Helen Snow: A life dedicated to China

Before 1949, the world’s only knowledge about the ‘Red Political Power’ in China came from the book Red Star Over China (红星照耀中国). Although the writer of the book is Edgar Snow, the one who finally made it to Yan’an (延安), the base of Communist Party and Red Army is however his wife—Helen Snow.

Helen was a renowned poet, writer, journalist and social activist. In 1907, she was born to a wealthy family from Utah, the United States.

In 1931, the then-23-year-old young girl came to China from Seattle, and worked as a secretary in the US Consulate in Shanghai. During the period, she met and fell in love with Edgar Snow, and they got married the second year.

Firstly arriving China, she was impressed by the gap between the rich foreigners and poor Chinese.

“I would wander about and be shocked—Oh, I live like a queen here in Shanghai,” she later recalled. Helen lived in a nice hotel and waited upon by servants, waitresses and coolie while receiving massage services every day. In Shanghai, the then-called oriental Paris (东方巴黎), all westerners were enjoying their lives.

An old photo of Shanghai, then called by westerners as Oriental Paris. Photo: image.baidu.com

In the spring of 1933, Edgar was employed by the Yenching University(燕京大学 - now Peking University) and so Mr. and Mrs. Snow moved to Beijing, during which period, they actively supported and covered the anti-Japanese movements and helped activists to escape from persecution.

In 1936, Edgar visited the Shannxi Red Army base and back in Beijing, Helen helped her husband deal with a huge amount of manuscripts and image materials for publishing his masterpiece Red Star over China (红星照耀中国).

In April 1937, Helen took huge risks to visit Yan’an, the base of Red Army and interviewed over 30 leading figures of the Chinese Communist Party, including Mao Zedong and Zhu De in Yan’an. “Things about the Red Army (红军) are not known by most westerners. It’s a mystery that must be solved,” Helen Snow wrote in her memoire. Her bravery also complemented materials for the famous book by her husband—Red Star over China.

“She wasn’t naturally a courageous person, but she was driven from within to find the truth, to get the information,” Helen Snow’s nephew later recalled.

Based on the dangerous trip, Helen wrote Inside Red China and Red Dust: Autobiographies of Chinese Communists, and according to herself, the trip to China and Yan’an affected her whole life.

In November 1937, she arrived in Shanghai and, together with a group of activists, initiated the then influential American Industries Cooperative Commission to support China’s war against Japanese occupation. And she also wrote a book of profound influence about the enterprise which was titled China Builds for Democracy; a Story of Cooperative Industry.

Then, Japanese army began to invade China and occupied Shanghai. From the balcony of the apartment Helen lived, she got to see what happened. “I wonder how could I squander so many prime years indulging in creature comforts, I should have known what a pathetic life people are leading,” she later wrote in memoirs. 

Japanese armies occupied Shanghai in 1937. Photo: images.baidu.com

The couple's marriage was strained and the Japanese occupation of much of China made life difficult. Helen returned to the States in 1940.

The couple formally divorced in 1949. She spent the rest of her life in Connecticut, developing an interest in family genealogy, drafting a novel, and writing short pieces on her experiences in China. She published her autobiography in 1984.

Since the divorce, Helen remained single and kept the last name-Snow till the end of her life. In 1972, American president Nixon came to China and opened the door for Sino-US exchanges, which facilitated Helen’s two visits to China respectively in 1973 and 1978 for shooting pictures and interviewing people, like any common journalist would do. And back home, she successively published Back to China and The Hometown of Mao Zedong.

Edgar and Helen were partners in both life and career. Edgar once wrote in his autobiography, “She is an extraordinary woman, with innovation and high spirits--a loyal associate, my life partner and critic.”

When Edgar was teaching in the Yenching University, Helen was also taking selective classes in the university. The famous Chinese writer Bing Xin (冰心) was their neighbors. According to Bing, the two Snows were a perfect match. “The success of Edgar also belonged to Helen. The truth is they could not be alienated from each other.”

Helen wished to become a writer since she was a young girl, and her marriage with Edgar finally led her onto the road of journalistic writing. In fact, Nym Wales, the penname of Helen, was given by her husband. On the other hand, the marriage also changed the life of Edgar.

He once told Helen, “If it was not for you, I would leave China in 1932…You made me reborn in China and filled my heart with hopes.”

For Edgar’s masterpiece Red Star over China, Helen supported her husband emotionally, and took up all the family chores. Except for helping deal with the materials and photographs, the two also discussed the main frame of the book, especially the part related to Mao Zedong biography.

Although the two Snows failed to continue their marriage till the end, the 10 years they shared together no wonder were the most glorious years of their careers.

When the two parted, they still held deep affections for China. In one of her poems, Helen wrote, “I hope my tomb would face the oriental where the sun would rise.” As for Edgar, a part of his bone ash was buried in the Yenching University as he had wished. “I love China. I hope one part of me could remain there just like when I was alive.”

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