At the Front - 1939-1941

A few days before Hankou fell to the Japanese in October, 1938, Smedley headed south in a medical van. At Changsha, between bombing raids she conferred with Dr. Lin and pondered her next move. There seemed to be three alternatives. First, she could move further inland to the remote mountainous retreat of Chongqing, along with Chiang Kai-shek's government and most of the Hankou »gang« of international correspondents. By withdrawing to Chongqing and giving up vigorous resistance to the Japanese, Chiang hoped to survive without major losses until the Americans and others could be drawn into the war. Or, second, she could return to the United States via Hong Kong. Third, she could join the Communist-led guerrilla units in central China, the most dangerous war zone of all, as a war correspondent and medical worker.
The first two options were not hard to reject. Chongqing was far from the battlefield, and with the censorship and police harassment Smedley could expect from Chiang's regime, the atmosphere was likely to be as stifling for her as it had been in Shanghai in 1936. The United States had even less to offer her in the way of professional opportunities. The popular mood there was still isolationist, there was little interest in Asia, and the American left was increasingly split over Stalin's purges. Personally, she felt little emotional pull to return. Her father was dead, she was not on good terms with others in her family, and over the years she had drifted apart or broken off friendships with women like Florence Lennon and Margaret Sanger. For better or worse, China had become her personal and professional home. Choosing the third option,
then, came naturally. Four months with the Eighth Route Army in 1937 had given Smedley a taste of war reporting, and she loved it. The recognition being given to China Fights Back (1938), as well as the encouragement she was getting from editors at the Manchester Guardian, were a tonic for her self-confidence. Perhaps most important, she filled an essential role as a spokesperson for medical needs of the wounded in central China. The units would soon be served by her friend Dr. Lin and his associates, who were setting up a medical delivery system for the Communist-led New Fourth Army in the hills to the east of Changsha.
Despite the fact that the Lily Wu affair had rendered her persona non grata with the Eighth Route Army in Yan'an, many Communist leaders, particularly Zhou Enlai and Zhu De, appreciated Smedley's value as a sympathetic writer and go-between in dealings with the West. At Han-kou she had proven herself on a variety of fronts, and Zhou Enlai had developed a genuine personal respect for her. Thus Zhou did not hesitate to recommend Smedley to the commanders of the New Fourth Army, Ye Ting and Xiang Ying, and they in turn gave her blanket permission to travel in the war zone.
From November of 1938 to April of 1940, Smedley wandered the hills north and south of the Yangzi River as it flows east from Wuhan—a vast region that encompassed Hunan and Hubei provinces to the south and Anhui and Henan provinces to the north. Most of her time was spent visiting resistance units under both Communist and Guomindang leadership. Hers turned out to be the longest sustained tour of a Chinese war zone by any foreign correspondent, man or woman, including Edgar Snow and Jack Belden. It was an exhilarating experience and probably the high point of her career as a journalist. But the conditions were rugged and dangerous, and Smedley paid a price in steadily deteriorating health.

In Battle Hymn of China (1943), one of the best works of war reporting to have come out of World War II, Smedley chronicled her eighteen-month experience in great detail. War and revolution were her subjects, and she painted them in broad dramatic strokes through a series of colorful vignettes about battles, Japanese atrocities, and heroics on the Chinese side. Determined to arouse American sympathy for the struggle of the whole Chinese people against the Japanese invaders, she deliberately emphasized unity of purpose between the Communists and the Guomindang. Her attacks on the Guomindang, for example, were muted, and she praised pro-Chiang Kai-shek warlords like Li Zongren and his Guangxi troops almost as much as the Communist-led New Fourth Army.
From the historian's point of view, one of Battle Hymn's great strengths is its description of the social transformation that took place in the Chinese countryside as the result of the war. Through Smedley's eyes we see how peasant women were being organized to take an active role in military and social life, how basic literacy grew through mass education campaigns, and how democratic practices were introduced into village politics as an integral part of mobilizing against the Japanese. It was largely because of these changes that Chiang Kai-shek was unable to regain control of the Chinese countryside after the war.
What Smedley does not reveal in Battle Hymn is the complexities of her own personal and political life in the central war zone. The tone of the book is upbeat and exuberant, but from a letter she wrote to Freda Utley in June of 1939, we know that she often felt isolated and alone after the camaraderie she had enjoyed in Hankou. And despite the rosy picture of national unity she painted in Battle Hymn, she knew that the Communists and the Guomindang remained bitter rivals, and even that the Communist leadership of the New Fourth Army was seriously split.
