Agnes Smedley 1892-1950

Alice Roberts describes the fascinating life of a committed American friend of China : Agnes Smedley, the article first appeared in SACU's China Now magazine 1972.

It is difficult to convey in a few brief words how a working-class woman, born in northern Missouri of an itinerant miner and a boarding house cook and raised in the Rockefeller 'mining camps' where the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company owned 'everything but the air,' and who never even finished grade school came to write: 'I have but one loyalty, one faith, and that was to the liberation of the poor and oppressed; and within that framework, to the Chinese Revolution as it has now materialised.'. However it is possible to indicate something of the experiences which led her to this declaration.

After working for several years at all sorts of unskilled labour, from tobacco stripper, stenographer, waitress, book agent or 'just plain starveling', married and quickly divorced, she left the Southwest in her early twenties for New York City. There her arrest and solitary confinement in the Tombs in 1918 (she had worked as a 'sort of communications centre' for Indian Nationalists in New York) as an alleged 'German agent' merely served to cement her early hatred for the capitalist system.

Late in 1919, the charges finally dismissed, she boarded a freighter bound for Europe. In Berlin, looking for the newspaper of the Indian exiles on whose behalf she had been imprisoned, she met the revolutionary leader Virendranath Chattopadhyaya. She lived with him eight years, studying Indian history and Chinese nationalism. In Berlin, she and a group of progressive physicians with some financial aid from Margaret Sanger set up the first state birth-control clinic. The German republican government took the clinic over and established several others which flourished until the Nazis came to power and women were 'ordered back to the bedroom'. With Hitler threatening, Viren left Germany for the Academy of Sciences in Leningrad, and Agnes obtained a position with the Frankfurter Zeitung in 1928 as a special correspondent in China.

Agnes Smedley
Agnes Smedley and a young
Zhou Enlai in the 1930s

Entering China from the Soviet-Chinese frontier at Manchouli, Agnes felt she had just entered the Middle Ages. She decided at that time that: 'Live apart from the Chinese people I would not. The road to an understanding of them and their country led only into their ranks; nor did there seem any other way for me to justify my existence among them.'

In Manchuria she soon realised 'the extent of Japanese economic control and political power over railways, government machinery, investments in factories and land'. Her first series of articles on Japan's Mailed Fist in Manchuria were not published until Japan actually invaded Manchuria September 18, 1931.

The foreign press as well as the Chinese press had been either bought off or silenced. Agnes learned of contracts between Reuters, official British News Agency, and the KMT whereby the Agency received 10,000 dollars a month in exchange for 'favourable publicity' to the KMT government. Similar contracts with American agencies were common knowledge. While the foreign press reported on the 'progress' made by the KMT government between the Great Revolution of 1929 up to the China-Japanese War of 1937-45, Agnes reported about places where prisoners, even anti-communists and nationalists, were publicly beheaded for being trade unionists, coolie league organisers or intellectuals. Because of her work the British Secret Service claimed that she was a British subject married to an Indian seditionist and travelling with a 'false' passport. It was only with great effort that the American Consul was reminded that they owed duty to their citizens somewhat higher than that to the British Foreign Office.

Making Shanghai her headquarters, Agnes exposed the corrupt, collusive, treasonous activities of the KMT officials who openly collaborated with the Japanese in Manchuria. She found that the KMT had only 39,000 members out of a population of 450 million, and that it 'had become, in other words, a small closed corporation of government officials and their subordinates.' Trade union fees were merely tributes to the KMT used to ensure that no organising occurred; agrarian reforms were non-existent.

Song Qingling; George Bernard Shaw; Lu Xun and Agnes Smedley
Agnes Smedley with Song Qingling ; George Bernard Shaw ; Lu Xun ; Cai Yuanpei ; Harold Isaacs and Lin Yudang .
Song Qingling (widow of Sun Yatsen) gave a dinner in honour of George Bernard Shaw at her home. 17th February 1933.

In 1930 Agnes met Lu Xun, the great Chinese writer, 'the man who became one of the most influential factors in my life during all my years in China.' Together with other intellectuals in mid-1932 they formed the first 'League of Civil Rights' in China to urge democratic rights and an end to the torturing and massacre of political prisoners.

