Edgar Snow

Overall Rating: 1.8
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Author: Edgar Snow
Title: Red Star Over China
Time: 1936
Destination: China
Length: several months
Type: report

Double tragedy

The story: In 1936, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has just finished its Long March into northern China. Amidst increasing Japanese aggression, the Chinese civil war keeps dragging on, and the blockade policy of the Nationalist government doesn’t permit foreign journalists to go get the Communist side of the story.

Good thing our guy ES has been in China for several years after washing up on its banks during what was supposed to be a journey around the world. He took up work as a journalist, so in 1936 he decides to seek out the CCP base in Northern Shaanxi and tell the world about the real Communists of China. He gets there, talks to the complete leadership, visits the Red Army, interviews peasants, returns to Beijing and writes a book about it all.

a bunch of cool guys out on an adventure

I was expecting this book to be somewhat boring, but ES’s writing is pretty good, and a big part of it actually reads like an adventure novel. ES doesn’t just deliver facts or plain interviews, instead he generously seasons everything with story elements – how he gets around, what he eats, where he sleeps, etc.

The Communist leaders he talks to are fun to read about as well. ES depicts them as a bunch of cool guys who are totally relaxed, totally likable and totally selfless. This goes especially for Mao Zedong, who seems to be hovering over everything like a sort of demigod, and who generally knows everything about everything.

You can’t really help rooting for him and his Communist buddies.

Edgar Snow assisting the propaganda victory?

Apart from the book being an easy read, ES’s stories from the Communist stronghold of pre-1949 are still valuable today. They are interesting for anyone who wants to know more about contemporary China or about the history of Socialism in general. But they seem even more interesting for a totally different reason, and that reason lies entirely the phenomenon of propaganda.

When ES retells the stories of the “sensational” feats made by the Communists during the Long March, many of which are just too awesome to be true, he seems to be all too willing to accept everything the leadership tells him.

At one point, when he wonders about the vanguards of the Long March, he puts it all into these revealing words:

“Were they human beings or madmen or gods?”


Uh… WTF?

Now don’t get me wrong; the Long March has long been recognized as a substantial achievement of the CCP, and the sacrifices made by the people who were involved are not to be belittled. But today, with many of the Communist “founding myths” partly or totally debunked by historians (and arguably by the CCP itself), ES’s rapport has an eery feel to it. You could even call it creepy.

the optimism of the doomed

This feeling gets worse as we read on. At one point we realize that not only ES, but also many of the people he interviews are naively believing in what they are doing: their aim is to liberate China from (Japanese) imperialism and from the exploitation by the upper classes. They believe that they are fighting the good fight.

What they don’t realize is that they are actually playing their part in assisting a sociopath [a Chinese friend asked me to correct this] psychopath (Mao Zedong) and his enabler (Zhou Enlai) to take the country to the brink of destruction – and kill many of them in the process.

It is a double tragedy: China and parts of the CCP do not know it yet, but they will both suffer immensely at the hands of Mao later on. And even our guy ES helps weave a propaganda web that will eventually propel Mao to a position where he can’t be stopped anymore.

When I read ES’s happy interviews with people like Peng Dehuai or Xu Haidong (both of whom would be persecuted to their deaths by Mao several decades later), I couldn’t help but feel sad.

I was sad for the people that suffered with them, sad for their lofty ideals and sad for China.

I’ll give this book a 7/10, because of the quality of ES’s writing and because of its historical importance.


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