The New Fourth Army had taken shape in 1938 from guerrilla units operating in the hills of the lower Yangzi River valley, which runs east from Anqing to the outskirts of Shanghai. The army was recruited and led by Communist veterans of the Long March, and by the fall of 1938 it had over 12,000 uniformed men. Split into four detachments, the main body operated south of the Yangzi. Only one detachment of about 2,000 men operated to the north. The headquarters was in southern Anhui at Yunling, about fifty miles south of the river port of Wuhu. Because Chiang Kai-shek insisted that the commander of the New Fourth Army could not be a Communist, a compromise was made: the leader would be Ye Ting, a former Communist who was now on good terms with Chiang. But because Ye was kept busy commuting back and forth between Yunling, Nanchang, and Chongqing, the real power lay with his strong-minded Communist vice-commander and political commissar, Xiang Ying. Xiang had been a major figure in the Red Army and the Communist Party since the Jiangxi soviet of the early 1930s. Politically he was allied to the more doctrinaire, Moscow-trained, »Bolshevik« faction led by Wang Ming and Bo Gu, which rigidly supported the united-front line. Owing to his earnest pursuit of the united front, Xiang Ying's relations with Guomindang counterparts in the Fifth War Zone were often better than those of his commander, Ye Ting.[1]
Throughout 1938 and 1939 the New Fourth Army managed to become enough of a nuisance to attract Japanese air attacks and mop-up campaigns—which was precisely what Chiang Kai-shek had hoped would happen. A major reason for the New Fourth Army's resilience was its medical corps. Smedley worked closely with this corps from the very beginning, and her role in its success is now officii !y acknowledged in Beijing.[2]
In November, 1938, Smedley moved from Changsha to the New Fourth Army headquarters at Yunling, ostensibly to prepare an extended report for Dr. Lin and the Red Cross. But her real mission, as she saw it, was to publicize the New Fourth Army Medical Corps in Shanghai and Hong Kong. During the winter of 1938 —39 she wrote a series of articles for the China Weekly Review of Shanghai (reprinted later in the Manchester Guardian) which reported at length on the condition of the New Fourth Army and its medical needs. Privately, she appealed to such British friends as Sir Archibald Clark Kerr, the ambassador, and Hilda Selwyn-Clarke, wife of the director of Hong Kong's health services, as well as to the American branch of the International Red Cross. By spring, significant aid was coming in from British and Red Cross sources, and in the eyes of her Chinese colleagues, Smedley was a heroine.[3]
The director of the New Fourth Army Medical Corps in Yunling— who was later to become one of the leading figures of Chinese medicine—was Dr. Shen Jizhen, a German-trained native of Hunan province and a teacher at Beijing Medical College until Dr. Robert K. Lin personally appointed him to the New Fourth Army job. During the winter of 1938—39 Dr. Shen escorted Smedley on an extensive tour of more than twenty medical teams attached to the three detachments of the New Fourth Army south of the Yangzi. Forty years later, in an interview in Beijing, Dr. Shen recalled how hard Smedley had worked and especially praised her personal ministrations to the wounded. Most of Dr. Shen's doctors and nurses were from big cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong and felt uneasy in the countryside, as well as being terribly frightened by the Japanese bombing raids. Smedley seemed much less concerned about both, and often risked her life to help the wounded during bombing attacks.[4]
A contemporary account by a young writer for a local guerrilla publication captured the excitement surrounding Smedley's arrival at New Fourth Army headquarters in November, 1938. The author, an aspiring novelist and playwright named Wu Jiang, considered Smedley a celebrity before she arrived. Three weeks earlier, at a memorial meeting honoring Lu Xun, the father of modern Chinese literature, he had heard Smedley referred to as a close friend and comrade-in-arms of the great man. Now here she was, the great American writer herself, rafting into Yunling with a group of guerrillas and students. Seeing themselves as part of an international struggle, the whole community gathered in an old ancestral temple to meet her. The welcoming speeches were warm, not only from medical corps director Shen but also from Xiang Ying, the hard-nosed Red Army veteran who was in charge. Smedley's words of response were well translated by a young American-trained doctor, Fang Lianbai. It was her standard melodramatic performance: she described her poor rural roots, her jail experience in New York, and her revolutionary marriage to Chatto, and concluded by praising the Chinese struggle as a crucial part of the international fight against fascism and imperialism. As usual, she brought the crowd to its feet. At the end of the evening, she led a rousing rendition of the »Internationale« in Chinese.[5]
Smedley spent her first days in Yunling inspecting medical facilities and writing reports. At night she met by candlelight with students for discussions of world politics and literature. She seemed indefatigable. In an interview in 1978, Wu Jiang remembered that she took time to talk with him personally and at length about how to write plays and how to collect material in the midst of a war.[6]
After a few weeks at Yunling, Smedley and Dr. Shen began to tour medical units in outlying areas. In a valley not far from headquarters, she was allowed to visit the New Fourth Army's secret arsenal and munitions center—an expression of unusual trust, since the arsenal's existence technically violated the united-front agreement with the Guomin-dang.*
(* Under the terms of the agreement between Yan'an and Chongqlng, the New Fourth Army was to get its arms only from Chongqlng and was not to produce munitions on its own. Chlang Kalshek, always wary of any increase in Communist power, sent only enough arms for the army's stze in mid-1938 and thereafter supplied few replacements. To accommodate the army's sweiling ranks of guerrilla units, the leadership decided they had to develop a makeshift arsenal of their own. See sources cited in note 1.)
Quickly recovering from the shock of having a foreign visitor, the arsenal's managers proudly showed Smedley around the factory and explained its improvised equipment. With characteristic forthrightness, Smedley asked to try out the product. She was handed a pistol and bullets and led to the outskirts of the compound, where a target was put up against a tree. Like a true daughter of the Wild West, she loaded the pistol expertly, whirled toward the target, and fired. All three shots were on the mark. She handed the gun back to her astonished hosts, and at the end of the tour she told them: »I've traveled in America and Europe, and visited many countries and factories, but I must confess I have never seen anything like your arsenal. It's unique«.[7]
In the spring of 1939, when Smedley returned to Yunling from one of her excursions, she was surprised to find Hans Shippe in camp. Shippe was a German writer and maverick Communist whom Smedley had known in Shanghai in 1935. Writing under the pen name Asiaticus, he had criticized Edgar Snow's Red Star over China as soon as it appeared. Essentially he argued that Snow, whom he called a Trotskyite, had exaggerated the independence of the Chinese Communists from Moscow and had not understood the need for the Communists to subordinate their identity to the united front with the Guomindang. A similar position on Red Star was being taken by Communist Party reviewers in Europe and America—in the New York Daily Worker, for example.[8]
