Moscow, New York, and Shanghai - 1933-1936

Smedley spent ten months in the Soviet Union, from June, 1933, until April, 1934. Soon after she arrived in Moscow, doctors advised her to go to a sanitorium for heart patients in the Caucasus Mountains at Kislovodsk. She paid for the summer's stay there by using the advance from her Moscow publisher and by selling over a thousand of the photographs she had taken in China. Although she found the rest she needed in Kislovodsk, her attention was diverted from the Jiangxi book when she learned in June of 1933 that her friend Ding Ling, the left-wing writer and Lu Xun's protege, had been arrested. Smedley's suspicions of her secretary and Ding Ling's husband, Feng Da, proved correct, as it was his defection to the Guomindang that had led to Ding Ling's arrest. Hurriedly Smedley put together a collection of translated short stories, by Ding Ling and others, to publicize the persecution of writers in China.[1] This task completed, she began to make real progress with her book on the Jiangxi Soviet. She returned to Moscow in September, still hoping to finish the book quickly and leave for China in November, via Europe and New York.[2]
Smedley lived in the capital in a second-class residential hotel, cooking meals on a small stove and keeping house for herself. One night the Chinese poet Emile Xiao, a boyhood friend of Mao Zedong and an early Chinese Communist Party member, visited Smedley to invite her to his home for dinner. Later, at his request, Smedley gave a talk to Moscow's International Congress of Writers on literary developments in China. Xiao remembered Smedley as a sad and lonely woman who was restless and anxious to get on with her work. He recalled her simple life-style and the courtesy she showed the old and infirm on the streets of the city. She was definitely not being treated as part of the Comintern family or the Moscow Daily News crowd, whose life revolved around the old Hotel Lux. Emile Xiao's impressions jibe with the few letters that survive and with the recollections of another Chinese friend in Moscow, Jack Chen.[3]
Although she published nothing about the Soviet Union, Smedley's letters suggest that she was impressed by the improvement in living standards and cultural life since her first visit in 1921. But except when she was visiting Chinese friends or going to the ballet and opera with Archie Phinney, a Nez Perce Indian from Idaho who was working in Moscow, Smedley felt isolated and restless. This was especially true when her work bogged down and she found herself haggling with her Russian editors over her book. (For example, despite her protests they deleted a chapter in which she described the shooting of landlords by Communists.) She also complained about the Moscow Daily News circle, with whose leader (and editor of the News), Michael Borodin, she had clashed in 1921.[4]
In January of 1934, feeling increasingly uncomfortable in Moscow, Smedley moved to Leningrad to complete her book. There she had a reunion with Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, who had arrived the year before from Berlin, after the Nazi Party had risen to power. By 1934 Chatto was settled into Leningrad's Institute of Ethnography and had a Russian bride who was expecting their first child. The reunion was friendly and platonic, and finally closed a painful chapter in Smedley's life.[5] In Leningrad Smedley was able to put the finishing touches to her book. In March she returned to Moscow, where she received word from Madame Sun that she wanted Smedley to help her with a new project: finding funds and personnel in New York for a new English-language journal that might serve as a consistent voice for the underground communist movement. Smedley heard from Mme. Sun that the China Forum had collapsed after a sharp swing in a Trotskyist direction by the Forum's editor, Harold Isaacs. After seeing her editors, by early April Smedley was off for New York via Europe. She stopped in Paris for a few days to visit an old friend from the Greenwich Village birth-control movement, Josephine Bennett Brooks, and then she sailed for New York.
