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At the table with Chairman Mao — the story behind the controversial Cedar City-born journalist who witnessed a revolution

Helen Foster Snow, whose papers are in BYU’s archives, was an unlikely voice during a turbulent time in world history, and her stories shaped America’s understanding of the people they believed were the enemy

SHARE At the table with Chairman Mao — the story behind the controversial Cedar City-born journalist who witnessed a revolution
This photo of Helen Foster Snow was taken in 1941 after her return from China to the U.S.

This photo of Helen Foster Snow was taken in 1941 after her return from China to the U.S.

Sheril Bischoff

In 1931, Helen Foster Snow — a 23-year-old college dropout from Cedar City, Utah — set sail for China in hopes of becoming a writer. This act alone required a level of courage most do not have, but her life and career as a renowned correspondent were a long series of courageous acts.

Often writing under the alias of “Nym Wales” she built a legacy of activism and fearless journalism reporting from China throughout the 1930s, even sitting down with the founder of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong.

When she returned to China more than four decades after she left, her impact on the country surprised even her.

“I was received like a Second Coming,” she wrote in her 1984 memoir, “My China Years.” In a remote region of the land where only a handful of foreigners had ever been, Snow was lauded with praise and gratitude despite the tense relationships between her native and adopted nation. Someone stopped her and said, “The widow of a Red Army veteran has asked if she can take your hand.” Others sprang forward, wanting to touch her, and inviting her into their homes. 

Admiration for her writing extended far beyond the Far East, however. As a celebrated journalist in America, Snow was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize (“Not for any particular achievement, but for the potential that my ideas and world view hold for peace and progress in the world,” she later wrote), and her contributions have been examined over time by historians and academics. 

Her writings were read and praised by world leaders such as India prime ministers Indira Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, Mao and U.S. President and first lady Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1997, The New York Times heralded her as a person “who helped bring social change to China in the 1930s, witnessed revolution and war and throughout wrote to promote American-Chinese understanding.” 

For Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, Snow’s life was “a reminder that what lies behind the very different political systems of the world are real people whose hearts and minds are not so far apart.”

She gained this larger-than-life reputation by being an unlikely voice during a turbulent time in history — adding nuance and humanity. Snow pursued the stories few did, often risking her life to offer the world the truth as she saw it.

Snow was a descendant of Latter-day Saint pioneers, born in Cedar City on Sept. 21, 1907. Her mother was a devout member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and taught Helen and her three younger siblings a mixed brand of traditionalism and activism. She often spoke of their pioneer ancestors immigrating from England and encouraged her children to remember that the world was much bigger than their small town. Her mother instilled “great confidence” in her, Snow later wrote. Her father was pragmatic and instilled a sense of duty and a love of education in all his children.

Helen Foster Snow, of Cedar City, Utah, a pioneer in reporting and documenting over 40 years of history in China.

Helen Foster Snow, of Cedar City, Utah, a pioneer in reporting and documenting over 40 years of history in China.

L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Brigham Young University

At age 14, Snow moved to Salt Lake City where she pursued academics and student leadership and then studied at the University of Utah before dropping out to gain a “real world” education. Ever since reading “The Wizard of Oz” as an 8-year-old girl, she had dreamed of becoming the next great American novelist. She felt she needed to live outside of the United States and gain life experience like many other American writers she admired.

In “Helen Foster Snow: Witness to Revolution,” a Brigham Young University-produced documentary about her life, her niece, Sheril Bischoff, explains that Snow was very traditional in wanting to become a wife and mother, but “at the same time, there was a paradox in there in that she was driven ... to find out about the world.”

That inner drive took her to Shanghai in the summer of 1931 — she turned 24 on the boat ride over. Snow later estimated that she was one of only 7,000 Americans living across all of China at the time. Her first order of business once arriving was to arrange a meeting with an American journalist named Edgar Snow who had been reporting from within the country since 1928. 

They met in the only place in the city where one could get ice cream, a local hot spot called the Chocolate Shop. Helen was initially “disappointed” by the man in front of her. Edgar was too skinny and was “so pale that his freckles showed through,” Helen wrote in her memoir. “I was not used to sick-looking people but to athletic types.” And as a fashionista, she especially disliked his loose-fitting suit. “How can I get him out of that shapeless suit and into Harris tweeds with padded shoulders?” she wondered to herself.