When Shippe visited Yan'an in 1938, he had arranged for a Chinese version of his critique of Edgar Snow to be circulated before his arrival. In his first audience with Mao, he repeated his attack on Snow. The response was silence, and other senior figures refused to see him. A few weeks later, he asked to see Chairman Mao again. This time Mao did all the talking: he delivered a stern rebuke and told Shippe to hold his tongue about Snow if he had any hope of being restored as a member of the German Communist Party. Shippe later told Smedley: »Mao had been too severe with me. He was really too cruel«.[9]
When Shippe visited the New Fourth Army headquarters for two weeks in the spring of 1939, he and Smedley saw each other daily and argued vociferously, not only about Snow but about other matters as well. Their opposing positions are worth noting because they mirrored disputes taking place within the Communist leadership of the New Fourth Army generally. Smedley sided with Ye Ting and Chen Yi, whose views resembled those of Zhu De and Mao in Yan'an: she wanted the Communists to maintain considerable independence of military command from Chiang Kai-shek's Guomindang and hence enough military power to avoid another betrayal by Chiang. Shippe's views were closer to those of Xiang Ying of the New Fourth Army and Wang Ming and Bo Gu in Yan'an: he wanted the Communists to accept political and military subservience to the Guomindang and more guidance from Moscow. After all, he argued, Stalin was providing major assistance toChiang Kai-shek, and so long as this aid continued, Chiang would not dare attack the Communists. The daily arguments between Smedley and Shippe were so noisy and bitter that their Chinese hosts arranged for Smedley to leave on a field trip earlier than planned, and Shippe left for Shanghai shortly thereafter.[10]
While Smedley was defending Edgar Snow in her arguments with Shippe, she took a position on another issue that on the surface seemed to contradict her stand on the need for independence from the Guomin-dang. In letters to Edgar Snow, she was demanding that he choose sides between her and Mme. Sun Yat-sen on the issue of medical aid. Both women were raising money in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and the United States for China's medical needs, but they felt locked in competition. A central issue was the role of Dr. Robert K. Lin, whom Mme. Sun disliked chiefly because of his close ties to her sister and arch-rival, Mme. Chiang. In Mme. Sun's view, accepting the united front to the point of working mainly through Dr. Lin on medical aid meant handing over supplies and money to the hopelessly corrupt Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek. In her opinion, little if any medical aid would then reach Communist-led troops. But Smedley was fiercely loyal to Dr. Lin, and, as she had so many times in the past, she put her trust in the proven character and abilities of an individual. He had demonstrated his willingness to provide medical care to all Chinese soldiers, not just those passing the ideological litmus tests of the Guomindang or the Communists, and Smedley firmly believed that he was best able to deliver the needed health-care system. Unfortunately, because of her past fights with Mme. Sun, Smedley's old friends could not always separate her demands from what they felt was a personal vendetta between the two women. In this context Smedley now demanded that friends like Snow, Rewi Alley, and James Bertram choose sides. At first the Snows tried to remain neutral, but by mid-1939 their relationship with Smedley had broken off. On the other hand, Hilda Selwyn-Clarke in Hong Kong chose to side with Smedley, and became a close friend and staunch supporter in her fund-raising.[11]
Because of this dispute, Smedley found herself getting along better with leading British figures in China such as Sir Archibald Clark Kerr and Hilda Selwyn-Clarke, than with American friends, like the Snows— an ironic turn of events, considering her long-standing hostility toward the British over their colonial policies. This estrangement from several old friends and colleagues intensified the loneliness Smedley felt during her work with the New Fourth Army, but it also heightened her emotional commitment to the mission of the Chinese Red Cross, Dr. Lin, and the New Fourth Army Medical Corps.
By the fall of 1939, under the leadership of Chen Yi, major units of the New Fourth Army had begun moving north across the Yangzi River into northern Anhui province. Smedley, who accompanied one of the units, recalled her crossing in Battle Hymn:

On September 3, before crossing the Yangzi, we took our last rest in a deserted temple high in the mountains. Before going to sleep we ran up the highest peak and looked down on the gleaming river, ten miles away. We saw the black bulk of what seemed to be a cruiser nosing its way up river. To the west we could see a pall of smoke over the Japanese-occupied river port [of] Tikang. Feng Dafei [the commander] pointed to two towns lying on the plain below us, about five miles from the shore of the Yangzi. »Those are the enemy garrison points«, he said. »Tonight we will pass directly between them«.
Nearing the mighty Yangzi, we came out on top of the high earthen dikes that hold back the river during the floods. Dark lagoons slumbered on either hand—breeding places of the malarial mosquito. Then a traitor appeared: the red half-moon rose like a balloon over the mountains behind us and cast its ruddy glow across the white dikes and the dark lagoons. I could see a part of the long column in front of me. We cursed under our breath and began to hurry and even run. Our carriers dropped into a slow, rhythmical dog trot, breathing heavily...
[Upon reaching a junk at the water's edge] many of our people were exhausted and two women nurses had been sick for hours with a malarial attack. Ignoring the danger, they all fell flat on the deck, closed their eyes, and slept like the dead. The great oar at the stern of our junk began to creak and we saw that we were pushing off. Soon we came out on the broad bosom of the Yangzi, blanketed in a silvery haze. A rolling and mighty river, it stretched before us like an ocean. At this point it was five miles wide as the crow flies, but actually seventy li (about twenty-three miles) from our place of embarkation to the village where we were to land...
We anxiously peered at the dark shore and disappearing buildings behind us. The half-moon was now high above, casting a long silvery path over the waters. Flaky clouds floated across its face. The wind blew strong and fresh, and we cried out in joy as it bellied out the great ragged sails and sent us leaping forward. Our eyes scanned the mist, watchful for enemy gunboats; and we strained our ears for any sound of firing...
The trees on the north shore became clearer and, beyond them, buildings. Down the river shore we saw the dim figures of sentries, rifles on their backs. As our junks touched land we leaped over the sides and ran excitedly towards a crowd of people. The whole village was up, waiting for us. A man in a white jacket and trousers came forward, introducing himself as the qu official.
We walked into the village and came to rest on a broad flat threshing floor which gleamed white in the faint moonlight. A group gathered, put their heads together, and began singing the Guerrilla Marching Song. Ten minutes later the second junk landed, and our commander, Feng Dafei, congratulatedus on our military discipline. We had done much better than he had expected.
(pp. 304-13)

Smedley spent October of 1939 at Lihuang, on the Hubei border.*
(* The region, long notortous for its bandits, had been the power base of Cao Cao, the third-century A.U). villain of the popular Ming novel Tale of Three Kingdoms (San guo yanyi). The anclent and present name of its main city was jinjiachat; it had recently been renamed for a fallen Guomindang general, Wei Lihuang, and made the capital of unoccupied Anhul province. On the region in general and its place in modern Chinese history, see Ellzabeth Perry, Rebels and Revolutionaries in North China, 1845-1945 (Stanford, 1981).