Smedley was met at the wharf by her former roommate Florence Len-non, whom she had last seen in Berlin in 1925. Now divorced, Florence had brought along a new male companion, and almost immediately an argument began. After the boyfriend denounced the Soviet and Chinese Communist parties in Trotskyist terms, Smedley asked Florence to renounce him. Florence refused, and the two women never saw each other again.[6]
Smedley was returning to the United States in the middle of the Depression after twelve years abroad. She arrived in New York in a comparatively self-confident mood and sure of her political position. So far as she was concerned, economic conditions in the United States proved that imperialism and capitalism were on the wane. In New York Smedley hoped to raise funds for Mme. Sun's new journal and line up reporting jobs for herself. Smedley's New York stay was hectic. She visited the offices of the New Masses, Thorberg Brundin, Margaret Sanger, the widow of Gilbert Roe, and her publishers—in addition to addressing groups about China. In the Depression, funds and jobs were scarce. She failed to line up a full-time job as a foreign correspondent for a major paper or wire service. Her biggest success was the negotiation of a new Coward-McCann abridged edition of Daughter of Earth, with an introduction by Malcolm Cowley. Daughter of Earth had received critical acclaim but not sold well, and Cowley believed that a shorter, better edited edition could have mass appeal.[7]
Like many intellectuals of the period, Malcolm Cowley had been radicalized by the Depression. Having witnessed the organizing of miners in Appalachia, Cowley had reported that the lives of ordinary people were given new dignity and meaning when they joined together to fight for better conditions. But Cowley was reexamining his revolutionary enthusiasm when he first met Smedley in New York in May of 1934. His New York City milieu was the well-intentioned intellectual left community, similar to Smedley's Greenwich Village in 1918—20. To Cowley, Smedley in 1934 was the personification of a dedicated working-class revolutionary with qualities of fanaticism that he found both attractive and repulsive. He first encountered Smedley when she was the guest of honor at a political dinner:

Agnes Smedley is fanatical... Her hair grows thinly above an immense forehead. When she talks about people who betrayed the Chinese rebels, her mouth becomes a thin scar and her eyes bulge and glint with hatred. If this coal miner's daughter ever had urbanity, she would have lost it forever in Shanghai when her comrades were dragged off one by one for execution... This evening I'm drawing back... I don't wait to hear Agnes Smedley give her speech, which will be more convincing than the others, as if each phrase of it were dyed in the blood of her Chinese friends.[8]

Not long after this meeting, Cowley wrote an enthusiastic review of Smedley's China's Red Army Marches for the New Republic. He wrote in part:

There are a good many tricks of narration that [Smedley] could easily learn if she had leisure for study; and there are other tricks that she seems to have learned from writing Sunday feature stories and ought to abandon. But she has an extraordinary subject here, and she has something else besides — an attitude of reverence for her subject, a faith that calls to mind the medieval chroniclers and bards. Mind you, she is dealing with historical facts. They are obviously simplified, worked smooth by retelling, yet they are facts none the less, such as can be checked by official records. Reading this book, with its heroes and villains (and no shades of characters between them, only the brave Reds and cowardly Whites), one can't help thinking of Roland against the Paynim, of Richard Lionheart against the Saracens, of the saints and martyrs that crowd the Golden Legend.[9]

By June Smedley was in California, where reunion with her family proved painful. Myrtle Smedley, who owed her college education to Agnes, was now the principal of a primary school in the San Diego area. Their younger brother, Sam, was also in San Diego and recently married, but having difficulty holding down a job. Their hard-drinking, unemployed father, Charles, had moved in temporarily with his children. Agnes had not seen any of them since 1916, when the president of San Diego Normal School advised her to leave the area so as not to ruin Myrtle's chances of finding work. By 1934, Myrtle was the family's only stable breadwinner, and when she imagined what might happen if the community discovered that her sister was a »red sympathizer«,  she became so overwrought that the nerves in half her face became temporarily paralyzed just before Agnes's arrival. Smedley preached socialism to the family anyway. She constantly urged Sam to put the cause of the workers' revolution above his own immediate interests and join the U.S. Communist Party, then at the height of its strength. Sam's new wife, Elizabeth, didn't seem to mind, but Sam told Agnes in no uncertain terms to »knock it off«.  Smedley's first husband, Ernest Brundin, and his wife Elinor also came to see Agnes, a visit that was very painful for Elinor.[10]

Smedley left California for China in early October of 1934. When her ship stopped for one day in Yokohama, she visited the only person she knew in Japan at the time — the Japanese translator of Daughter of Earth, Ozaki Hotsumi, whom she would never see again.[11] As was duly noted by a British agent, V. A. Pitts, Smedley arrived in Shanghai on October 22, 1934. Shortly thereafter, perhaps hoping to receive some official protection from the U.S. consulate, she presented the following letter of introduction from Secretary of State Cordell Hull: »At the instance of the Honorable Robert F. Wagner, Senator of the United States from the State of New York, I take pleasure in introducing to you Miss Agnes Smedley of New York City, who is about to proceed abroad. I cordially bespeak for Miss Smedley such courtesies and assistance as you may be able to render, consistent with your official duties«.[12]
The letter of introduction did not help. For Smedley the next two years in Shanghai would be more difficult and less productive than the 1929—33 period. She wrote much less and relied chiefly on income from earlier work—several articles she had sold to American journals in 1934 and the royalties from three books, including the 1935 Coward-McCann abridged version of Daughter of Earth. The few articles she did publish reveal a pervasive sense of isolation and near-paranoia about political persecution. Her swings in mood, from long periods of depression and poor health to brief bursts of happiness and physical energy, became more pronounced. It is not surprising, perhaps, that eight years later, in the autobiographical passages in Battle Hymn of China, she said nothing at all about this period of her life.
