Helen Foster Snow photographs

Helen Foster Snow photographs

Dates: 1907-1997

Series one deals with Helen Foster Snow's life before traveling to China in 1930. Documents relate to her early days in Cedar City, Salt Lake City, and her education at the University of Utah. Coupled with this biographical material is her prodigious research into her own ancestry and genealogy, which drew her into the wider circle of local and regional history in Madison, CT and the greater New England area. This portion of the collection dovetails, topically, Helen's later attempts to find and write of her roots. Series two concerns the end of her Utah experience and the beginning of her adventures in China. It spans from her entry into China in 1931to her departure from China to the Philippines in 1941. From a historical perspective, this is the richest series in the collection–letters, memos, communiques, and newspapers document this tumultuous decade in China's history. Included in this series is her marriage to Edgar Snow, her involvement in the radical Student Movement opposing the policies of Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, her involvement in the nascent Communist Party, and her early interviews with prominent leaders such as Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-Tung) and others. Also included is her legendary work with the Chinese Cooperative movements. It should be noted that Helen Foster Snow did, unfortunately, find it necessary to sell some of her papers dealing with cooperatives to Stanford University in the late 1950s. Therefore, a small portion of this significant movement is housed in the Hoover Institute in Palo Alto, California. Researchers interested in pursuing work on Helen Foster Snow's cooperative work should consult those materials. Series three details her published and unpublished writings. She wrote, over her sixty-year career, numerous books, essays, op-ed pieces, articles, poetry and short stories. These are arranged and described by genre and divided into additional sub-series to aid the researcher in identifying which of her works to consult within the series. We have, to the best of our ability, bifurcated them into published and unpublished categories. In many instances, titles and dates of creation are not clear. It has been difficult to ascertain any kind of genesis or evolution of most of her drafts, inasmuch as she did not date nor label her working drafts. Series four is composed of Helen's correspondence from 1941 until her death in 1997. The series is arranged into two sub-series. The first contains correspondence arranged chronologically, while the second contains correspondence arranged by topic. Series five is composed solely of photographs. These photographs predate her birth and conclude with her death in 1997. The bulk of the photographs were taken in Asia and are the most valuable component of this series. Most of the photographs are identified, some are questionable, and a few remain unidentified. These images document early Chinese leaders (e.g. Mao Tse-Tung and Chou En-Lai), urban cities and rural countrysides, many historic places before the Japanese occupation, and her husband's work in pre-war China. The photographs number in the thousands, and most are black and white. In addition to the photographs of Asia, there are a sizable number of photographs from her personal life and work. There are also color photographs of her return to China in the 1970s. Please see the Separation Statement for additional information on this series. Series six includes a number of audio-visual materials related to Helen's life and the collection in general. This series contains video tapes and audio tapes on a variety of subjects (e.g. personal interviews, trips to China, etc.). Series seven contains a large variety of miscellaneous articles. These are documents which, although part of her life and legacy, do not fit neatly into any of the series previously prescribed. Biographical papers, written by and about Helen, are located here, as are numerous documents on her husband, Edgar Snow. This series contains scattered essays on women's issues, legal papers, and miscellaneous documents. Oversized artifacts, many of them from the Chinese government, are also housed here. Series eight is an addendum to the original collection. Boxes 1-179 were compiled and housed by Harvard Heath and his student assistants from 1997-2001. However, a number of items were, apparently, left out of the collection proper. These materials can all be found in this series, albeit in a somewhat incongruous fashion. While this is not a "miscellaneous" series per se, materials on a large variety of topics can be found here.