At the time of her visit, the small city of Lihuang was in the hands of relatively progressive troops led by a group of Guangxi warlord generals. For a fleeting moment, before its fall to the Japanese in February of the next year, it was the center of united-front resistance in central China. Writing for the Manchester Guardian about conditions there, Smedley said she was impressed by how well the united front seemed to be working, noting especially that a concerted effort to establish a new school system was underway. She saw hope in the position of the local newspaper, whose liberal editor, Zhang Beiquan, was advocating democracy in local government. For Dr. Lin and the Chinese Red Cross, she wrote a long report about the hospital in Lihuang, calling it the best she had seen yet in wartime China. In Battle Hymn of China she went on for several chapters in this vein, explaining to an American audience how conditions in Lihuang set a hopeful precedent for the anti-Japanese war effort in the future.[12]
Because Smedley was the first (and last) foreign reporter to visit Lihuang during the war, her presence was treated as a major event. She was invited to speak at several large rallies. On these occasions she illustrated international support for the anti-Japanese struggle by citing the contributions of Indian nationalists—particularly the medical mission from India that was already in full operation in northwestern China. (Smedley was in touch with Nehru, who had just arrived in Chongqing on a goodwill visit, and was trying to bring him to Lihuang on his way to other guerrilla bases to the north.)[13]
In Chinese accounts of Smedley's stay in Lihuang, she appears as something of a Pied Piper, always followed by a band of young, patriotic intellectuals who were refugees from Shanghai and elsewhere. Through her energetic, American-educated interpreter, Dr. Fang Lianbai, Smedley engaged these young people in long conversations, which in some cases became dialogues that continued throughout her stay.[14] One of these young persons was Meng Bo, then twenty-four years old and a choral director and musician-composer, who talked with her about music and its relationship to politics, with interesting results.*
(* One day over tea Smedley asked Meng Bo, "Do you know any choruses from Beethoven's 9th?" Surprised and defensive, Meng Bo sald his group had been performing some Bach cantatas with band accompaniment. "Why don't you glve Beethoven a try?" she suggested. She sang the chorus from the finale for him several times and then went over the words. Flnally Meng Bo sang it back, and they tried singing it together. When he had it at last, Smedley let out a big cheer and rushed over to hug him. As a result, the final chorale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was published, in translation, in a local music magazine (Interview with Meng Bo). In the 1960s, during the Cultural Revolution, Meng Bo was severely crltlclzed at the Shanghal Conservatory of Music for bis advocacy of Beethoven.)
Smedley's interest in local culture was real enough and her emotional identification with the Chinese very strong, but she could not divorce these interests from the immediate political situation. In Battle Hymn, for example, she reported the following event. One evening, more than a thousand people gathered to see some short plays performed by a local Guomindang troupe. One of them, which concerned a battle six months earlier at Anqing, where Guangxi troops had surprised and smashed a Japanese garrison, gave a sympathetic portrayal of a Japanese officer who had been born and educated in China, and this upset many in the audience. Smedley wrote:

When the performances were finished, I was asked to speak. Instead, I rose and suggested that the audience discuss the plays. My suggestion was opposed by an official who declared that the audience was too undeveloped to discuss them. The actors, still in their make-up, supported my idea and asked me to lead the discussion. Two of the playwrights offered to reply to criticism.
I spoke of the excellent acting, but objected to the idea of showing a Japanese staff officer as a friend of China. If he was a friend of China, why did he remain in the Japanese Army? The playwright replied that his Japanese character was drawn from life; that there really had been such a man in Anqing during the May 4 fighting.
The dam had broken. A dozen men, some soldiers, some students in the various training camps, asked for the floor. They strode up the aisles, leaped to the stage, and told what they thought of the plays. And they talked intelligently. One soldier declared that one play was too filled with lofty talk which the common people could not understand. Still another pointed out that one of the plays showed a gang of Japanese and Chinese puppets [collaborators] having a feast and gabbing about the threat of guerrillas, but that the guerrillas never attacked, and only the wife of the puppet leader had killed herself out of fear. No play, he declared violently, should ever show that treason pays: the guerrillas should have killed every low-down dog at the banquet table!
Ah, replied the playwright, was that reality? If the enemy was always lying dead on the stage, what was the use of continuing the war? Arouse the people by showing the facts!
(pp. 355-56)

In November of 1939 Smedley again joined guerrilla units in the field. First she headed north into southern Henan province, where she encountered ancient peasant mutual-protection associations with secret-society names like Red Spears.[15] These groups were cooperating with local Communist-led guerrilla units in harassing the Japanese behind the lines. Toward the end of December, as the situation there became more dangerous, Smedley moved southwest into the barren, windswept Dahong mountain range along the Anhui-Hubei border, where she stayed for three months with a special commando unit affiliated with the New Fourth Army. This unit was commanded by Li Xiannian, a carpenter turned Robin Hood, Communist guerrilla leader, and charismatic folk hero. (In 1949 he would become the first Communist governor of Anhui province, and in 1984 he was named president of the People's Republic of China, the titular head of state.)
Smedley devoted three chapters in Battle Hymn to her experiences with Li Xiannian's troops. She paid special attention to the ways women were being organized in the New Fourth Army areas. With her old Brownie camera, she took a remarkable set of pictures documenting women's meetings, literacy classes, and women as soldiers.[16]
Smedley was keenly interested in Chen Shaomin, the only woman commander in the area. »Big Foot« or »Big Sister« Chen, as she was known at the time, had joined the party in the late twenties as a teenager, and by 1939 she had earned wide respect in northern China as an underground party operative. By the time Smedley met her, she seemed a kindred spirit—tough as leather, very businesslike, and still single. Smedley was impressed by the respect Chen seemed to command from male troops, taking it as a sign of growing emancipation on the part of the Chinese male peasant. To Smedley, Big Sister Chen superseded the traditional Chinese heroine—the woman warrior disguised as a man who becomes a battlefield commander, an Eastern Joan of Arc—because Chen went undisguised.[17]
By March of 1940 Smedley's health had deteriorated, and as Japanese pincer movements tightened around the guerrillas, Li Xiannian advised Smedley to leave the war zone and head for Chongqing. There, he said, she could regain the strength to carry on with her most important mission — telling the world about the struggle in central China. Smedley was familiar with this argument and knew she would have to leave, but the prospect hurt her in a personal, even maternal, way. She had become so attached to her »little devil«, a boy named Shen Guohua, that she wanted to take him away from the front and send him to school. As the time for her departure drew near, she begged for permission to adopt him. Thus she wrote in Battle Hymn:

When [Li Xiannian] asked me why I wished to adopt Guohua, I tried to give
my reasons a scientific basis. The child had a scientific turn of mind, I ar
gued, and I mentioned his observations of lice, of wind and snow, the way he
learned to read and write so quickly, and how he could tell the directions
from the stars at night. Good, Li said, I could adopt the boy if I wished and if
the boy himself consented. A burly fellow leaning against the door frame re
marked that he could do all the things I said Guohua could do. And he felt
certain that he knew much more about lice. Would 1 like to adopt him too!