Part of Smedley's problem was rooted in her frustration over the deteriorating political situation. From their new colony of Manchuria, the Japanese were creeping slowly toward Beijing. The Guomindang government in Nanjing was taking little direct action to stop them, concentrating its efforts on exterminating Chinese Communists. In the spring of 1934 the Guomindang began its fifth encirclement campaign against the Communist guerrilla bases in Jiangxi; and by October, relying heavily on German advice, technical help, and blockhouse strategy, Chiang Kai-shek had the Communists pinned down and in serious trouble. In cities like Shanghai, the Guomindang was thus in a more confident mood. Nanjing launched a Confucian-oriented revivalist campaign, the New Life Movement, to combat the growing appeal of Marxist thinking among the educated urban populace. In Shanghai especially, this propaganda effort was accompanied by increased repression and censorship by the Guomindang police.
In 1934 the Communists were deeply divided over strategy. After the party headquarters moved from Shanghai to Jiangxi in 1932, a serious split in the leadership developed. The founders of the Jiangxi Soviet, Mao Zedong and Zhu De, argued that mobile guerrilla warfare was necessary to counter the Guomindang encirclement campaigns. But the twenty-eight »Bolsheviks« in the party leadership, who followed Moscow's more traditional position, insisted on the need to fight fixed battles from a secure base. The larger »Bolshevik« faction in the leadership won out, and by the summer of 1934 they had put Mao under virtual house arrest. The area held by the Jiangxi Soviet was diminished as the Guomindang pincers tightened, and when the situation became desperate in late October, 100,000 men broke through Guomindang lines and headed west, leaving behind a rear guard made up mostly of Mao's old comrades, including his brother, Mao Zemin. Within a matter of days the rear guard was overrun and most were killed or captured by the Guomindang. This was the beginning of the epic Long March, which over a year later brought 20,000 ragged survivors to Baoan in the northwest, where they reestablished a Soviet and a party headquarters under the leadership of a new party chairman, Mao Zedong.
During this period the leftists with whom Smedley associated in Shanghai became divided. For example, within the League of Left Wing Writers, by late 1935 one group was in contact via intermediaries with Mao in the northwest; but another group, probably the larger one, was receiving directives from Mao's antagonist, Wang Ming, the Chinese Communist Party's man in Moscow in 1935. In early 1936, most Shanghai Communists were still following Moscow's lead: they consistently downplayed the issue of Japanese imperialism in China in favor of promoting class struggle within China and protecting the Soviet Union internationally. But in the spring of 1935, at about the time the Seventh Congress of the Comintern was meeting in Moscow, the Chinese Communist Party had changed its line and called for a united front with all parties and classes against the Japanese. Within the League, then, Smed-ley's friends were arguing bitterly over how best to carry out Moscow's new united front policy in cultural work, and how far committed leftist writers should go in dropping their posture as revolutionary cultural guerrillas.
