Academic journal article Transnational Literature

American Self-Fashioning in Helen Foster Snow's My China Years

Academic journal article Transnational Literature

American Self-Fashioning in Helen Foster Snow's My China Years

Article excerpt

My China Years chronicles the remarkable exploits of Helen Foster Snow during one of the most tumultuous decades in modern Chinese history. When Snow arrived in Shanghai in August 1931, domestic revolutionary war continued to be waged between the Nationalists (Guomindang) and the Communists (Gongchandang) and within a month the 'Mukden Incident' sparked the beginning of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria.1 By the time Snow returned to the United States in 1940, the Anti-Japanese War brought Communist and Nationalists forces together again as a 'United Front.' The union, however, did not last because of renewed fighting between the Communists and the Nationalists from 1945 to 1949, a period widely referred to as the Chinese Civil War.2 Although Snow was not present at the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, she participated in major events leading up to it, interviewed top Communist leaders at Yan'an after the Long March, and led the Gung Ho effort to establish industrial cooperatives in China.

Out of the four extraordinary months she spent in Yan'an in 1937 with Mao Zedong, Zhu De, and Zhou Enlai came her first book, Inside Red China, which was published under the name, Helen Foster Snow, as was her last, My China Years. For other books she used the pseudonym, Nym Wales. Snow's many books and numerous articles as well as Democracy, the magazine she co-founded with Edgar Snow and Ida Pruitt, demonstrate that she contributed to New China chiefly by writing about it while she was in China and long after she left. Gathering material on one occasion involved a daring escape from Xi'an in order to reach the headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party in Yan'an. Most of the time, however, the oral histories collected by Snow required no derring-do, and she produced a manuscript in fairly short order - usually in a matter of months and rarely more than a couple of years. Over half a century, however, elapsed between her arrival in Shanghai from the United States in 1931 that she describes at the start of her memoir and its eventual publication as My China Years in 1984. In the memoir Snow also writes about the American journalist Edgar Snow whom she married in Tokyo on Christmas Day in 1932. The marriage ended in divorce in 1949, the year of the founding of the PRC.

The long passage of time between the events in the memoir and the publication of My China Years may account for the disjuncture Snow creates between herself as she was then (1931-1940) and the self she is now, a gap in time that suggests the two selves separated by more than half a century are firmly fixed. A second gap, that of distance, separates Snow's experience as a resident of Shanghai and Peking during these years from her recollection of them that she recalls as a long-time resident of Madison, CT where she completed her memoir in the 1980s. Although return visits to China in 1972-73 and 1978 may have sharpened her awareness of the gaps in time and space between then and now in her life, Snow acknowledges that the death of Edgar Snow in 1972 prompted her to take another look at the manuscript of the memoir that she had begun years before (327). The process of writing the memoir over a period of many years therefore problematises her use of 'I' in My China Years, making it difficult to identify whether the 'I' occurs in a portion of the manuscript written in China that she leftuntouched, a part written after she leftChina in 1940 but before 1972 when she decided to work on the manuscript again; sections that underwent substantial revision between 1972 and 1984, or new material for the memoir that she wrote during that fourteen-year period. The finished manuscript of My China Years nevertheless reveals a consistently bifurcated 'I' between the girl Snow depicts herself as in the 1930s and the woman reflecting on that experience decades later.

Snow's memoir offers a distinctive example of American self-fashioning in which the author casts her years spent in China within an interpretive framework distinctively rooted in the literature and culture of the United States. …

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