Upon speaking with him, however, she decided that he was “handsome and attractive” enough and his personality soon won her over. For his part, Helen wrote that Edgar appeared “captivated at first glance,” and was “stumbling over chair legs, looking steadily at my face as he walked towards me.” 

Edgar had been planning on returning to the states before meeting Helen, but delayed his return as his love and admiration for her grew. The couple was married on Christmas Day in 1932 and they lived together in China for a decade. 

While in China, the Snows witnessed a people struggling to adhere to strict, ancient Chinese laws and customs; the revolutionary beginning of a civil war within China. They also witnessed firsthand Japan seeking to subjugate the Chinese.

“The rest of the world had minimal exposure to these critical events going on in China and relied heavily on American journalists living in Asia to get the word out.”

According to Adam Foster, Helen Snow’s grandnephew and chairman of the Helen Foster Snow Foundation, the 1930s were “a turbulent time for China.” After the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911, the Nationalist Party of China assumed control and then the Communist Party quickly gained traction with the peasant population and a civil war ensued. “At the same time,” he said, “Japan invaded China and began taking over large cities, forcing thousands of families and refugees to flee into the surrounding areas.”

Helen Snow aided many such refugees herself and was in Shanghai when the Yangtze River flooded over, killing some 600,000 people and displacing 100,000 more that sought refuge there. Eric Hyer, a political scientist and expert on Chinese foreign policy at Brigham Young University, explained that after the Snows moved to Beijing in 1933, Helen had “an inside track to report on key events” such as a 1936 coup by Chinese military officers against the Nationalist leader of the country that forced him to work with Chinese Communists in resisting Japan’s invasion. 

While attending university in Beijing, Helen Snow began to witness and understand the rise of Communism and the beginnings of a revolution from within China through the eyes of student activists. “The rest of the world had minimal exposure to these critical events going on in China and relied heavily on American journalists living in Asia to get the word out,” Foster explained. 

Both Helen and Edgar were such journalists, but they also controversially blurred the lines between being reporters and activist. Helen Snow was unique in how she reported to Americans back home all that she witnessed. Her reporting was often objective, but sometimes her activism showed itself in her writing. In “Witness to Revolution,” Helen Snow’s biographer, Kelly Ann Long, said Helen felt so strongly about some of the issues she reported on, that she “didn’t try to fit that standard objective” many reporters adhere to, and instead “used colorful language that clearly indicated her predilection(s).”

While in China, Helen Snow wrote for many of the most prominent U.S. publications of the day, including Reader’s Digest, Time magazine, The Seattle Star, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Saturday Evening Post, Boston Herald, the New York Herald Tribune, and the Washington Daily News. 

Much of what Helen Snow witnessed caused her to sympathize with the Communist cause and she often supported their efforts and even put herself in harm’s way to interview Communist leaders and witness the movement firsthand. 

She used her words and her mother’s Kodak camera to capture the movement along with the plight of refugees, the aftermath of Japanese attacks and student uprisings. “Helen’s reporting was instrumental in communicating the real, on-the-ground story of China to the rest of the world,” Foster said. “She was an eyewitness to the events which shaped the future of modern China, including the December 9th Movement, the events leading up to the Xi’an Incident, the aftermath of the Long March, and the formation of the 8th Route Army — where Communists and Nationalists joined forces to fight against Japanese invaders.”

Eventually, many such accounts were published in her book, “Inside Red China,” which she’d written under a pseudonym. The work became seen by historians as one of the most meticulous and important eyewitness narratives to capture the political climate and unrest of China in the 1930s, even when her positive views on Communism eventually soured in the public’s eye. “She painted an image of the China she saw. It was a different China than came later, but it’s a China that should be remembered and put in context,” American political scientist Robert Scalapino said in “Witness to Revolution.” 

“Helen’s reporting was instrumental in communicating the real, on-the-ground story of China to the rest of the world.”

One of Helen Snow’s greatest contributions came when she co-founded the Chinese Industrial Cooperative Association (INDUSCO), which came to be known as the Gung Ho Movement. Gung Ho means “cooperation and hard work.” Wen Ouyang, executive director of the Helen Foster Snow Cultural Center at Southern Utah University said the organization “helped produce supplies of crucial materials for the war effort as well as develop the Chinese economy in the interior of the country away from Japanese-occupied coastal areas.” 

The co-ops eventually employed some 300,000 peoples across China and even India. One “surprising result of the Gung Ho Movement,” Foster said, “was that it received support from both sides of the Chinese political spectrum” at a time when both the Nationalist and Communist parties in the country had united on very little. “Both parties concluded that industrial cooperatives were vital to the success of winning the war with Japan and provided their support,” he explained.