Although Lu Xun and others in the League had already spoken out about the seriousness of the Japanese threat, they now opposed the new line. Lu Xun believed that the new thrust under the slogan of National Defense Literature, as advocated by several writers close to Moscow, notably Zhou Yang and Xia Yan, was too compromising: it involved too great a capitulation to the authority of the Guomindang, and it could only undermine the principles and goals of a social revolution. He proposed an alternative slogan, Mass Literature for the National Revolutionary War, and refused to join a new group of writers being organized by Zhou Yang to replace the League of Left Wing Writers. Lu Xun was supported by prominent figures such as Feng Xuefeng, who had recently arrived from the new northwestern guerrilla headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party and claimed to speak for Mao and other leaders on this issue. Characteristically, Smedley's friend Mao Dun tried to mediate between the two sides and was attacked by both. By the spring of 1936 the personal tensions that had been simmering for some time exploded into heated denunciations, the echoes of which are still heard today in Beijing. In the end, the majority of Party activists rallied around the Moscow-leaning writer Zhou Yang, and the League of Left Wing Writers was dissolved.*
(* Throughout this perod of ideological conflict, Smedley seemed to side consistently with Lu Xun. She met Feng Xuefeng on several occasions and took special interest in his account of the Long March. She was particularly upset about the dissolution of the League of Left Wing Writers, with which she had worked since its formation in 1930. During the spring of 1936, before his death, she continued to work closely with Lu Xun when he came under direct attack. One important project was the joint editing and financing of an edition in Chinese of selected Käthe Kollwitz prints (see Bibliography). With Lu Xun's encouragement, she also developed friendships with his younger proteges-for example, a couple from Manchuria, Xiao jun and Xiao Hong, and the Hunanese Zhou Libo, with whom she would work closely a few years later. As early as 1935 Smedley had been concerned about Lu Xun's falling health, urging him repeatedly to go to a sanitorium in the Soviet Union and bringing to his home in 1936 the most noted specialist on tuberculosis in Shanghai, an American doctor named Tenney. As a last resort, one day in 1936 she secretly took Lu Xun and Mme. Sun to the Russian consulate, hoping that an official invitation in Mme. Sun's presence might persuade the writer to leave Shanghal for a rest cure. Lu Xun steadfastly refused, saying: "Everyone cannot run away! Someone must stand and fight." Interviews: Mao Dun; Zhou Libo; and Qlan Junrui. Lu Xun riji, diary entries for 1936. Exhibit at Lu Xun Museum, Beijing, in March, 1978; Battle Hymn, pp. 83, 133. See also Mao Dun, ed., Lu Xun buiyi lu (Beij«ing, 1978).
The unity among politically concerned intellectuals that had been carefully built up around the League since 1930 was permanently damaged by the war of words that raged through the summer of 1936.[13]
Further depressing Smedley was a fight with Frank Glass and Harold Isaacs shortly after her return to Shanghai. Although she had once worked closely with Isaacs and Glass on the China Forum (which ceased publication in early 1934) Smedley was now upset by their Trotskyist associations and views: she saw their open opposition to the Chinese Communist Party as playing directly into the hands of the Guo-mindang. Her dispute with them became public in the pages of the China Weekly Review during the summer of 1935, to the delight of the Guomindang and the treaty-port press. Smedley was denounced as a Stalinist, and she in turn accused her old friends of sabotaging the cause of the revolution and jeopardizing the lives of key figures such as Mme. Sun Yat-sen. This episode also temporarily cut off Smedley's cordial relationship with J. B. Powell, the American editor of the China Weekly Review, who took the opportunity to ridicule both sides in print.[14]
