Red Star Over China: The Classic Account of the Birth of Chinese Communism – Edgar Snow

snow On October 1, 1949, the People’s Republic of China was officially established as the ruling party in the nation. Mao Zedong (Mao Tse Tung) 1893-1976) assumed the position of Chairman, a title he held until his death in 1976. The Chinese Communist Party continues to rule the country and imposes its will on Hong Kong. Taiwan remains independent but is often the source of friction between Beijing and western powers. The story of the Chinese communists is a highly intricate tale that is often left out of discussions regarding the aftermath of World War II (1939-1945). Edgar Snow (1905-1972) spent twelve years in China and was able to observe the emergence of the Communist Red Army determined to liberate China both from Japanese imperialism and the control of the White Army, led by the Kuomintang Government (KMT) headed by the Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek (1887-1975).  This book is a collection of those memories that take readers back in time to the era when Mao Zedong was beginning to establish himself as a leader and China found itself in the middle of political, economic and social turmoil.

The book was originally published in 1937 but Snow made several revisions.  The Kindle version is the Grove Press Revised edition as of December 1, 2007.  Putting that aside, the crucial text remains and Snow lets us take a look at what he saw and heard as Chinese communism came into existence.  At the beginning of the book, readers will find a good chronology of Chinese history from the mid-1800s onward.  It is not intended to be the final list of dates in China’s history as that is still being written. But it is a good reference source regarding important dates as the world continued to move forward.  It is important to remember that Snow left China in 1936, three years before Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) decided to unleash the German military on Poland and ignite World War II.  The focus here is on the situation within China’s borders as Tokyo set its sights on establishing firm control over the country.  At the same time, the KMT is mounting a resistance but a smaller group of Marxists, called “rebels” by Chiang, want an entirely new course for China, modeled on the Soviet way of life.  As a result, a three-way dance ensues in which all three take shots at each other with the Chinese people serving as collateral damage.

Within the story are numerous figures and keeping track of their names may prove to be quite tedious.  Some may stand out to readers while others will be unfamiliar. Each plays a role in the story at hand but undoubtedly, the stars in China are Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao.  Their influences and prestige cannot be overlooked and Snow provides transcriptions of the numerous discussions that took place with Mao as the Red Army built its base.  Further, Snow found himself in a unique position in history, as he explains with this statement:

“Mao was of interest as a personality, apart from his political life, because, although his name was as familiar to many Chinese as that of Chiang Kai-shek, very little was known about him, and all sorts of strange legends existed about him. I was the first foreign newspaperman to interview him.”

Mao beings to speak freely, about his childhood, China’s occupation by Japan and the vision of Dr. Sun Yet-Sen (1866-1925) whose vision for an independent China was the basis for the Red Army’s mission.

The beauty in this book is not only Mao’s statements but the way in which author explains the formation of the Red Army and the inevitable battle with Chiang Kai-Shek, which curiously could have possibly been avoided.  In fact, Mao himself informed Snow that the main focus of the communist was to see the removal of Japan, even if that mean cooperation with the KMT.  However, the Generalissimo had no intention of cooperating with the rebels. For Mao and the Red Army, Japan had to be removed at all costs but when pressed with Nanking’s involvement in freeing then nation, Chiang’s response set the stage for the future battle to come:

“Chiang Kai-shek replied, “I will never talk about this until every Red soldier in China is exterminated, and every Communist is in prison. Only then would it be possible to cooperate with Russia.”

Today we know that Mao eventually had the last laugh but not before Chiang struck one final blow in establishing the independent nation of Taiwan where he remained in seclusion after exile.  And to this day, the small nation remains a source of tension as the United States and other allies remained committed to its independence from Beijing.

No discussion about communist China is complete without the role of the Soviet Union, led by the infamous Joseph Stalin (1878-1953). And while he does play a minor role in the story, he appears at crucial points, most notably the Chinese Revolution.  Stalin’s support for Mao and the Red Army is critical in the struggle but the partnership was not always at ease and prior to the revolution, Russia played both sides of the fence as it made pacts with Japan while later resisting Asian and German expansion.  Stalin was shrewd leader but also full of paranoia and suspicion.  Regardless, Mao and the Red Army had their own vision for China and as Snow shows us, they were determined to accomplish their goal.  And not even the KMT would be able to stop their advance.  Mao’s destiny was to lead China and when discussing the future with Snow, he remarks:

“The Chinese revolution is a key factor in the world situation. … When the Chinese revolution comes into full power the masses of many colonial countries will follow the example of China and win a similar victory of their own. But I emphasize again that the seizure of power is not our (immediate) aim. We want to stop civil war, create a people’s democratic government with the Kuomintang and other parties, and fight for our independence against Japan.” 

The story is simply incredible and a must read for anyone interested in the history of the Chinese Communist Party.  Because Snow left China in 1936, the later events of World War II and the final battle with the KMT is not discussed in detail.  And there are other books which do focus on that era.  Snow’s purpose here is to enlighten us about the rise of Chinese communism and why it came into existence.  Admittedly, the author provides extensive information not just on Mao but on others equally important.  And readers may find it challenging keeping up with the names of those who enter the story. But what is paramount to remember is that each played their role in the Red Army’s rise and success, and their memories live on in the annals of China’s history.  And to put the finishing touch on their accomplishment’s Mao provides one final statement to Snow that says it all:

“Another reason for its [the Party’s] invincibility lies in the extraordinary ability and courage and loyalty of the human material, the revolutionary cadres. Comrades Chu Teh, Wang Ming, Lo Fu, Chou En-lai, Po Ku, Wang Chia-hsiang, P’eng Teh-huai, Lo Man, Teng Fa, Hsiang Ying, Hsu Hai-tung, Ch’en Yun, Lin Piao, Chang Kuo-t’ao, Hsu Hsiang-ch’ien, Ch’en Chang-hao, Ho Lung, Hsiao K’eh—and many, many excellent comrades who gave their lives for the revolution—all these, working together for a single purpose, have made the Red Army and the soviet movement. And these and others yet to come will lead us to ultimate victory. ” –

Great read and highly recommended.

ASIN : B005012G0G

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