Snow, Helen Foster, 1907-1997

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Author and genealogist; recipient of several international prizes; lived in China and Madison, Conn.

From the description of The Guilford story; or, Menuncatuck Plantation : a dramatized history [and other works], 1974. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 70971377

Helen Foster Snow was born on 21 September 1907 in Cedar City, Utah to Hannah Davis and John Foster. While in school, Helen studied Spanish, French, and Italian. Using this experience, she took the foreign service exams in hopes of traveling to Europe. She passed the clerk[alpha]s exam but no positions were available. Helen found a lucrative job in Salt Lake City as secretary to A.G. MacKenzie of the American Mining Congress. Helen secured a second job as a foreign correspondent for the Scripps₁Canfield League, specifically hired to write articles about the [beta]golden, glamorous Orient.[gamma].

From the description of Helen Foster Snow papers, circa 1907-2000, bulk 1930-1980. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 367788290

Author; interviewee married Edgar Snow.

From the description of Reminiscences of Helen Foster Snow : oral history, 1975. (Columbia University In the City of New York). WorldCat record id: 309725773

Author and genealogist; awarded several international prizes; lived in China and Madison, Conn.

From the description of Writings, [19--]. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 70971396

Biographical Notes

*Nym Wales is the pseudonym of Helen Foster Snow, also known in various contexts as Peggy Snow, Hseuh Hai-lun, and Lo Fu.

  • 1907, September 21: Born, Cedar City, Utah
  • 1925 - 1927 : Student, University of Utah
  • 1931 - 1941 : Lived in China and the Philippine Islands, held positions as a journalist, book reviewer, and editor
  • 1932: Married Edgar Snow (divorced, 1949)
  • 1934 - 1935 : Student, Yenching University and Tsinghua University
  • 1937: Visited the headquarters of Chinese Communist leaders in Yenan for four months
  • 1937: Co-founder of Democracy magazine
  • 1938: Co-founder of the Chinese Industrial Cooperative movement in Shanghai
  • 1939: Author, Inside Red China
  • 1941 - 1951 : Board of Directors, American Committee in Aid of Chinese Industrial Cooperatives
  • 1941: Co-author with Kim San, Song of Arian: The Life Story of an Asian Revolutionary
  • 1941: Author, China Builds for Democracy: A Story of Cooperative Industry
  • 1945: Author, The Chinese Labor Movement
  • 1952: Editor, Red Dust: Autobiographies of Chinese Communists as Told to Nym Wales
  • 1952: Author, Fables and Parables for the Mid-Century
  • 1958 - 1961 : Author and compiler, "Historical Notes on China," 6 volumes designed to accompany the Nym Wales Collection at the Hoover Institution: Notes on the Chinese Student Movement, 1935-1936; Notes on the Sian Incident, 1936; Notes on Korea and the Life of Kim San; My Yenan Notebooks; Notes on the Left-Wing Painters and Modern Art in China; Notes on the Beginnings of the Industrial Cooperatives in China.
  • 1967: Author, Women in Modern China
  • 1972: Author, The Chinese Communists (in part a reprint of Red Dust)
  • 1972 - 1973 : Travelled in the Far East, including mainland China

From the guide to the Nym Wales papers, 1931-1998, (Hoover Institution Archives)

Helen Foster Snow (1907-1997) was an American reporter and author.

Helen Foster Snow was born on September 21, 1907 in Cedar City, Utah to Hannah Davis and John Foster. In the 1850s, her Mormon pioneer ancestors, the Fosters, left Nauvoo, Illinois to join the Mormon exodus west to the Utah Territory. Her Mormon heritage would figure prominently in Helen's life and she would devote a major portion of her later life to family history and genealogy.

Both of her parents were, by pioneer standards, well educated and encouraged Helen to develop her literary and intellectual talents. From her earliest years, Helen was a precocious child. Hannah Foster enjoyed showing off how three-year-old Helen could recite over 250 poems from memory. In school Helen excelled, becoming the spelling bee champion and earning her friends' appellation as "the walking dictionary." Memorizing and reciting came easily to Helen. She always enjoyed reading and writing, both prose and poetry, and by 1920 she had written her first play, which her seventh grade class performed.

