Thursday, January 18, 2007

Red Star Over China by Edgar Snow

Red Star Over China by Edgar Snow

Review by Mike Levy - PC11

In 1935, Mao Zedong was a mythical figure in the west. No Americans
had ever seen him; western knowledge of the CPC was second-hand at
best, and more often third- or forth-hand; few foreigners had visited
China, and fewer still had been to China's interior country-side where
the CPC lay hidden from Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT.

Enter Edgar Snow. In 1936, at the tender age of thirty, Snow became
an embedded journalist with the Red Army. He was the first westerner
to see the inner-workings of China's young Communist movement. He was
also the first westerner to meet Chairman Mao. Over the course of a
year, he interviewed all of the luminaries of the CPC, from Mao to
Chou Enlai, and everyone in-between. The result was Red Star Over
China, a remarkable narrative account of his experience with the Red

Snow begins his account by telling us that "there [is] perhaps no
greater mystery among nations, no more confused an epic, than the
story of Red China." China was so unknown to the west at that time
that there were some who even disputed the existence of a Red Army.
Others believed the Communists were an army of bandits masquerading as
Marxists to gain international support. Many in the U.S. worried that
the Chinese Communists were "mere tools of Moscow." Snow wanted to
learn more, and his insights form the only primary source material
written by western hand regarding the earliest days of the CPC.

The writing is brisk, though verbose. Snow takes us along on his
journey from Beijing, through KMT blockades, and eventually into
Chairman Mao's tent. Snow is clearly impressed by the Chairman, and
offers a somewhat fawning account. Despite his lack of objectivity
(perhaps never possible for an embedded journalist), Red Star is a
great way to get a look at Mao and his Party. Snow tells of Mao's
rise in the Party, the Long March, and the fight against the KMT. He
presents Mao as a thoughtful, playful, and mesmerizing ideologue. Mao
shows a deeply religious commitment to Communism.

We also learn some intriguing details from the CPC's early days. We
learn, for example, that part of their insurgency campaign was based
on respecting the local farmers. The Red Army occupied many peasant
homes during their battles with the KMT, but they had a series of
rules in regard to their treatment of the local population. The
eighth rule, for example, tells Red Army soldiers to "be sanitary,
and, especially, establish latrines at a safe distance from the
people's houses." The CPC has, it seems, always been sensitive about
the state of China's WCs.

The copy of Red Star in the IRC is an especially useful one. It
contains both English and Chinese, and includes some of Snow's
incredible photographs, including the most famous picture of a young
Chairman Mao (little known fact: Mao is wearing Snow's hat in the

This is a readable, thought-provoking book for those interested in
learning more about the early days of the CPC. And that's one to grow


Tom said...

It is an interesting account, especially since it was written before the outcome of the civil war was known.

Snow is a big, big fan of the CCP and is shows in his glowing accounts of events.

Linda said...

I am reading The Soong Dynasty by Sterling Seagrave. The most famous Soong to the West was Madame Chiang Kai-shek, but they were all powerful during the time Edgar Snow was in China and before and after. Reading this book, I can understand why Snow was "a big, big fan of the CCP" and so would you!

Erma said...

Well said.