In 1932 the Frankfurter Zeitung, now dominated by the Nazis, fired Agnes. With no money or job her health began to fail and in 1933 she went to Russia to recuperate for eleven months and there finished her book 'China's Red Army Marches'. However, she 'could not imagine spending [her] life outside China,' and made plans to return to China via the US where she hoped to establish herself as correspondent for some publication. No paper dared hire her and she yearned to leave that 'strange planet' America, as soon as possible.

By spring 1936 she was in Shangand, far from well Agnes was advised to go to Xian to recuperate. Thus she was afforded first hand experience of the capture of Chiang Kaishek, by soldiers infuriated by Nanjing's 'surrender policy'. (Japan, up to that point, had occupied Manchuria and a large area of north China and his armies were being ordered to fight 'communists' rather than the Japanese invaders.) Shortly afterwards, Agnes left for the Red Army headquarters in Yan'an where she met for the first time Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai and later Lin Biao. After meeting Zhu De, Commander-in-Chief of the Red Army, she undertook to write his biography but was interrupted when the Japanese launched a full scale invasion into China immediately after the Luguoqiao Incident, 7 July 1937.

Agnes joined the Red Army (renamed the Eighth Route Army after Chiang was finally forced to enter into the United Front with the Communists). By September, 1937 Agnes was on her way to Suiyuan and Chahar provinces where the Red Army was fighting. Although in constant pain from back injury, she reported about the condition of the wounded, about the starvation and rampant disease; and appealed for medical aid seeing the absolute necessity for 'travelling dispensaries and public health workers'. She soon became a sort of 'wandering first aid worker' herself, often treating soldiers from her stretcher when she could no longer sit or stand. Impressed by marching with that Workers' and Peasants' Army, seeing its success in mobilising the peasants into 'partisan warfare' and witnessing the moral conviction of its soldiers who bravely resisted the Japanese, Agnes became: '. . . irrevocably convinced that the principles embodied in the heart of the Eighth Route Army are the principles that will guide and save China, that will give the greatest of impulses to the liberation of all subjected Asiatic nations and bring to life a new human society.' While at the front Agnes finished a new book 'China Fights Back' before leaving for Hanzhou in 1938.

Japaense bombing
Main street in Baoshan, Shanghai after Japanese air-raid. 1942

After meeting Dr K S Lim, director and founder of the Chinese Red Cross Medical Corps in Hanzhou. Agnes immediately joined the corps as a publicity worker. Because most of China's 10,000 doctors remained in private practice in the littoral cities or in the Japanese occupied regions, her first duty was to help recruit foreign medical volunteers. Dr Norman Bethune was among those she enlisted.

In mid-1938 Agnes became a special wartime correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. During her travels with the New Fourth Army (formed from Red guerrillas left behind when the, main body of the Red Army left for the Long March in 1934 and who were re-assembled for operation in the Japanese rear), she lectured and inspected hospitals and reported on the extent of American aid to the Japanese war machine. The activities of the American war merchants were summed up by the General Li Chungren (acting President in the last days of KMT rule after Chiang fled to Taiwan 1949-50): 'The Japanese murderers were without a sword. America gave them the sword.'

In ill health and unable to stay with the guerrillas Agnes decided to leave China in 1941 and go back to the US. There she completed her new book 'Battle Hymn of China' in 1943. She spent many years lecturing and writing about China's plight and desperate need for medical aid and publicised to the American people the corruption of the KMT and western imperialism in China.

It was part of an effort to silence such objective reporting on China that General MacArthur's headquarters in Tokyo released a fifty-four page spy report on a Soviet spy ring in Japan, naming Agnes as 'a Soviet spy ... still at large.' The source of this charge was the twenty year old files of the Imperial Japanese secret police! Agnes insisted that MacArthur was making an issue of the spy ring at that particular time because of the defeat of Chiang Kai-shek, and that his aim was to 'condition the American people into allowing him' more troops and money to build Japan into a mighty military base. (New York Times, February 1949)

Eight days later Washington was forced to retract the 'faux pas' but the damage was more than done to Agnes. Due to the smear Agnes could no longer lecture nor sell articles nor even find a place to live. She tried to sue MacArthur for libel but he remained protected by diplomatic 'immunity'. Her health broken, Agnes finally obtained a passport to England where she died on 8 May, 1950, without completing her last book 'The Great Road, the Life and Times of Zhu De'. Although she longed to return to China, it was a year after her death before she was accorded her last wish: 'As my heart and spirit have found no rest in any other land on earth except China, I wish my ashes to lie with the Chinese Revolutionary dead.' She was buried in Beijing.