At the age of fifteen, Helen, wanting to capitalize on a better educational system, moved from Cedar City to Salt Lake City and attended West High School. Appreciating Helen's potential, her parents wanted her to have access to the best available educational opportunities in Utah. In addition to her studies, she maintained an active social life, engaging in activities ranging from drama and theater to student government leadership, being elected vice-president of her senior class. Much of her extra-curricular time was spent editing the school yearbook and assisting the vice-principal with social projects.

Helen wanted to follow her father's footsteps and attend Stanford University. However, family finances and a father's urging led her to the University of Utah instead. At the suggestion of a friend, Helen initiated a "salon" of sorts. In an old sign painting shop in the city, Helen and ten other friends gathered to discuss art, music, and literature. In China, Helen would again establish a salon with students that were agitated by China's passivity towards Japanese aggression.

Helen always had two overarching ambitions for her life. First, Helen had always felt that she was destined to lead, writing: "...the instinct that brought my ancestors here in 1635 and caused them to pioneer after the Revolution to the Susquehanna and later to the Missouri and Mississippi and along the Oregon Trail. The same instinct pushed me into my own pioneering activities, always a little bit ahead and never behind, always first."

Second, Helen always dreamt of becoming a great author, desperately wanting to write her own "great American novel." To accomplish this goal, she decided that she needed to see America from a different perspective: "I had wanted to be a great author since the time I was eight...I had read Edith Wharton who said that you have to stay abroad in a foreign country to get perspective before you can write about your own American experience. The contrast is what energizes your brain and talent...I knew I had to go overseas and stay there awhile, about a year or so. Otherwise I would never become a great author."

While in school, Helen studied Spanish, French, and Italian. Using this experience, she took the foreign service exams in hopes of traveling to Europe. She passed the clerk's exam but no positions were available. However, she later heard that it was often easier to get a job with a consulate after one's arrival in a foreign country.

Helen found a lucrative job in Salt Lake City as secretary to A. G. MacKenzie of the American Mining Congress. After mentioning her desire to travel to the Orient, her employer's brother wrote a letter to a friend who had connections in China. That letter proved quite helpful, as Helen was soon offered a job as a secretary to the president of an American company in Shanghai. Helen readily agreed and began making preparations to move to China. Before embarking, Helen secured a second job as a foreign correspondent for the Scripps–Canfield League, specifically hired to write articles about the "golden, glamorous Orient."

When Helen arrived in Shanghai in the fall of 1931, she was a naive, vivacious, enterprising twenty-three-year-old. She acclimated quickly to Shanghai's foreign community, writing book reviews for J. B. Powell's China Weekly Review, editing a social page in the Spectator and writing ad copy for some American companies. She also used her time to take French and Mandarin lessons.

On January 28, 1932, just a few months after Helen's arrival in China, the Japanese invaded Manchuria and attacked Shanghai. Even though she lived in the isolated and insulated foreign community of Shanghai, Helen nevertheless had a first-hand view of the Japanese bombing and the mass exodus of refugees.

On her first day in China, Helen promptly met a well-known American foreign correspondent, Edgar Snow. A long-time admirer, Helen had wished to imitate his career without duplicating his work. Prior to her departure, Helen had cut out and compiled all of Edgar's articles dealing with his travels and experiences in the Orient, and she gave him this collection on their first meeting. For Edgar, who had just returned form a trip to India, it was love at first sight. Prior to meeting Helen, Edgar was ready to leave Asia permanently; he was homesick for America and for his mother, who had recently passed away. But in Helen he found a fascinating personality that renewed his desire to remain in China. Helen found him intriguing as well: "I like him better than anyone else I have ever known, I believe, and he really does seem to have a good deal of talent, and a wonderful adventuring spirit." After a year and a half of courtship, Edgar Snow and Helen Foster were married on Christmas Day, 1932 in Tokyo, Japan and enjoyed a honeymoon cruise in the South Seas.

The Snows, like other foreigners in China, enjoyed extraterritorial status. That is, they were exempt from Chinese law and could go about as they wished without fear of harassment. This freedom gave them the opportunity to learn and publish information about China's contemporary left-wing culture. Using their extraterritorial freedom, Helen and Edgar helped translate Living China, the first modern left-wing literary work. Through their articles and books, the Snows significantly influenced foreigners' perceptions of China.

