. People thought that nobody could enter Red territory and come out alive.
Then, in June, 1936, a close Chinese friend of mine brought me news of an amazing political situation in Northwest China—a situation which was later to culminate in the sensational arrest of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, and to change the current of Chinese history. More important to me then, however, I learned with this news of a possible method of entry to Red territory. It necessitated leaving at once. The opportunity was unique and not to be missed. I decided to take it and attempt to break a news blockade nine years old.
It is true there were risks involved, though the reports later published of my death—”killed by bandits”—were exaggerated. But against a torrent of horror stories about Red atrocities that had for many years filled the subsidized vernacular and foreign press of China, I had little to cheer me on my way. Nothing, in truth, but a letter of introduction to Mao Tse-tung, chairman of the Soviet Government.1 All I had to do was to find him. Through what adventures? I did not know. But thousands of lives had been sacrificed in these years of Kuomintang-Communist warfare. Could one foreign neck be better hazarded than in an effort to discover why? I found myself somewhat attached to the neck in question, but I concluded that the price was not too high to pay.
In this melodramatic mood I set out.