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     Helen Snow, Not a Writer Only--By An-Wei
Add Time :2011-10-24      Hits:5978



Helen Snow, Not a Writer Only

By An-Wei


I made a statement at the international symposium on Edgar Snow in Beijing, 1988 that “with the time moving on, Helen Snow’s importance and the value of her ideas will be realized by more and more people.” In the past two decades or more, studies on Helen Snow at home and abroad have been emerging. In the wake of the Helen Snow symposium and the unveiling of her statue in Cedar City in 2009, the creation and performance of the dance drama, The Dream of Helen, has brought studies of Helen’s life and work to a new phase in the carrying forward of her legacy. This dance drama is another historical witness to the Special Friendship between the Chinese and American people.

Since China’s reform and opening-up, this great woman, whose contributions in China had been left unsung for a number of years, has finally come back among the Chinese and American people. As everybody knows, Helen Foster Snow was a great writer, journalist, poet and social activist. Hers was a life of a dedicated quest for truth, goodness and beauty, a life given to promoting human progress and world peace.  Her life experience was closely connected with the just and arduous struggle of the Chinese people and her 10-year stay in China was part of our revolutionary history. With the growing interest in Helen Snow studies, it is not difficult to see some extraordinary aspects of Helen, which are relatively unknown to the public.


Not only a journalist, but also a prophet

At the risk of her life, Helen rushed to the battlefield to report the Shanghai war against Japanese aggression in 1932. Again at the risk of being assassinated, Helen covered the 1935 student movement continuously for six months. As one of the two active journalists in Asia, Helen reported truthfully to the world not only what had happened, but also what would happen in the near future.

Helen had a unique opportunity to interview the Young Marshall in Xi’an on October 3, 1936.  The next morning, the Young Marshal and his English secretary carefully checked and authorized the interview, which Helen cabled to the London Daily Herald upon her return to Peking.  They quickly published it on October 8, page 13, under the big headline: Prefers Red Army to Japanese, Chinese General Wants Unity, which conveyed the message of the second cooperation between Guomindang and the Communists, and forecast the Xi’an Incident 70 days in advance.

During World War II, Helen Snow analyzed the developing situation and foresaw the inevitability that Japan might declare war on the United States. As early as in the fall of 1940, Helen advised the American citizens, women and children in particular, to evacuate the East as quick as possible. However few of Americans thought that would be possible. Helen left China for the United States in December 1940, and 10 months later the Japanese made a surprise attack on the U.S. military base, which lead to the Pacific War.


She documented history, and created it as well

Helen Foster Snow was a witness to the birth of new China and historian of the modern Chinese revolution. She recorded first hand the history of the Chinese student movement, workers movement, left-wing literary and art movement and the Chinese Communist movement. She served as a source person of modern Chinese history for China scholars in the United States over half a century.

Confronting the Japanese aggression against China in 1935, Helen made a clear-cut statement to public: the Snows are not neutral Helen was drawn into not only reporting on the student movement but aiding it. Helen provided a spark to the movement, offering her home as a meeting place, giving suggestions, using her journalistic connection to publicize the students’ ideas, and even teaching them how to create propaganda for their movement. Helen’s status as a sacrosanct foreigner gave her freedoms, which the students did not have. She was able to report on their activities without repercussions, including articles in the influential China Weekly Review.  The slanted nature of her writing might have destroyed her chances of becoming a famous journalist, but she valued her status as an activist more, and chose to become part of history rather than a passive observer of it

In late 1937, Helen and Edgar returned to Shanghai, which they found still burning from Japan’s bombing on the Chinese section of the city. About 80 percent of Shanghai’s factories and workshops had been destroyed by the Japanese. All the treaty ports were in similar condition or under threat of it. Helen became extremely concerned about how the urban Chinese would survive as they became refugees driven into the rural countryside.

With her ancestor’s pioneer experience in mind, Helen Snow initiated the idea of industrial cooperatives, which would help the displaced workers to join peasant tradesman in small enterprises that they owned and managed themselves. Together with Edgar and Rewi Alley, Helen convinced both the Nationalists and Communists to accept the co-ops for the benefit of all Chinese.

Both Edgar Snow and Rewi Alley described Helen as the first to push the idea of combining wartime work-relief with cooperative organization. Edgar Snow wrote: “Industrial cooperation ­ in hundreds of busy self-supporting workshops throughout China, was… the brain child of Nym Wales… But for her faith and enthusiasm, the movement might never have come into being”.

Following the official inauguration of the Chinese Industrial Cooperative Association in Hankou, 1938, thousands of co-ops were organized throughout the country. All sorts of daily necessities were produced in large quantity by the co-ops, giving necessary support to the army and people in the warfront against Japanese invaders. While the Snows did not personally organize co-ops in the field, as Alley did, they campaigned tirelessly, soliciting support for them in the United States, the Philippines, and elsewhere. This was done in close association with the International Committee of Indusco, whose chairwoman was Madame Sun Yat-sen. Along with Ida Pruitt, Helen helped set up and run the American Committee in Aid of the Chinese Industrial Cooperatives in New York City, becoming its vice-chairperson. Mrs. Anna Roosevelt, the U.S. President’s mother, was honorary head. Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, the President's wife, was a sponsor. The committee collected some $5 million U.S. dollars in wartime relief funds for Indusco.

