Peter Chan on Helen Foster Snow’s contribution to China-US exchanges

By CHU GUOFEI / 12-07-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

Helen Foster Snow re-visited China and communicated with the Chinese people in 1978. Photo: Courtesy of AN WEI

Over 90 years ago, Helen Foster Snow embarked on a journey to China, where she spent the rest of her life learning from the resilient Chinese people and dedicating herself to building a bridge of understanding and friendship between the people of China and the U.S. In a recent interview with CSST, Peter Chan, a distinguished professor at Brigham Young University (BYU), recounted the captivating story of Helen Foster Snow and China-U.S. relations.

CSST: What connection does Brigham Young University have with China, and how does it relate to Helen Foster Snow?

Peter Chan: Many people know Brigham Young University because it was the first American university to send a performing group to China after the establishment of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China in 1979. The performance at that time was a great success, and even today, when meeting with friends, we still recall the grand occasion. However, many may not be aware that Brigham Young University has had deep connections with China for over 100 years.

At that time, there was a scholar affiliated with BYU named David O. McKay, a very famous educator and religious figure from Utah. In 1921, he visited China during a period of warlord fragmentation, and he observed the Chinese people’s suffering. Though there wasn’t much he could do, he decided to contribute to the field of education to assist the Chinese people. For this purpose, he went to the then Peking Teachers’ College (now Beijing Normal University) to exchange ideas with the college’s president and students.

Ten years later, a girl born and raised in Utah came to China. At the time, she probably didn’t realize that she would become closely connected with the Chinese people and dedicate her life to promoting U.S.-China friendship. Her name was Helen Foster. In China, she met Edgar Snow, who later became her husband. They were both participants and witnesses of many major historical events in China in the 1930s and made unique and significant contributions to bilateral relations. After Helen Foster Snow’s passing, her family donated her manuscripts, photos, notes, and more to BYU’s library. Today, most of her materials, including her manuscripts from interviews with Mao Zedong, Zhu De, Zhou Enlai, and others in Yan’an, as well as over 10,000 precious photos she took in China, are still stored in the library, comprising more than 200 boxes. In 2021 and 2022, the Helen Foster Snow Memorial Photo Exhibition toured several cities in China, with photos provided by the BYU library.


CSST: Helen Foster Snow served as a bridge for people-to-people exchanges between China and the U.S. As you mentioned, her family donated her belongings to Brigham Young University. How can we continue this legacy?

Peter Chan: Helen Foster Snow was a remarkable child from a young age, characterized by a strong spirit of adventure, a passion for literature, and a fiercely independent personality. She emerged as a popular student leader at West High School in Salt Lake City, serving as the vice president of the student council— the highest position a girl could hold at that time. This experience further shaped her leadership skills and sense of responsibility.

After her high school graduation, she initially aspired to follow in her father’s footsteps by attending Stanford University. However, she was eventually persuaded by her family to enroll at the University of Utah. A year later, driven by her desire for more opportunities and international exposure, she sought assistance from her father. With his support and a recommendation from U.S. Senator Reed Smoot, Helen secured a position as a social activities coordinator at the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai. Simultaneously, she signed a contract with The Seattle Times to write articles about the “charming Orient,” aiming to promote international tourism and revive the tourism industry during the Great Depression. 

However, when she set foot in China, she was profoundly shocked by what she witnessed: the stark contrast between the privileged lives of foreigners and the various hardships and challenges faced by the local people. Just a few days after her arrival in Shanghai, a tragedy struck China—a devastating flood in the Yangtze River that affected tens of millions of people. Miss Snow deeply empathized with the disaster-stricken people, and in her articles, there was no “charming Orient” to be found. Each article vividly depicted what she saw and heard, with every line reflecting her profound sympathy and concern for the Chinese people. Through her writing, she shared warm and compassionate stories, revealing the real China to American readers and making a significant contribution to the Western world’s understanding of the unfolding events in China.

Many Chinese friends are familiar with the story of Helen Foster Snow and her pivotal role in the “December 9th Movement” involving students in Beijing. Her active support for the students earned her the reputation of being a “midwife of student movements.” Additionally, she conducted an interview with Zhang Xueliang two months before the Xi’an Incident. During the interview, Zhang Xueliang expressed his commitment to “defend anyone who loves their country,” with particular reference to students and the Red Army. In response, Helen Foster Snow remarked, “He and I have one thing in common: we both hide students in our homes from the police.” However, due to the national government’s news censorship at the time, the interview could not be published within the country. Helen Foster Snow, with the assistance of students, returned to Beijing and published the interview through United Press in the U.S., which soon circulated back to Chinese audiences. Zhang Xueliang’s views expressed in the interview were notably different from Chiang Kai-shek’s policies, and it can be said that this interview “pre-reported the Xi’an Incident.”

