There is a famous communist image of a young Mao Zedong wearing a “flat cap” featuring a red star on its front. As legend has it, the cap was a gift from the American journalist Edgar Snow, one of the few Westerners allowed behind communist lines in the ‘30s as China was caught in the grip of civil war and war with Japan. Regardless of the veracity of the story, the cap would go on to feature prominently in communist propaganda, as would Snow’s resulting documentary, Red Star over China, in the West.
Though written at the time as a journalist piece, Snow’s appraisal of the communist movement in China in the ‘30s has since become a work of history. The narrative predominantly relates the movement’s history, starting with the beginning of the 20th century to the date the book was published (1937). From its early days in the southeast, the Long March, to its hiding out in caves of the north fighting against Nationalist and Japanese forces, Snow uses both Chinese and external sources in detailing the movement. Each of these phases is given its political and dramatic due, though in the time since, better books have been published detailing the varying aspects.
Despite the egregious assault on humanity Mao’s version of communism would later take, Red Star over China remains a first of its kind. A region to which Western government agencies had no access, Snow’s book in essence introduced the plight of Mao and his followers to the West. If it’s any indication, the book is still published in China and read as a foreigner’s view of Chinese political interests. Given so few journalistic/political pieces regarding the West were above censorship in China at that time, the fact Snow’s book was praised by Mao goes a long way toward defining its angle. No one was to know he would go on to propagate one of the worst famines in Chinese history, the infamous Cultural Revolution, and a total of four decades of economic, social, and cultural stagnation.
In the end, Red Star over China, though datedly innocent it may be, is the first major look at life behind communist lines in China. Written at a time when communism’s effects were not yet so obvious and the ideology was still given credence by the West, Snow can by and large be forgiven for appearing a sympathizer to Mao’s cause. Given the hardship Mao and his army had to endure and the undying loyalty they showed to their cause, most people with a heroic heart would be hard pressed to stop rooting for Mao against the invading Japanese and narrow-minded nationalists headed by Chiang Kai-shek. Quality journalism in its time, the book is recommended for anyone interested in the history of early communism in China. Be warned, however, that certain aspects have received better treatment in books since, the Long March, for example.