While Edgar taught Journalism at Yenching University, Helen enrolled in language, philosophy, and Chinese culture classes. After Japan's attack on Manchuria, Helen was instrumental in forming and directing the December 9th Student Movement at Yenching University that protested Chiang Kai-shek's neutrality toward the Japanese invasion. After the government's crackdown on college students, the Snows offered their home as a haven to student activists. Many of the students that they harbored would later become important leaders in the Chinese Communist Party. Expounding on the Snows' role in the December 9th Movement, Peter Rand wrote:

"Their [the Snows'] number one boy came to the living room to announce a visitor. 'It is a student from the Department of Journalism of Yenching University,' the servant told Helen Snow...He had come to see her husband, to find out whether it was true, as he had heard, that the Chinese were about to relinquish north China to the Japanese." Upon hearing the possibility, the student began to weep." "'Crying won't help,' Edgar Snow said. 'We've got to act.' It slipped out. He had not meant to say it. In that brief moment, Edgar Snow committed himself to China, along with Helen, his wife...What to do? Helen Snow suggested a student movement, like the New Youth Movement of May 4, 1919. They talked all afternoon...Chang [Chang Chao-lin] soon came back to see them, this time with friends. Inspired by the Snows' support, they formulated a plan." (Rand,"China Hands'" pp. 148-9, published by Simon & Schuster)

Because Helen was fiercely anti-fascist, and she believed Japan desired to spread Fascism throughout the Orient, she began to write and circulate a number of anti-fascist documents. She assisted in translating and editing student manifestos and telegrams calling for a united Chinese front against the Japanese invaders. Helen was proactive, "she always joined the parade and shouted with the Chinese students...against Japanese aggression. 'Down with Japanese imperialism!'" (Lu Cui, interview). Helen not only helped formulate a plan for the student demonstration, she also reported on the movement to various newspapers.

In 1937, Helen and Edgar edited and published a magazine, Democracy. Its goal was to ensure that "Christian ethics could reach the youth of China." Although Edgar was approached initially to do this, writing commitments compelled him to turn over the majority of the work to Helen. At that time, he was heavily involved in writing Red Star Over China. Helen convinced Edgar to go along with the idea of editing this journal as she would "do all the work if he'd just put him name on as editor and let us publish chapter from the book."

The last issue of Democracy was seized while on the presses by the Japanese when they invaded Beijing on July 7, 1937. Speaking of the Democracy's impact, Hubert Liang wrote: "It was immediate, sensational success, taking China's intellectual world by storm...Many of its articles were translated and published in Chinese periodicals...The Kuomintang took notice and protested against its pro-Communist leanings....Even the archenemy of China, Matsuoka, the Japan's Director of the South Manchurian Railways, for purposes best known to himself, bought up 400 copies of the first issue of "Democracy" to be sent back to Japan." (Letter from Hubert Liang, a prominent teacher in Yenching University's Journalism Department. He was a close friend of the Edgar and Helen Snow and assisted in both the creation of "Democracy" and the Chinese Industrial Cooperatives.)

At the time of Helen's arrival in China, little was known about Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) and the Communist Red Army. In early 1936, Edgar decided that he should travel into the Communist base area in the Northwest to investigate their aims, ideas, and programs. Edgar, after becoming the first journalist to break the Nationalist blockade and reach the Communists in Xi'an, returned to Beijing to write his best-selling book, Red Star Over China, which chronicled the life of Mao Zedong and the Long March.

A year after his trip, the Snow's decided that Helen should travel to Yan'an and further interview the Communists, especially women. Helen was only the second foreign woman and the eighth foreign journalist to enter this restricted area. On this trip, she wrote Inside Red China, a companion book to Edgar's Red Star Over China. Although her book never received the international acclaim of Edgar's book, her work substantially influenced both Chinese and foreign perceptions of China. It contained a number of valuable, insightful biographies of Communist leaders. The Communists in the Mao era were reticent to divulge their histories because they did not wish to be revered as heroes of the people, because they believed that the community, not the individual, was all-important. Additionally, after the Snows' books were translated into Chinese, they provided a valuable service to the Chinese masses, as they heretofore had little historical information on their leaders' lives. In addition to her writings, Helen photographed Yan'an before the Nationalists bombed it in 1938-1939. Helen's trip to the Red Army's stronghold also provided her with sufficient information for at least five other publications on China.

