Oriental charm in Red Star Over China

By LI YUELI and HE ZHUOLUN / 07-15-2020 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)
Edgar Snow in a Communist base in Northern Shaanxi in 1936 Photo XINHUA
In July 1936, after a number of mishaps, the American journalist Edgar Snow (1905–1972) finally arrived at northern Shaanxi Province. During his stay in Bao’an Town, he made careful observations, interviewed Red Army leaders including Mao Zedong and Zhu De, and wrote a book titled Red Star Over China. This book was first published in Britain before being translated into Chinese, Xixing Manji (Random Notes on a Journey to the West), and published in Shanghai. Before long it became a great success and exerted a wide influence upon the world. In the paper “Edgar Snow and the Image of China in the West,” the author Li Yang, a professor from Peking University, notes that Red Star Over China lays the groundwork for China’s modern narrative; it provides a new global perspective for the Chinese to understand their relationship with the world. Others have said that this book has helped the Chinese understand themselves. Indeed, Edgar Snow was a highly professional journalist. He travelled enormous distances and spared no pains to get to the truth. He tried his best to see the East impartially and without bias, which made Red Star Over China a book that swept the world. However, sometimes readers still can feel the cultural influence of the West from Snow, even though he deliberately avoided the usual stereotypes of the East and tried to give an objective account of what he saw. Therefore, Red Star Over China can be regarded as a typical cross-cultural work. 
Although Red Star Over China is comprised of news reports and non-fiction writings, the author’s personal understanding can be easily traced between the lines. A deeper look into the description of the landscapes in this book can help readers notice these subtleties. Before setting out, Snow depicted Beijing in June: “It was early June and Peking wore the green lace of spring, its thousands of willows and imperial cypresses making the Forbidden City a place of wonder and enchantment.” During his journey, impressed by the variety of queer, embattled hills of the Loess Plateau (a highland area in north-central China), Snow wrote, “Fantastic, incredible, and sometimes frightening shapes, a world configurated by a mad god—and sometimes a world also of strange surrealist beauty.” When sleeping in a “dark, evil-smelling” room in a village meeting house at night, Snow “petitioned for the use of two dismantled doors” and made his bed in the open. “It was a gorgeous night, with a clear sky spangled with northern stars, and the waters in a little fall below me murmured of peace and tranquility.” A journalist’s rigors, objectiveness and a traveler’s poetic romance alternate over each other within this book. 
Snow had been dreaming Mark Twain style dreams since his childhood. Like Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, he wanted adventure. Since early high school, he made long journeys with his friends. Before he came to Shanghai in 1927, China was only one stop in Snow’s plan. His trip, however, was not of the kind we usually have today. The orientalist enthusiasm in the West of the 20th century drove him to the East. In a letter that his parents would not receive until he pulled out of port, Snow explained his decision. “I have been somewhat depressed by the monotony of existenceand the thought that I labored … the consistent drabness of the days through which I have been wearily dragging myself, aggravated my nerves and put me to dreaming of fabled, far-off places. Names of cities kept insisting themselves upon my consciousness and intruding upon my efforts at concentrated thought. ‘Calcutta!’ and then ‘Palestine!’ ‘Shanghai!’ said the small voice” (see Edgar Snow: A Biography). 
What Snow felt epitomized the spiritual crisis facing the 20th-century West—the emptiness and depression of living like “a cog in a gargantuan machine.” during the age of monopoly capitalism and rapid industrialization. Therefore, the “fabled, far-off places” became a dreamland. When Snow went to northern Shaanxi Province, orientalism gained in popularity again in the West. Various factors, such as a longing to escape from the mechanized world and the spiritual wounds of the First World War, had driven a large number of Westerners to the East, who in turn recorded all their impressions of the exotic charms they encountered as well as the squalor that they saw. 
This observation sheds light on the author’s relationship to the East in the depictions of scenery in Red Star Over China. Although Snow aimed at exploring the social systems and daily lives in the Shaanxi-Gansu-Ningxia Border Region (this region, together with Yan’an, was the foothold of the CPC Central Committee and the Red Army after the Long March), he also gave a vivid account of the wild nature he experienced during his trip. When he passed the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, he noticed that “once a herd of wild gazelles came near us, sniffed the air, and then swooped off with incredible speed and grace around a protecting mountainside.” When he reached the southern frontier, he saw “two tigers streaking across a clearing in a valley drenched with the purple-gold of autumn.” Such powerful natural wildness was rare and precious for a man accustomed to the stereotypical style of living in the mechanized world. 
Snow also compared the Red Army’s march to “a prep school on a holiday excursion.” “From the youth of the warriors, and the bursts of song that rang down the long line …” “Many of the soldiers carried their pets along with them. Several had little monkeys on leashes of string; one had a slate-colored pet pigeon perched on his shoulder; some had little white mice; and some had rabbits. Was this an army?” The depiction of the soldiers and their pets gives the march a homely and humorous character, revealing Snow’s wonderful imagination and ability to commune with nature. Although the “young China” was not as decorous, mysterious and melancholy as the “old China,” it still had an idyllic air. 
More importantly, even though Snow clearly admired and empathized with a “young, Red China,” readers can still sense certain stereotypes about the East from his book. For example, his praise for the opera of the Red Theater was based on his dislike of the traditional Chinese opera—“[Red Theatre opera] had the advantage of being emancipated from cymbal-crashing and falsetto singing, and of dealing with living material rather than with meaningless historical intrigues that are the concern of the decadent Chinese opera.” He also wrote “the putrid hypocrisy of Confucian maxims” and “the priestcraft of the Chinese classics” in Red Star Over China. The imagination of the oriental Utopia and the bias against the East were inextricably interwoven here. 
When Snow began to write Red Star Over China, he had been travelling in China for 8 years. The novelty wore off when the anti- fascist war was coming. This may be the reason why his affection for the East is so deeply hidden behind the objective, serious tone of Red Star Over China, and readers seldom notice it. However, we have to be aware that his affection for the East has played a part in making his journalistic project what has been called the “scoop of the century.” The reason why Red Star Over China touched so many people is partly because of Snow’s affection for this oriental country, together with his romantic, adventurous nature, blending into the depictions of the wartime stronghold of the CPC. 
Li Yueli is the vice president of the School of Chinese Language and Literature at Shaanxi Normal University. He Zhuolun is from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences at Shaanxi Normal University. 
​edited by REN GUANHONG
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