Using her pen name Nym Wales, Helen Snow wrote much about the industrial cooperatives. Her China Builds for Democracy, (New York, 1940), a unique book about the story of the Chinese industrial cooperatives, was re-published a few years later in India, with a preface by Prime Minister Nehru.  It served as a textbook for the cooperative movement in his country. During her visit to India in 1972, the Indian government gave Helen Snow a VIP reception, and honored her as “Mother of the Co-ops”.

The Indusco system of systematically incubating cooperatives was the first major attempt to foster self-generating economic development among uneducated peasants on a massive scale in the 20th Century. Helen Snow believed that Indusco could serve as a bridge between different political groups and different social systems. It was also a very good way to build up democracy at the grass-roots level in China.


Living in her time, but she was ahead of time

Helen Snow was also a thinker, a thinker living ahead of her time. She did not only see the problems in the development of human history, but also produced wonderful ideas to solve them. Following the Gung Ho industrial cooperatives, her idea about China’s economic mode was the most important one of historical significance. In the 1960’s when people in western countries were arguing if China could possibly degrade herself into capitalism, Helen Snow believed that “capitalism is now and always has been impossible in China”. In the 1980s, with economic reform in full swing in the direction of a free market economy, the cooperatives were revived in China. She wrote in her memoir: “China is still ‘feeling the way’, I was told. It is still experimenting and still in transformation…It could develop into a mixed economy of socialism, but never into the other historical Western system”. Thirteen years later the “mixed economy of ownership” was established in the official document at the 15th National Congress of CPC. And 30 years later China is advancing successfully on her own way of development just as Helen Snow predicted.

    A series of Helen’s ideas, such as bridging different cultures, energism, human ecology, organic life and electric pollution, has been proved correct, and understood and accepted by more and more people.

      Helen always lived a simple and organic life herself, advocating that man and nature got along well with each other. She was the pioneer advocate for low-carbon life.

       All her ideas were based on her meticulous and accurate observations and shaped by her objective and independent analysis. Her lifelong motto was to seek truth from facts and to combine theory with practice.


She was American, but had a heart of China.

In my 19-year friendship with Helen, I saw in her not only a dedicated American friend, but more like an elder in my neighborhood and a devoted China scholar. During my stay in Connecticut in 1985-1986, I was always present whenever any Chinese guests came to visit her. She would always ask the Chinese visitors where they came from. Then she would introduce herself by saying “I am from Haidian, Beijing” in Chinese. She always described Xi’an, Yan’an, Bao’an as ‘Snow Country’ and regarded Shaanxi as her second home.

       Since her return home in 1940 until her death in 1997, Helen never stopped observing, studying and writing about China. She held the long history of the Chinese people in her heart.  She remembered the Chinese suffering from starvation and oppression; the Chinese struggling for freedom and independence; and the Chinese working hard for a better life. Helen was always interested in the improvement made by the Chinese people. In the 1980’s she often wrote me with useful advice. For instance, she suggested that Gung Ho organizations in Qingdao grow seaweed for iodized salt to help those with iodine deficiency in China’s Northwest. She suggested that the old caves be preserved in Yan’an and Bao’an with no changes on the outside surfaces. But that the inside should be as well furnished as good hotel rooms. The cave houses were warm in winter and cool in summer and the tourism industry could be well developed with limited costs in northern Shaanxi. She also suggested that solar energy and wind power be developed in the Northwest, etc.

What impressed me most was her love for China in her last days. One summer day in 1986 Helen showed me her grave lot in North Madison Cemetery. Pointing at the lot she said: “here is my resting place”. “What do you expect me to bring you when I come to visit you here?” I asked her with a smile. Helen replied without any hesitation “I love yellow roses and also good news from China”.

In the summer of 1995 Helen’s health was declining. When I made a special trip to see her, she had a very poor sight and could not see anything clearly. She grasped my hand and began talking to me, asking me more than once if I had my recorder on.  She talked with difficulty for over an hour. She said to me emotionally: “I love China and the Chinese people. I hope China is getting better”.

It was not only in her old age that she carried the plight of the Chinese people in her heart. As soon as she stepped on the soil of China in 1931, Helen had devastating exposure to the famine, desolation and hardship of the Chinese people. She saw with her own eyes a devastating flood on the Yangtze River which killed 600,000 people and sent 120,000 refugees pouring into Shanghai. She ventured inland and witnessed the crushing poverty and disease of Chinese peasants.  A few months later, when the Japanese invaded the Chinese section of Shanghai and with war at her doorstep, Helen’s political and social awareness was awakened.  Her sense of commitment to the Chinese people grew. Her purpose in China was not to write alone, she believed; but also, to act on behalf of a people who had captured her heart. That great man of China, Lu Xun, wrote: “there are two foreign friends who love China more than some of our own compatriots”. The two foreign friends Mr. Lu Xun referred to were Edgar and Helen Foster Snow.   

Wuhan, China, 23 July 2011

Copyright: International Committee for the Promotion of Chinese Industrial Cooperatives
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