Yu Jianting, Helen's translator during her interviews with Mao Zedong, believed that Helen's work on her trip made important contributions. From these interviews, Helen obtained three things: a history of the Red Army, a letter of introduction as a war correspondent that enabled her to go to the front, and a request from Mao to introduce the CCP's "Ten Guiding Principles to Resist Against Japan and Save the Nation" to the Chinese people and to the rest of the world. The CCP's Ten Points were primarily formulated to "give the people the freedom of patriotic activity and the freedom to arm themselves." Helen willingly helped, as she believed the mobilization of the people was further evidence of China's heroic rise to Democracy.

As a token of appreciation for Edgar and Helen Snow's service rendered on behalf of China, Madame Sun Yat-sen hosted a farewell dinner in Hong Kong for the Snows before they left for the Philippines.

Helen considered herself "a parable of the middle path." Although not a Communist, she shared some of their ideals; she promoted socialism as well as democracy. She was an eclectic in many ways, believing in taking the best from all ideologies and attempting to synthesize them for the betterment of humanity.

In July, 1937, Japan attacked China and destroyed or commandeered over 90% of China's modern industrial equipment. Eventually, over 50 million refugees were forced into China's bleak interior. However, most large industry had been built in and around the coastal areas, leaving the interior without industry and with a rising population of unemployed, dislocated people. If China were to have any hope of continuing the war effort against Japan, she would need to rely on her own industrial capacity.

Helen spent many sleepless nights trying to conceive of how to "save China." One night she reinvented the "SELF-HELP PRODUCER INDUSTRIAL CO-OPERATIVES, with work points." She envisioned these cooperatives being organized in China's interior "guerilla areas." The refugees could be sent to assist with the resistance, or in the production of industrial goods to fight against the Japanese. After convincing Edgar and their colleague, Rewi Alley, to go along with the idea, the Chinese Industrial Cooperatives began to spring up throughout China.

To some observers, Helen was the impetus behind Edgar and his work with the Gung Ho Industrial Cooperative Movement. She envisioned that these cooperatives would combine the best of socialism and democracy. These cooperatives would become one of Helen's lifelong passions. Even after China closed itself to the West in 1950, she attempted to keep the cooperative spirit alive, promoting it in other underdeveloped nations and often taking a prominent fundraising role for the projects. In 1941, her book China Builds for Democracy: A Story of Cooperative Industry was published. Jawaharlal Nehru read Helen's book while in prison, and upon his release, he used her book as a prototype for starting cooperatives in India, which built over 50,000 cooperatives by 1972. Indira Gandhi also invited Helen Foster Snow to be a guest of honor during India's National Day celebrations, acknowledging the influence her book had exerted on Indian cooperatives.

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were similarly intrigued with the Snows' documentation of Red China. The Snows, upon their return from China, were invited to a White House dinner to discuss their work and experiences in the Orient. Helen served on the board of directors for the American Committee to Aid Chinese Industrial Cooperatives, on which Eleanor also served as a member of the advisory board.

Upon their return to America, the Snows purchased a home in rural Madison, Connecticut. It was here that Helen put together her notes from her Yan'an experience and became involved in genealogy and family history. Helen would never write the "great American novel" that she had always dreamed of writing. However, she would substantially contribute to the world's understanding of the Chinese Communist Movement. Her contributions to China transcended her years spent there.

With the closing of Red China in 1949, Helen, along with a number of former China Hands, were unable or unwilling to visit China until diplomatic relations were altered by President Nixon's 1972 visit. Helen, after a hiatus of over three decades, would return to China on two different occasions–greeted and celebrated wherever she went. Old friendships were renewed, former times were discussed–all paving the way for her later enshrinement in modern China. Awards were given and appreciation expressed as she and Edgar, now deceased, were lauded for their early efforts in aiding the Chinese people. Helen would continue to correspond with friends and high-level Chinese officials until her death.