Throughout this second sojourn in Shanghai, Smedley's personal life was lonely. She had returned to Shanghai emotionally and physically exhausted and had to spend her first two months there recuperating in and out of the hospital. She had few close friends left in the city. Ozaki Hot-sumi, Sorge, and Chen Hansheng were gone. Edgar Snow was in Beijing. Ding Ling had been arrested and was presumed dead. The League for Civil Rights had been dissolved after the assassination of its general secretary, Smedley's friend Yang Quan. The old friends who remained were Lu Xun, Mme. Sun, and Rewi Alley. Alley and Smedley were neighbors in the Beam apartment complex on Rue Joffre. The Beam straddled a whole city block which was hexagonal in shape. The complex had more than twenty entrances and exits and was thus ideal for harboring fugitives and evading surveillance by French, British, and Chinese police. For one under heavy surveillance, as Smedley was, the advantages of so many entrances and exits were obvious. Together she and Alley hid fugitives from the Guomindang Blueshirts and found ways to get them out of Shanghai. One such fugitive was Professor Chen Hansheng, who unexpectedly turned up on Smedley's doorstep in May of 1935. Chen, who had been in danger when he fled Shanghai for Tokyo in 1933, had returned on a secret mission, only to find that his Shanghai contact had just been arrested. He hid first in Smedley's apartment and then in Alley's; his wife, Susie Gu, was brought from Tokyo to Shanghai and housed with a German couple. After several weeks Smedley booked passage for them on a Russian freighter bound for Vladivostok. In the actual escape, the emphasis was on costuming. On the day of departure, Chen Hansheng appeared at dockside dressed as a wealthy Chinese, sporting a pith helmet and a bouquet of gladioli, who was seeing off foreign friends (Alley and Smedley). The German couple and Susie Gu put on a similar charade. Minutes before the ship cast off, Smedley ushered the Chinese couple into the captain's toilet, where they remained behind a locked door until the ship was well outside port and down the Huangpu River.[15]
On another occasion, Smedley and Alley protected Liu Ding, an important Communist Party operative and survivor of a small soviet in Fu-jian province which the Guomindang had crushed in 1933—34. Late in 1935, Liu was brought to Rewi Alley for hiding, and for a few weeks it became necessary for him to live in Smedley's flat. Smedley recorded in detail his stories about the Fujian soviet and was especially intrigued by the ingenuity the Fujian peasant guerrillas had shown in making their own firearms. Early in 1936 Liu was asked to undertake a delicate mission: to be the party's liaison with the Manchurian warlord Zhang Xueliang, who was then in control of Xi'an in the northwest. As he boarded a plane for Xi'an, Smedley handed him a large canister of surgical anesthetic; both were ignorant of the danger involved in transporting this highly explosive substance. When Liu casually handed the canister to delighted Red Army medics at their new base camp a few miles outside of Xi'an, he was dressed down for taking such risks.[16]
Although Smedley's circle of friends was smaller than before, she exercised an important political influence on several Western newcomers. One of these was George Hatem, a young American doctor who had come to Shanghai in search of adventure and personal fortune. Smedley shook him with her penetrating analysis of the misery of Shanghai and her stories of the Red Army in the northwest. At her insistence that he discover the truth for himself, Hatem joined Edgar Snow in the spring of 1936 on a journey to the Red Army's new base camp outside Xi'an. Finding an enormous need in the Red Army for his skills, he stayed on; he fell in love with a young Chinese comrade, joined the Chinese Communist Party, and did not return to Shanghai until the 1940s.[17] Smedley also played a significant part in the life of the Snows, Edgar and his first wife, Nym Wales (Helen Foster), whom she had known in Shanghai. In December of 1935 she stayed with them in Beijing, where the three of them became highly involved in the December Ninth Movement, a series of student strikes and demonstrations in Beijing against Japanese imperialism and the Nanjing government's failure to respond to it.*+
(* Smedley also took the opportunity to take a day long fact-finding trip with United Press Beijing bureau chief F. McCracken Fisher, Frank Smothers of the Chicago Daily News, and Edgar Snow into the country east of Bel*Ilng where the japanese were setting up their puppet East Hebel "Autonomous" regime under Yln Rugeng. In 1987 "Mac" Fisher recalled: "On the long ride home Agnes taught us 'The Streets of Laredo,' even making that lugubrious ballad seem rollicking!")

