Helen Foster Snow: A Diplomatic Legacy with China

12 Chinese delegates recently traveled to BYU to remember Helen Foster Snow’s historic involvement with China

Helen Foster Snow, a journalist born in Cedar City, Utah in 1907, was a woman ahead of her time. Throughout her accomplished life she came a long way from her roots as a student at West High School in Salt Lake City. She was an incredible woman who spent a significant part of her life building bridges with China, a land and people that were largely unknown to Western audiences. This October, a group of 12 delegates from China, including the Honorable Pine Gu, former Ambassador of China and Executive Vice President of China Society for People's Friendship Studies (PFS), visited Utah to remember her legacy.

 

Peter Chan of the Instructional Psychology and Technology Department at the McKay School, played a vital role in organizing the delegation tour with the PFS. Part of the tour included a stop at the Harold B. Lee Library for a presentation on the Helen Foster Snow Collection by John Murphy, the curator.

 

John Murphy presenting
John Murphy presenting before the Chinese delegation, with Adjunct Associate Professor Peter Chan from the IP&T Department translating. Photo by Mario Alcauter.

 

The collection, which includes hundreds of boxes filled with Snow’s papers and photographs, has been appraised at over $350,000. Rare, one-of-a-kind photos like the ones of Mao Zedong (Tse-tung), Communist leader of the People’s Republic of China from 1949–76, put her photos in a class all their own.

 

“I’ve acquired many collections over the course of my career, but none of these collections and none of the collections I work with on an ongoing basis mean more to me than the Helen Foster Snow papers,” said Murphy. “She’s an example to us today of what can be accomplished by a single person in terms of establishing relationships between two peoples, two cultures, and two countries.”

 

Snow’s journey in China began in 1931 when she took a job with the United States government in Shanghai. She quickly became an expert on current events in China and began writing articles about the Chinese people and their lives at the time for American newspapers.

 

Snow and her husband Edgar were among the eight American journalists who introduced China to a Western audience for the first time.

 

Chinese delegation
The Honorable Pine Gu and members of the Chinese delegation examining Snow's photographs. Photo by Mario Alcauter.

 

“One of the truly extraordinary things Helen did was bring her camera,” said Murphy. “They took some of the only known photographs and conducted some of the very first interviews in English with Chairman Mao, General Zhu De, and many soldiers who participated in the Long March.”

 

Some of those rare photographs are a part of the expansive Helen Foster Snow Collection at BYU that was shared with the Chinese delegates. Murphy’s personal favorite item in the collection is a blanket—one of only two still in existence—that was created by the Gung-Ho Chinese cooperative movement that Snow helped form.

 

"Gung-ho" is Chinese for "work together,” a phrase which encapsulates the movement’s aim and Snow’s entire legacy. The cooperative movement, which was formed with permission from Chairman Mao upon Snow’s return to the United States in 1940, is a great accomplishment and has inspired similar movements between nations.

 

Snow’s sympathetic portrayal of Chinese struggles and her involvement in the revolutionary December 9th Movement built her strong friendship with the people of China—a friendship that continues to this day.

 

“The great thing that Helen Foster Snow accomplished in her very long life was to build bridges with our Chinese friends,” said Murphy. “Our goal at BYU is to continue to build those bridges and build on the legacy that Helen Foster Snow developed over the course of her wonderful and very long life.”

 

Murphy shows the blanket
Murphy showing a blanket made by the Gung-Ho Chinese cooperative movement to the delegation. Photo by Mario Alcauter.

 

Sheril Bischoff, a co-trustee of the Helen Foster Snow Literary Trust, explained why BYU was a good landing spot for Snow’s collection. “After meeting with BYU’s library staff, the Trust was confident that placing the collection at BYU campus would be mutually beneficial because we were impressed that BYU would take good care, make good use on a continuing basis, and follow all of those purposes set out originally by Helen Snow in her trust,” said Bischoff.

 

Following Murphy’s presentation on the collection and Bischoff’s comments on the Helen Foster Snow-BYU connection, it was clear that the Chinese delegates were very pleased with BYU’s care of Snow’s work. Gifts were exchanged, memories were reflected on, and hopes for the future were expressed.

 

This quote from Snow sums up her life’s work perfectly: “The great wall between China and the rest of the world seemed very far away. This was grassroots Chinese-American friendship. Never will I do anything to break this special relationship, woven with such a few fragile threads in a world where merciless swords cut at international understanding and natural human identities.”

 

Learn more about Helen Foster Snow

 

Writer: Jake Gulisane

Contact: Cindy Glad (801) 422-1257