After her return from the Orient, Helen spent her years involved in family history and genealogy. She also researched early New England history and wrote several self-published histories. She became involved in the Women's Movement, joining and remaining active in several societies, and wrote drama and poetry. She traveled widely, wrote essays, op-ed pieces, and remained active in humanitarian causes. She passed away in January 1997 in Madison, Connecticut–her home for six decades. Two memorial services were held: one in Connecticut and one in China. Both attracted many Chinese and American dignitaries who all paid homage to Helen's bridge-building efforts that spanned seven decades.

Helen's contributions have always been more appreciated in China than they have been in her native United States. For example, after her death in 1997, the Chinese government held a memorial service for her in the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square in Beijing–an honor few foreigners have ever received. Part of a hospital is also named after her in China as well as a school in Xi'an.

Her legacy will be assured by virtue of the things she wrote, the contributions she made and the good will she built on both sides of the Pacific during her long and productive life.

From the guide to the Helen Foster Snow papers, 1907-2000, (L. Tom Perry Special Collections)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Snow, Helen Foster, 1907-1997. Helen Foster Snow papers, circa 1907-2000, bulk 1930-1980. Harold B. Lee Library
creatorOf Snow, Edgar, 1905-1972. Autobiography excerpts, 1958-1997. Harold B. Lee Library
creatorOf Helen Foster Snow papers, 1907-2000 L. Tom Perry Special Collections20th Century Western & Mormon Manuscripts
creatorOf Snow, Helen Foster, 1907-1997. Papers, ca. 1907-2000, bulk 1930-1980. Harold B. Lee Library
referencedIn Combat Films and Research interviews on Helen Foster Snow, 1999-2000 L. Tom Perry Special Collections20th Century Western & Mormon Manuscripts
creatorOf Snow, Helen Foster, 1907-1997. The Guilford story; or, Menuncatuck Plantation : a dramatized history [and other works], 1974. Guilford Free Library
creatorOf Nym Wales papers, 1931-1998 Hoover Institution Archives
creatorOf Snow, Helen Foster, 1907-1997. Reminiscences of Helen Foster Snow : oral history, 1975. Columbia University in the City of New York, Columbia University Libraries
referencedIn Gary B. Hansen papers, 1911-2005 Utah State University. Merrill-Cazier Library. Special Collections and ArchivesManuscript Collection
referencedIn Pruitt, Ida. Papers: Series V-IX, circa 1860-1983 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Stanford University Press archival book copies, 1900-2012 Cecil H. Green Library. Department of Special Collections and University Archives
creatorOf Snow, Helen Foster, 1907-1997. Writings, [19--]. Guilford Free Library
referencedIn Hansen, Gary B. (Gary Barker), 1935-. Gary B. Hansen papers, 1911-2005. Utah State University, Merrill-Cazier Library
creatorOf Snow, Helen Foster, 1907-1997. Correspondence to Van Wyck Brooks, 1958. University of Pennsylvania Library
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Alley, Rewi, 1897-1987 person
associatedWith Bradburd, Zelda, person
associatedWith Brook, B. (Benjamin), 1776-1848. person
associatedWith Chinese Industrial Cooperatives corporateBody
associatedWith Deng, Xiaoping, 1904-1997 person
associatedWith Hansen, Gary B. person
associatedWith Hansen, Gary B. (Gary Barker), 1935- person
associatedWith Mao, Zedong, 1893-1976 person
associatedWith Pruitt, Ida. person
associatedWith Snow, Edgar, 1905-1972. person
associatedWith Stanford University. Press. corporateBody
associatedWith Zhou, Enlai, 1898-1976 person
associatedWith Zhu, De, 1886-1976 person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Madison (Conn.)
Shanghai (China)
Beijing (China)
East River (Conn.)
Yan'an Shi (China)
United States
Guilford (Conn.)
Guilford (Conn.)
Xi'an Shi (China)
North Madison (Madison, Conn.)
Youth movement
Zhongguo gong chan dang
American drama
Women authors
Chinese literature
Cooperative societies
Government, Law and Politics
International relations
Journalism, Pictorial
Labor movement
Real property
Women authors, American
Women authors, American
Women dramatists, American


Birth 1907-09-21

Death 1997-01-11







Ark ID: w6gh9gb1

SNAC ID: 50652330