  • Extent: 28 boxes
  • Creator: Snow, Helen Foster, 1907-1997
  • Call Number: MSS 2219 Series 5
  • Repository: L. Tom Perry Special Collections; 20th Century Western & Mormon Manuscripts; 1130 Harold B. Lee Library; Brigham Young University; Provo, Utah 84602; http://sc.lib.byu.edu/
  • Access Restrictions: There are restrictions on this collection. For access, seek authorization from the Curator of 20th & 21st Century Western & Mormon Manuscripts.
Languages and Scripts
The series is divided into three subsections: 1. Helen Foster Snow photographs of Asia, 1907-1997; 2. Helen Foster Snow slides, circa 1940-1979; and 3. Helen Foster Snow friends, celebrations, and miscellaneous photographs, 1907-1997. All items are numbered and filed numerically (10, 269 items total).
Conditions of Use
It is the responsibility of the researcher to obtain any necessary copyright clearances. Permission to publish material from Helen Foster Snow collection must be obtained from the Supervisor of Reference Services and/or the Special Collections Board of Curators.
The present register is the product of several persons' work. The donors of the Helen Foster Snow collection, Sheril and Garth Bischoff, deserve special thanks for their untiring efforts to not only bring this collection to Brigham Young University, but also in assisting the staff in numerous ways throughout this process. Their knowledge, enthusiasm and desire to offer their services has been an essential element in compiling this collection. In addition to the Bischoff's, several volunteers, especially Morris & Donna Petersen and George & Joy Bennion, offered substantial aid. Special thanks goes to Paul and Karen Hyer for their involvement and commitment. Their counsel and aid in facilitating the donation of the collection to Brigham Young University has been invaluable. Thanks also to Eric Hyer for garnering financial and institutional support for the collection, acting as liaison with the administration, and for producing the PBS documentary on Helen Snow's life. Thanks also to Gail King of the library, Gary Williams, professor of Asian languages, Michael Murdock and David Wright, professors of History, Cheryl Brown and Sandra Rogers, both former Associate Vice Presidents for International Affairs, and the Kennedy Center, under directors Lanny Britsch and Don Holsinger. Special thanks must also go to those many students who helped process, catalog, and complete this project: Robert Packer, Jonathon Fry, Jennifer Myers, Tami, Chen, Kati Cao, Cameron Turley, Jennifer Stoker, Julie Kaufman, Jenna Smith, Misty Armstrong, Amy Stone, Kimberly Bowden, Stacy Parker, Melinda Strong, Lisa Lyons, Amy Pett, Nathan Tolman, and Taylor Dix.
Preferred Citation
Helen Foster Snow photographs; MSS 2219; Helen Foster Snow papers; L. Tom Perry Special Collections; 20th Century Western & Mormon Manuscripts; 1130 Harold B. Lee Library; Brigham Young University; Provo, Utah 84602; http://sc.lib.byu.edu/
Other Finding Aids
Item- and file-level inventory available online. http://files.lib.byu.edu/ead/XML/MSS2219.xml
Subject Terms
Alley, Rewi, 1897-1987; Deng, Xiaoping, 1904-1997; Mao, Zedong, 1893-1976; Snow, Edgar, 1905-1972; Zhou, Enlai, 1898-1976; Zhu, De, 1886-1976; Beijing (China); Connecticut; Genealogy; India; International Relations; Japan; Journalism, Pictorial; Philippines; Photojournalism; Politics, Government, and Law; Shanghai (China); Utah; Xi'an Shi (China); Yan'an Shi (China); Zhongguo gong chan dang
Genre / Form
Certificates; Letters; Manuscripts; Paintings; Pamphlets; Photographs; Poetry; Slides (Photography); Videotapes
Finding Aid ID Number
Finding Aid Title
Snow (Helen Foster) papers
Finding Aid Author
Finding aid prepared by Harvard Heath, Lisa Lyons Van Tassell, and Taylor M. Dix
Finding Aid Creator
This finding aid was produced using the Archivists' Toolkit 2014-03-09T04:05-0600
Finding Aid Language
Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grant, 2007-2008
Biographical Info:

Biographical History

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.

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John Murphy
Curator - 20th Century Western & Mormon Manuscripts