Though initially proud of one another’s accomplishments and great supporters of each other, Helen and Edgar developed resentment and competition against each other over the course of their time together in China. “Their marriage was always fraught,” Hyer said. “They were both extremely ambitious, and Helen was a very driven person and knew she was working in a ‘man’s world.’” What’s more, because of his arrival to the East predating Helen’s, and his seminal work “Red Star Over China” receiving more acclaim than any book she ever wrote, Edgar Snow “was much more famous” as an American wartime journalist than Helen was, Hyer explained. 

Edgar Snow also often failed to give his wife the credit she was due. “(Helen) edited Mr. Snow’s manuscript for ‘Red Star Over China’ and wrote part of it. A lot of the photos were taken by her, she risked her life to get them out of Xi’an. But she was not credited with any of that,” an actress who portrayed Helen Snow in a Chinese television series told Beijing Review. In his correspondence with dignitaries, Edgar Snow had also failed to give his wife credit for her founding of the Gung Ho co-ops, something that caused Helen Snow’s views of her husband to sour further.

When Edgar returned to America at the beginning of the 1940s, Helen told him he had ruined her life. 

The couple eventually reconciled when Helen returned to America and they settled in a 1792 farmhouse in Madison, Connecticut. Martial problems persisted, though, and they eventually divorced in 1949. Though Edgar Snow remarried, Helen Snow never did.

Near the end of their marriage, McCarthyism had gained steam in America and many publishers stopped working with any journalists who were seen as Communist sympathizers. Helen Snow was among this group, and for a time, was ostracized. She struggled to get any of her work published in the United States. 

“I am for the Human Achievement, for space exploration, invention, and originality. I am for pushing back the frontiers of knowledge ever so little and have tried to do so myself.”

Though she had sympathized with the early Communist movement, “Helen was never a Communist, in fact, she considered herself nonpolitical,” Foster said. “Having three brothers who fought in World War II, she was raised in a very patriotic home, which made her a strong advocate for American values.”

Throughout much of the time Helen and Edgar Snow were together, his work overshadowed hers. The one upside to that is that she was shunned less than he was throughout the 1950s. “I think it drove her crazy that she was overshadowed by Edgar’s China experience even though his experience was her experience and vice versa,” explained Dodge Billingsley, director of the “Witness to Revolution” documentary. “Due to the lack of credit she was given for introducing the world to the leadership of the new communist China, however, Helen seemed to be spared much of the worst of McCarthyism. In a weird way, it was the lone benefit of being the footnote to her husband Edgar.”

U.S. and Chinese relations improved in the 1970s and Helen Snow was finally able to revisit the country she loved — where she was welcomed as a friend. Even still, she lived out the rest of her days “as a relative recluse, working as a genealogist from her home in Connecticut,” Foster said. 

In her lifetime, Helen Snow worked for the Utah chapter of the American Silver Mining Commission before her voyage to China, and after for the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai. A polyglot, she dedicated herself to learning Spanish, French, Italian and Chinese.

She was an outspoken women’s rights activist, published multiple books and became a freelance war correspondent for national news publications. When she died in Connecticut in 1997, her death was mourned both in the West and the East. A memorial was held in China’s Great Hall of the People — an honor rarely bestowed upon foreigners. 

The year before, she had been the first American ever to be honored by the Chinese government as its Friendship Ambassador, the highest honor the country offers foreign citizens. Today, there are hospitals, schools and a section of a Chinese army museum that bear her name. Many of her papers and photographs are preserved today by the Hoover Institution Library and Archive and by the Brigham Young University Library.

In her 1984 memoir and just over a decade before her death, Helen Snow detailed what this return visit to China meant to her and chose to highlight her similarities with her Chinese brothers and sisters over their differences: “I am for the Human Achievement, for space exploration, invention, and originality. I am for pushing back the frontiers of knowledge ever so little and have tried to do so myself,” she wrote. “Like the old Chinese, I worship my ancestors, wear baggy pants and drink tea.” 

Foster said such characterizations represent how well his great-aunt built bridges between peoples and cultures. “The most remarkable thing that Helen did, in my estimation, was to humanize the people of China,” he said. “When we focus on our shared humanity, we see others in a new light. We are better able to create rational dialogue and practical solutions to the world’s problems.”