After spending most of the month with the strikers, she brought messages from them to Mme. Sun Yat-sen in Shanghai. She then helped organize the National Salvation Association, headed by Mme. Sun, which demanded a united front of the Guomindang and the Communists in a war of national defense against the Japanese. Smedley was the Snows' link to this organization as well as their link to Lu Xun. And, of course, it was Smedley who urged Snow to go to the northwest with Hatem in 1936 to meet the Communists as they came out of their Long March.[18]
Smedley seems to have been much less involved with Shanghai's German community of leftists after she returned in 1934. The Eislers, Ewerts, and Sorge had left China; Irene Wiedemeyer's bookstore had been closed; and of course Smedley was no longer writing for the German press. Her German friends during this period were newcomers such as Trudy Rosenberg and her husband, Hans Shippe. Regularly on Sundays they dined on fried chicken and argued such theoretical points of Marxism as the definition of feudalism or Oriental despotism. In anger, Smedley would insist that Trudy should divorce her bullheaded husband. She also advocated the dissolution of marriage as an institution and insisted that having children restricted a woman's involvement in politics.[19]
As her Shanghai world began to unravel in the spring of 1936, Smedley's most serious problem was the breakdown in her relations with Mme. Sun, who had been a key figure in her life since 1929. The trouble had begun the previous year, when Mme. Sun had given Smedley the task of finding someone to edit and publish a new journal in Shanghai to replace the China Forum. The two women were agreed on the need for a publication that would openly criticize the Guomindang and report on political developments from an anti—Chiang Kai-shek, pro-Chinese Communist perspective. By necessity such a journal would have to be in English, edited by foreigners whom the Guomindang could not touch, and published in the concession areas where the Nanjing government had no jurisdiction. Seed money to organize this enterprise was given to Smedley three times by Mme. Sun, probably during the latter half of 1935.
In several letters to New York, throughout 1935, Smedley asked Earl Browder, secretary-general of the U.S. Communist Party, to send someone to Shanghai who could edit and publish the new journal. Finally, in 1936, after desperate appeals from Smedley, Browder sent his own secretary, Grace Granich, and her husband Manny. In the meantime Smedley had gradually spent much of the seed money on what she considered to be emergencies, such as financing the escape of fugitives and publishing the book on Kathe Kollwitz's etchings. Mme. Sun was quietly furious about the delay and the »wasted« funds. She was also angry that Smedley sometimes described herself publicly as Mme. Sun's »associate« or »secretary«.  Mme. Sun, a very private person who wished to avoid being identified with her followers, resented this deeply. Finally, when the Granichs arrived in Shanghai, Smedley apparently believed that she would share editorial authority with them; but the Granichs refused to accept this arrangement and received Mme. Sun's backing. Thus although Smedley wrote articles for the initial issues of Voice of China (under the pseudonym Rusty Knailes), she resented the new journal's success and quarreled increasingly with the Granichs, especially Grace, who became as outspoken and shrill in her criticisms as Smedley herself. Mme. Sun soon cut off relations with Smedley entirely, and eventually issued a public statement that Smedley had never been her secretary.[20]
This estrangement was probably inevitable. Although Smedley and Mme. Sun were both women of action who agreed politically and communicated perfectly in English, Mme. Sun was genteel, emotionally restrained, and taciturn, whereas Smedley was coarse, tempestuous, and outspoken. Even in the best of times, they probably were never intimate; the clash in style and personality was too great. In this light, it is not hard to see how Smedley's actions in the Voice of China matter could bring an end to her working relationship with Mme. Sun. The break continued to pain Smedley deeply as late as the 1940s.
By midsummer Smedley decided she had to leave Shanghai. She was suffocating politically, alienating herself from her remaining friends, and falling into poor health again. Characteristically, her next move was based on an earlier friendship. Liu Ding, the Red Army veteran whom she had sheltered a few months before, was now in Xi'an, the biggest city in northwest China, working closely with the Manchurian warlord Zhang Xueliang. When Liu wrote inviting her to come to Xi'an, she accepted immediately. In Xi'an, she could rest, write, and enjoy a more progressive political atmosphere. And there was another attraction: the new base of the Red Army was only thirty-five miles away.[21]