Afterwards, she overcame numerous obstacles to travel to Yan’an and interview leaders of the Chinese revolution and Red Army soldiers. From Xi’an to Yan’an, Helen Foster Snow essentially traced the route of the “Long March.” In Yan’an, she not only conducted interviews with many leaders but also dedicated significant time to interviewing female representatives and the wives of leaders. Her goal was to amplify the voices of women, secure the recognition they deserved, and highlight the vital role of women in the revolution. Helen Foster Snow was a staunch advocate for feminism and made pioneering contributions in this field, a passion she inherited from her mother. Her mother served as the president of a local women’s society and was actively engaged in the women’s suffrage movement. Growing up in this environment, Helen Foster Snow spent her life championing women’s rights, undertaking numerous endeavors in the process.

CSST: Brigham Young University has established a course on Helen Foster Snow, for which you are the primary designer and instructor. Would you please share the course’s objectives, as well as the students’ learning experiences and feedback?

Peter Chan: Two years ago, we introduced a course titled “Special Study of U.S.-China Relations: Through the Life of Helen Foster Snow.” Our aim was to gain insights into China-U.S. relations by examining the life of this remarkable individual. We used a focused approach to explore an unconventional period of history and the extraordinary experiences of an ordinary American. While the U.S. and China have many differences, including distinct systems and cultures, they also share numerous similarities. Helen Foster Snow served as a bridge-builder, dedicating her life to fostering friendship between the people of China and the U.S. Through this course, our goal is to inspire students to learn from her and carry forward her spirit, nurturing continued friendship between the peoples of the two countries.

In this course, we explored numerous activities undertaken by Helen Foster Snow during her time in China. One of the most prominent highlights was her involvement in the Industrial Cooperative Movement, commonly referred to as the “Gung Ho” movement. With the outbreak of the war against Japanese aggression, there emerged a shortage of industrial products in the Japanese-occupied areas. In response, Edgar Snow, Helen Foster Snow, and Rewi Alley initiated the organization of industrial cooperatives and established the International Committee for the Promotion of Chinese Industrial Cooperatives (ICCIC). Through this movement, villages came together to support and assist one another, specializing in specific trades to achieve economies of scale, boost production, and generate employment opportunities.

This endeavor provided essential goods and valuable jobs, preventing hundreds of thousands from experiencing starvation and drawing international attention. Upon her return to the U.S., Helen Foster Snow continued her tireless work for the Gung Ho movement, conducting fundraising efforts and garnering substantial support. Subsequently, she penned a book recounting her experiences titled China Builds for Democracy. Regarding the emphasis on “democracy” in the title, she explained that democracy extends beyond Western electoral democracy. Instead, it should prioritize truth and the fundamental needs of the people, emphasizing the freedom to survive, the freedom from hunger, and the freedom from persecution as the most basic elements of democracy.

Madam Song Qingling presented this book to Jawaharlal Nehru, who later became the first Prime Minister of India. Nehru, who was imprisoned by the British at the time, read the book earnestly in prison and later became a strong advocate for cooperatives in India. When Helen Foster Snow visited India in 1972, she was hailed by the local media as the “Mother of Cooperatives.” The impact of Gung Ho transcended national borders and continues to this day. Helen Foster Snow was nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize for her pivotal role in initiating the movement.

Behind Helen Foster Snow’s engagement in the establishment of Gung Ho, we can discern the influence of her mother. Her mother, who served as the president of a local women’s society, actively assisted rural community members. During Helen Foster Snow’s formative years, cooperatives were well-established in Utah, with many cities in the state boasting cooperative stores.

In addition to teaching history, this course also includes project assignments. One of our students conducted research on Helen Foster Snow’s The Song of Ariran, a work of reportage literature about the Korean independence movement, and her impact in Korea. During her time in Yan’an, Helen Foster Snow interviewed Jang Jirak, a Korean communist who later returned to Korea to participate in the local independence movement. This student conducted extensive research in this area and was subsequently interviewed by a Korean media outlet for her outstanding research.

In addition to creating the course, in 2020 and 2021, some friends and I drafted a resolution to acknowledge Helen Foster Snow’s significant contributions to Utah. With the support of the Helen Foster Snow Foundation and several legislators, the resolution was successfully passed by the Utah State Legislature in 2022. Furthermore, in March 2022, the Utah State Legislature approved a bill to support the establishment of the “Helen Foster Snow Cultural Center” at Southern Utah University, allocating $300,000 in funding.