The conversation became a little rowdy.    
(pp. 474—75)

In the end, the boy himself refused to leave with Smedley, saying that she could adopt him »after the final victory«. Sadly, Smedley left on foot for the long trek southwest to Yichang on the Yangzi River, where she caught a boat going upstream to Chongqing.
Chongqing rose high on a rocky promontory overlooking the confluence of the Yangzi and Jialing rivers. Until the arrival of Chiang Kai-shek's government in December of 1938, it was a remote medieval city of impressive natural beauty, locked away in the mountains of the southwestern province of Sichuan. The city's largely bamboo and mud structures seemed to be stacked up like sandcastles on the riverbank. Economically, it had been a bustling regional trading center with few industries, known locally for its rats and its scarcity of fresh water. Between 1938 and 1940 its population doubled, swelled by a cosmopolitan refugee population; shabby makeshift housing covered the foothills south of the city. And although the city was mountainous, its latitude was approximately that of Cairo, Egypt, so its winter chills produced thick fogs that obliterated the sun for days, providing ideal protection from Japanese bombing raids. In warm weather, however, the fog dissipated and the city became clearly visible from the air. Caves carved into nearby mountains thus became second homes for the city's Chinese and foreign population. During the summers of 1939 and 1940, the visibility was good and the bombing was the most intense of the war; the city proper became a smoldering ruin, and bodies were seen daily floating down the Yangzi.
Politically and socially, Chongqing had been dominated since the 1920s by a group of notoriously ruthless warlords who were only loosely allied to Chiang Kai-shek. Furthermore, General Dai Li, Chiang's minister of public security, was exacting bribes and terrorizing the Chinese population. His men made special targets of Smedley's friends from Shanghai, such as the liberal noncommunist newspaper editor Zou Tao-fen; while Smedley was in Chongqing, Zou fled for his life to Hong Kong.[18]
Despite these depressing conditions, Chongqing, like Hankou, had one advantage for Smedley: it put her in touch again with the international journalistic and diplomatic community. At the U.S. embassy she got along well with the senior military attache, the Chinese-speaking David Barrett. And she renewed her friendship with the British ambassador, Sir Archibald Clark Kerr, who made another contribution of money for medical relief and found her a place to stay at the Jardine-Matheson headquarters, on a high bluff overlooking the river and city. Within the foreign community in general Smedley was a notorious, mysterious figure and therefore often invited to give talks. Her first was to the International Women's Club of Chongqing, where she appeared »in blue slacks in keeping with her mannish haircut« and spoke in sober terms about conditions in the central war zone. Between talks and stays in the hospital for severe chest pain, Smedley visited friends at the International Press Hostel, a rickety old bamboo structure in a banana grove on the edge of the city. She avoided the Chinese Ministry of Information next door; its director, Hollington Tong, had been trying for several years to censor Smedley's writings or have her deported from China. At the press hostel, Smedley made new friends among the younger generation of China reporters, notably Hugh Deane and T. H. (Theodore) White, who had just arrived fresh from Chinese studies at Harvard. Deane in particular has recalled how much he benefited from Smedley's long discussions with him about the situation in China.[19]
Although generally depressed by conditions in Chongqing, Smedley was encouraged by two developments she found there. The first was a network of hospitals and medical schools, established throughout unoccupied China by the Nationalist government's new Ministry of Health, under the direction of her friend Dr. Lin. She saw this—correctly, as it turned out—as a basis for socialized medicine, or at least a national health system.* (* The roots of the contemporary Chinese health care system combine a foundation Iald by Dr. Lin and his associates with elements of guerrilla medicine developed in Yan'an)
She was also excited by the privately funded Industrial Cooperative Movement led by Rewi Alley, Mme. Sun Yat-sen, Chen Hansheng, and others. With capital raised from hundreds of overseas investors, small industrial cooperatives were being formed in the hinterland. Again, this seemed to augur well for a socialist shape to the postwar economy.
In mid-June of 1940, Dr. Lin arrived in Chongqing on one of his periodic visits from his mountain medical training center at Guiyang, in neighboring Guizhou province«.*
(*Dr. Lin had come to Gulyang from Changsha in 1938 and within two years had bullt the mountain suburb of Duoyunguan into the new headquarters of the Chinese Red Cross. As the director of both, with the rank of lieutenant general, he gathered around him a remarkable staff: faculty and students from China's top medical facillty, the Rockefeller-funded Peking Medical College, were j"olned by fifteen European med'Ical doctors and technicians, whose release from French concentration camps in Spain (where they were captured during the Spanish Civil War) Dr. Lin had secured on the condition that they work in China. At Gulyang, Dr. Lin was helped in this recruitment by the Yugoslavian doctor, Berislav Borcic, whom Smedley had known in Shanghal. By 1940 the physical facillties, bullt with British and Indoneslan Chinese money, were impressive: classrooms, dormitories, and laboratories; a major hospital for the severely wounded; a motor pool of three or four hundred ambulances from Indonesia; five large storage warehouses for medical supplies and equlpment; and three cooperative drug-producing factories in which outpatients worked. For sources see note 20.)
Shocked by the state of Smedley's health, he insisted that she return to Guiyang with him, to rest and be examined for a possible gall bladder operation. Smedley, probably tired of Chongqing by now, eventually consented. By the end of the month the two of them were heading south for Guiyang in an ancient Red Cross truck (donated by overseas Chinese from Indonesia), rattling over a twisting, unpaved road strewn with abandoned vehicles. Smedley arrived in Guiyang bedraggled but in good spirits, and moved into the guest cottage next to Dr. Lin's compound.[20] There she rested, enjoyed Lin's library, and continued to work on writing her experiences with the New Fourth Army. The serenity of this interlude was broken only twice by Japanese bombing raids. As she wrote in Battle Hymn, the first was directed at the city of Guiyang, but the second hit the clearly marked medical compound at Duoyunguan:

On July 28 enemy naval planes made a special detour to bomb the Red Cross headquarters and the medical center. After that raid—when doctors had to operate on wounded men injured a second time and convalescent soldiers had to help prepare temporary shelters for the night—Dr. Lin began plans to decentralize and scatter the wards, a layout which would make medical work still more difficult. That evening Dr. Lin brought in a huge bomb fragment and, looking at it speculatively, said, »I've half a mind to make special medals of it and confer them on American firms that sell war material to Japan«.
