Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Conversation with Edgar Snow

The 14th Biennial Edgar Snow Symposium took place in Kansas City on Monday through Wednesday of this week. Snow is the author of one of the best-selling and most influential English language books ever written about China - Red Star Over China - published in 1937. The Kansas City connection is that Snow was born and raised in KC at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Several events related to Snow's life went on early this week. I was only able to go to one of them. Last night, I saw "Meet the Past: Edgar Snow" at Kansas City's downtown public library.

I liked the premise of this performance a lot. You had a Kansas City intellectual, Crosby Kemper III, interviewing a local actor, Bob Brand, playing Edgar Snow on stage in front of about one hundred people (the dialog was taped and will be on Kansas City's public television and online at some point in the future). Both men immersed themselves into their roles. I can't imagine how much time and energy went into making this free hour-and-a-half performance what it was.

The interview began with Snow talking about his early life in Kansas City - growing up the son of a printer in a Catholic family, attending Westport High School, and going west to work on farms near Topeka, Kansas to earn money during the summers. Snow also described his road trip with friends to California in 1922, an event he said got him into traveling.

Snow then talked about attending the University of Missouri, Columbia's masters in journalism program. Mizzou takes pride in being the best journalism school in the country. Snow talked about how the "Missouri Mafia" - a group of influential journalists - was in full force when he arrived in China in the 1930s and that his Mizzou guanxi opened up countless opportunities for him.

He described taking the train from Beijing to Xi'an and then heading into northern Shaanxi Province to find the mythical communist stronghold (some people, apparently, didn't even believe the place existed). This was probably my favorite part of the conversation last night. It is also probably my favorite aspect of Edgar Snow's life. I appreciate the story of a KC boy going to Xi'an and Shaanxi Province for the adventure of a lifetime (even if his story and mine are completely different in just about every way imaginable).

A beautiful description of Bao'an, the lush, low-lying valley where the communists had settled, was painted. Snow recounted meeting Mao and the subtle details of the man that would fifteen years later become the leader of China. He also talked about the general sense of camaraderie and excitement that one felt being at the camp.

The discussion then moved to the writing and publishing of the Red Star Over China and the decade or so that followed, which was largely spent outside of China.

Towards the end of the interview, Kemper asked Snow about his visit to China in 1960. On this visit, China was in the middle of the most horrific famine in the history of the world - the Great Leap Forward. Snow, amazingly, did not witness any effects of the tragedy on his visit. He famously wrote in his book, The Other Side of the River: Red China Today:
Throughout 1959-62 many Western press editorials and headlines referred to "mass starvation" in China and continued to cite no supporting facts. As far as I know, no report by any non-communist visitor to China provided an authenticated instance of starvation during this period.

I assert that I saw no starving people in China, nothing that looked like old-time famine (and only one beggar, among flood refugees in Shenyang) and that the best Western intelligence on China was well aware of this. Isolated instances of starvation due to neglect or failure of the rationing system were possible. Considerable malnutrition undoubtedly existed. Mass starvation? No.
Kemper asked Snow to explain himself - "How did you not see this famine that historians estimate killed 35 million people?" The actor playing Snow did a wonderful job here. One could see the pain, embarrassment, and anguish on his face. He couldn't come up with a good explanation. He knew that this mistake was one of the defining moments of his career and that history had punished him for it. After stammering a bit, Snow conceded that he'd been betrayed.

I was really glad to see this darker aspect of Snow's legacy addressed. I honestly wasn't sure it would be at an event commemorating his life. In recent months, I've written about my problems with Edgar Snow. It's hard to refute that Snow was an enabler to Mao and the terror he brought upon the Chinese people. Snow's glowing reports from China during a time of unimaginable horror legitimized the awful things that that were going on there.

I'm proud that one of the most important China writers ever is from my hometown in the middle of America. But I also acknowledge the serious problems surrounding Edgar Snow.

I often see Snow mocked today by western writers and China hands. I can completely understand why this happens. It's fair that history judges him harshly. At the same time, I don't see Edgar Snow and his work in 100% black-and-white terms. He made grave mistakes during his career and got way too close with people he shouldn't have. The world's understanding of Mao and China in the middle of the twentieth century is certainly richer thanks to his work, though. Maybe I'm being too sympathetic, but I see Snow as a complex figure.

After the conversation finished and a few people from the audience asked questions, Qian, a couple friends of ours, and I went to the back of the library where there was a photo exhibition on the Chinese Cultural Revolution - Red-Color News Soldier: The Photographs of Li Zhensheng - on display. Here is a write-up from the website about the collection:

The Red-Color News Soldier exhibit is among the first visual records of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, which spanned from 1966-76.

Almost no visual documentation of the era exists—and almost all that does is biased—due to the Chinese government’s control of the media, arts, and cultural institutions.

Li Zhensheng, a party-approved photographer for The Heilongjiang Daily, was granted unusual access to capture events during the Revolution and managed to hide and preserve over 20,000 stills for more than four decades. Those stills became the basis for a book, Red-Color News Soldier by Zhensheng and Robert Y. Pledge, as well as the accompanying exhibit.
These photos alone would've been worth a trip downtown to the library. They were haunting.

Between this Edgar Snow discussion, this cultural revolution photo exhibit, and the Gao Brothers' exhibit I wrote about the other day, Kansas City is a treasure trove of China-related events and information right now. I hope similar China-related events continue to occur in KC and that I can participate in them.


Anonymous said...

Geesh, can you just imagine the experience, as a foreign devil, of taking a train from Beijing to Xian in the 30's. Mindblowing.

Richard said...

You should get the book Red-Color News Soldier; it's superb.

Richard said...

Oh, and absolutely wonderful post. Thank you.

Mark said...

@Hopfrog - I know. It must've been unreal. Bubonic plague was rife in Shaanxi Province at the time. Hard to imagine.

@Richard - I'll definitely look into getting that book. The exhibit was incredible.

Also, thanks for the kind words on your blog. Really appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

Snow saw things we'll never see again, didn't he? As far as not seeing the great starvation, remember Owen Lattimore and the Siberian labor camps.
I worked in China twelve years, and your blog is one I can read with comfort, without arguing aloud with the computer screen.