(pp. 508-9)

As she regained strength, Smedley spoke at mass meetings and made a few radio broadcasts. On one memorable occasion, she even danced the night away at a party given in honor of a new group of wounded soldiers from Britain who had been fighting the Japanese in Burma. But her gall bladder was still giving her trouble, and in August she and Dr. Lin agreed that she should ride east two hundred rough miles by truck to Guilin and from there fly to Hong Kong, where she could get the kind of sophisticated operation she needed. Her plan at the time was to recover in Hong Kong and then return to Duoyunguan, to continue her writing and her work with Dr. Lin.
Smedley arrived in Hong Kong at 3:00 a.m. on August twenty-sixth, after a night flight over Japanese lines, as the only passenger in an unmarked mail plane.[21] As she left the plane she was met by British immigration officials, politely taken into custody, and told that she must appear at a hearing the next day. Here, in the Crown colony of Hong Kong, she had set foot for the first time on British soil, and without a visa. British intelligence agents had been tracking her since 1918, when her arrest in New York had revealed her association with the Indian nationalist movement, and during the 1930s colonial service agents in Shanghai had built up a substantial file on her. Since there was a large Indian community in Hong Kong, they were concerned to discover whether she was still bent on promoting dissent or even rebellion there. At the hearing the next morning, a British judge in robes and wig recited Smedley's past offenses against the British Empire, especially her support of Indian independence, and accused her of being a woman of questionable moral character. Smedley responded in kind, denouncing British imperialism and defending her right to sexual freedom.*
(* There are many stories about how Smedley handled the British authorities in Hong Kong. According to Ram Chattopadhyaya, Virendranath's nephew, who saw her in Boston in the late 1940s, she answered the judge as follows: Yes, she had slept with many men. But lf one of them had been English, she simply couldn't remember, because "he made so little impact on me." After a moment of embarrassed silence, the judge's voice rang out, "Case dismissed" (Interview). See also Emily Hahn, China to Me (New York, 1944), p. 222.)
In the end a bargain was struck: Smedley could remain in Hong Kong for medical treatment as long as she refrained from making speeches or engaging in political activities. Most probably, it was her connections to Sir Archibald Clark Kerr and Hilda Selwyn-Clarke that prevented the authorities from deporting her within days.
Hong Kong's population in the fall of 1940 was about one million, one-fifth its size in 1980. Much of the island and most of the New Territories (on the mainland peninsula) were still rural. But the sudden influx of war refugees had overtaxed the colony. There were severe shortages of housing and decent health services. Malaria and cholera had reached near-epidemic proportions. What made the situation seem desperate for all, rich and poor, foreigners and Chinese alike, was the knowledge that a Japanese attack was inevitable. The colony had been surrounded since the fall of Guangzhou in 1938, and the Japanese were simply waiting for the right moment to strike. The atmosphere resembled that of Hankou two years earlier: tension and a sense of impending disaster combined with giddy feelings of unity and camaraderie.
The influx of Chinese war refugees had turned Hong Kong into an important arena of Chinese politics. Mme. Sun Yat-sen, for example, was living there, providing a focal point for noncommunist opposition to the Guomindang government in Chongqing. Hong Kong was the headquarters for the Industrial Cooperative Movement being led by Rewi Alley, Chen Hansheng, Mme. Sun, and others. Moreover, with the closure of the Burma Road and the application of tight Japanese controls on Shanghai, most international medical aid for China was being funneled through Hong Kong. Finally, Hong Kong was a center of international intrigue and espionage. During the winter of 1940—41 it was widely rumored that secret meetings were being held there between Japanese agents and representatives of Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang, it was feared, was about to make a deal and accept a peace settlement—an apprehension temporarily fueled by Mme. Chiang's arrival in Hong Kong at the beginning of 1941.
In cultural terms, Hong Kong had become a haven for a number of major Chinese writers and artists, such as Mao Dun, Xiao Hong, and Xia Yan, all of whom Smedley had known in Shanghai. Supporting these writers were the newspapers and publishing ventures being launched by Smedley's friend Zou Taofen, a recent political exile from Chongqing who was probably the most distinguished Chinese journalist of his generation.[22]
With Hilda Selwyn-Clarke acting as her guarantor, Smedley was released from hotel arrest by immigration officials in early September of 1940. Hilda was a substantial figure in the colony. Her husband was the medical director of the colony's health services, and she herself was probably the colony's most effective social activist. Fervently committed to the anti-Japanese struggle in China since 1938, she had been deeply involved in organizing medical aid. She was the type Smedley liked—a handsome, hard-drinking, independent woman who enjoyed life while she fought for social causes.
As soon as Smedley was released, Hilda marched her straight off to Queen Mary's Hospital to have her gall bladder examined. Within a few days Smedley underwent surgery. Her doctor was Paul Wilkinson, a red-bearded, sultry professor of internal medicine at the University of Hong Kong Medical School. Smedley and Wilkinson quickly became friends and an affair developed. On the surface at least, they were an unlikely pair. Wilkinson was a moody recluse who took great pride in his classical education and his ability to recite Latin and Greek verse. Although he had Socialist leanings, he took little interest in British, Hong Kong, or Chinese politics. Many of his British friends at the university, however—for example, Norman France, a history professor—were Communists, and in social situations, Smedley delighted in needling them about the rigidity of their positions, especially their present tendency to dismiss the Sino-Japanese and European conflicts as simply wars between capitalists.
While still confined to bed in Queen Mary's Hospital, Smedley wrote a scathing indictment of British health, education, and welfare policies in Hong Kong. Supported by statistics provided by Hilda Selwyn-Clarke, her study appeared in two installments in the South China Morning Post and was signed simply »American Observer«. Within days it drew a series of outraged responses, to which Smedley responded in kind. Although her identity as the »American Observer« was never publicly revealed, Smedley was indirectly announcing her arrival and clearly testing the strength of the British prohibition on political activity.[23]
Shortly after Smedley was released from the hospital, Hilda Selwyn-Clarke introduced her to the Anglican bishop of Hong Kong, the Reverend Ronald O. Hall, a liberal community activist like Hilda (or like Bishop Roots in Hankou). He invited Smedley to convalesce for a few months at his country place in Shatin (then a rural market town on the railway line, today completely engulfed by Hong Kong's urban sprawl and the Chinese University of Hong Kong). Smedley accepted and spent much of the rest of 1940 in Shatin, resting and writing. On forays into town, she saw Wilkinson, Hilda, and old Chinese friends such as Chen Hansheng. She also spoke publicly a few times before student groups. She tried to bring the war to life by talking about battlefield conditions, the heroics of the New Fourth Army, and the desperate medical needs of those fighting the Japanese. But in general, she seemed to be heeding official British strictures and maintaining a low profile.[24]
Other reasons for Smedley's subdued, reclusive mood were her arguments with the senior Chinese Communist Party representative in Hong Kong, Liao Zhengzhi, and her continued difficulties with Mme. Sun Yatsen. Smedley was repulsed by Liao personally, as she wrote to Malcolm Cowley on July 24, 1941: »The Communist representative sitting in Hong Kong since the war began... [grows] fatter and fatter the longer he [sits] on his rear in the rear«. She was upset that he was paying more attention to the American Communist Party line on relations between Washington, the Guomindang, and the Chinese Communists than checking with Zhou Enlai about realities in Chongqing. As for Mme. Sun, although Hilda made an attempt to reconcile the two women, the break between them remained deep and bitter. They disagreed over tactics for raising medical aid funds abroad, and Mme. Sun continued to be upset about Smedley's support of Dr. Lin and Chiang Kai-shek's medical establishment in Chongqing. Moreover, she told friends that Smedley was too emotional and unreliable to work with. The feud continued to put their mutual friends—among them, Rewi Alley, Israel Epstein, Elsie Cholmeley, Chen Hansheng, and James Bertram—in a difficult position, and this in turn tended to isolate Smedley further. Alley and Chen, in whom she confided at the time, said she struck them as a melancholy figure, tortured by the break with Mme. Sun and still deeply hurt by what she considered her rejection by the Chinese Communist movement, to which she had given so much of her energy since the early 1930s.[25]
In early January of 1941, events in China changed Smedley's plans about returning to the interior. In southern Anhui province, fighting broke out between the New Fourth Army and Guomindang forces. The New Fourth Army units defending the Yunling headquarters south of the Yangzi were destroyed, the commander, Ye Ting, was arrested, and Xiang Ying was killed. This was the first major combat between Communist and Nationalist units since the united front had been declared in 1937.[26] With the New Fourth Army Incident, as this engagement was dubbed, relations between the two sides broke down. For the rest of World War II, there would be no more military collaboration between the Chinese Communists and the Guomindang.*
(* The New Fourth Army Incident had a tragic personal sequel for Smedley. A few months later, she learned that Dr. Fang Lianbal, her favorite interpreter at Yunling and Lihuang in 1939, had been killed, along with Hans Shippe, in a japanese ambush. After Shippe had returned to Shanghal in 1939, he and his wife, Trude, had played a Major role in smuggling out medical supplies to New Fourth Army units. In early 1941, just after the Incident, Shippe decided to visit surviving units in northern Anhul. just before he was killed, he filed a long analytical article on the fighting strength of surviving units of the New Fourth Army. His intent was to counteract Guomindang propaganda to the effect that the New Fourth Artny had been destroyed. Asiaticus (Hans Shippe), "New Fourth Army Area Revisited," Amerasia 5, no. 3 (September 1941): 287-94; also Wang Huo, "Hansi Xibo," Geming wenwu, no. 4 (july-August 1979): 38-41)
News of the New Fourth Army Incident left Smedley feeling shocked and helpless. Here she was, the foreign journalist who knew the New Fourth Army best, stuck in Hong Kong at the hour of the army's greatest trial. Because the Guomindang had imposed a news blackout and was issuing only its own version of events in Anhui, Zhou Enlai in Chongqing was desperate to get his view of the Incident to the outside world. He managed to send it out with Anna Louise Strong, who happened to be in Chongqing at the time, and after some misadventures she was eventually able to get it placed in the New York Times. On her way to New York, Strong passed through Hong Kong, apparently without seeing Smedley—another painful reminder for Agnes of her rejection by the Chinese Communist Party.[27]
The cumulative effect of the Incident, along with the news that political difficulties in Chongqing because of his relationship with her had forced Dr. Lin out of Guiyang, convinced Smedley that for the time being she could no longer be of much use in China. She decided it might be best to return to the United States, regain her health, write a book, and work to influence public opinion there in favor of China's war effort. Evans Carlson passed through Hong Kong shortly after the Incident, and Smedley spoke with him about her plans. When she said lack of money was a problem, Carlson offered to wire her the fare for a return passage when she was ready to leave.[28]
By the spring of 1941, Smedley was spending most of her time back in Hong Kong proper. In April, for example, she promoted a pamphlet on China's wounded that she had written as a fund-raiser for the Chinese Red Cross and its orthopedic center in Guiyang. In its distribution she was greatly helped by David MacDougall, a young Scotsman who was head of the Hong Kong Information Service and by then a good drinking buddy. She met frequently with such Chinese women friends as Rosie Tan and Dr. Eva Hotung (of the famous Anglo-Chinese Hong Kong family), often at tea time in the lobby of the Gloucester Hotel. The press noted Smedley's presence at art exhibits and cultural events in the company of Dr. Wilkinson. And toward the end of the month, Ernest Hemingway arrived from Chongqing and Smedley met him at a reception. She described him as »breezy, self-confident, and virile«, and he solicited a story from her for his forthcoming edited volume, Men at War.[29]
In late spring Smedley stayed for about three weeks with Emily Hahn. More recently known as a writer on the natural sciences for the New Yorker, »Mickey« Hahn had fled the comfortable Chicago suburb of Winnetka in the mid-1930s to seek adventure as a writer in war-torn China. A short, heavy-set, handsome young woman with jet-black hair, she sashayed down Chinese city streets in minks, smoking a black cigar. Her trademark was a pet gibbon riding on her shoulder — intended, she said, to ward off unwanted men. At the time Smedley stayed with her, Hahn was winding up a long affair with a Chinese poet, Sinmay, and was expecting a child out of wedlock fathered by Charles R. Boxer, a British intelligence officer. She was also writing a popular biography of the Song sisters, Mme. Chiang, Mme. Sun, and Mme. Gong. China, for Hahn, meant Chongqing, Hankou, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. Her political sympathies lay with the Guomindang, but she was not deeply concerned with politics and knew next to nothing about conditions in the Chinese countryside. But Smedley appreciated her as a fellow writer and as a lively conversationalist with a fondness for the well-placed four-letter word. And because she gaily rejected conventional social norms, Smedley sympathized with her and seemed to delight in acting as a confidante and supporter. Hahn, in turn, took a sympathetic interest in Smedley's affair with Paul Wilkinson.
In an interview thirty-five years later, Hahn recalled Smedley lounging in silk pajamas, her severe, weatherbeaten Roman head in stark contrast to her supple and seemingly young body. Smedley, she insisted, was highly sensual, still liked a good time, and could flirt with the best of them when she wanted to. But an equally strong attraction was her energy, the electricity about her, the strength of her intellectual and emotional concerns:

The world to Agnes is full of dragons which she is forever battling. A world of easygoing people just doesn't exist in her conception of things. She didn't worry about it, though. There would come a time, she knew, when I would need a champion, and then she could do her job. Agnes carried with her, always, an atmosphere of tenseness. [The weather] could be as calm and gentle out of doors as anything, and yet when she came in you thought of blowing winds and flying sleet and snow, and clouds whizzing past the moun-taintops. One evening I was sitting peacefully at my desk, and I'll swear it was as sweet a spring evening as you'll find anywhere along the Pacific. Then suddenly the door burst open and Agnes stamped in, frowning. She shook snow-flakes off her sturdy shoulders. I could almost hear the stamp of the horse outside and smell the sweaty saddle leather, and the frosty pine needles that they had bruised in their headlong flight... »I've brought a chicken for you«, growled Agnes.[30]

It was probably Emily Hahn who introduced Smedley to Mme. Chiang Kai-shek in 1941. Smedley had been in correspondence with Mme. Chiang since October of 1940 and was writing a chapter on the Chinese Red Cross for a book entitled China Shall Rise Again, a collection being edited under Mme. Chiang's name. Smedley approached Mme. Chiang in the spirit of the old united front, knowing well that the meeting would irritate Mme. Sun, Mme. Chiang's sister and rival. She wrote in Battle Hymn: »I met [Mme. Chiang] and found her cultivated, tremendously clever, possessed of charm and exquisite taste. She was groomed as only wealthy Chinese women can be groomed, with an elegant simplicity which, I suspect, must require a pile of money to sustain. Next to her I felt a little like one of Thurber's melancholy hounds. She was articulate, integrated, confident. As the years had made her other sister, Madame Sun Yat-sen, older and sadder, so had they increased Mme. Chiang's assurance and power« (p. 523).
Despite her meeting with Mme. Chiang, Smedley's sympathies remained constant. Fully aware that Guomindang repression in unoccupied China was tightening in 1940—41, she was concerned about the fate of Chinese intellectuals in flight from General Dai Li's White Terror in Chongqing. She was particularly worried about the writer Xiao Hong, a young woman she had known in Shanghai as a protege of Lu Xun's. Xiao Hong, on the run from her native Manchuria since the early 1930s, had already managed to write three first-rate novels and several short stories—clear evidence that she was an important talent of her generation.
Smedley's concern about Xiao Hong was more than political. She knew of Xiao's masochistic weakness for selfish and insensitive men. By 1940, when she fled to Hong Kong, she had been abandoned by her first husband, the novelist Xiao Jun, with whom Smedley had known her in Shanghai. By early 1941 she was living in a hovel in Kowloon with two genuine scoundrels. When Smedley found her in March of that year, she was seriously ill with tuberculosis. At first Smedley brought her for a few weeks to Bishop Hall's cottage in Shatin. But in April, after consulting other writers, including Mao Dun and his wife, she got Xiao admitted to Queen Mary's Hospital and appealed to friends for the money needed to pay for her convalescence through the summer. But Xiao Hong never recovered. She died at the age of twenty-eight in December of 1941, a few days after Hong Kong fell to the Japanese. She was hastily buried near Repulse Bay by her two lovers, who immediately fell to quarreling over who had the best claim to royalties from her works.[31] In Battle Hymn, Smedley contrasted Xiao Hong with Mme. Chiang. Mme. Chiang represented the old elite. Xiao Hong represented the new woman of China, changed by the war and social upheaval around her: she had lived in poverty and had devoted her short life to writing about social justice for women and the rights of the poor.
Early in May of 1941, Smedley decided she could stay on no longer. With a loan from Evans Carlson, she booked passage on a Norwegian freighter bound for California. In Battle Hymn she wrote of her voyage:

Among the twelve passengers on board were three Pentecostal missionary ladies, one of whom was my cabin-mate. She did not even know who Hitler was. These ladies had originally come from the American South, where they had had Negro servants; and in China they had had Chinese servants. Thus when they once discoursed on heaven, they described it as a place where truly pious Christians would sit on the right hand of God through all eternity, while the less pious would be their servants.
Another passenger was a young Belgian priest who had become a Chinese citizen. He and I agreed about most things in China, so we spent four weeks on the Pacific arguing about religion and the future of society.    
(p. 526)

The woman who was returning in 1941 was not the same Agnes Smedley who had crossed the Pacific in the fall of 1934. She had been reshaped by two events: her quarrel with Mme. Sun Yat-sen, and the rejection by the Communist Party of China. These events had made her feel more melancholy and isolated than ever. In America she would have to find new friends or renew very old acquaintances, and she knew that she would not find them on the organized left. Politically, Smedley was convinced that now, in 1941, the key to the future in the Far East lay in Washington, D.C., and with American public opinion. She was returning to be at center stage and in a position to contribute to the debate.