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Helen Foster Snow

Enigmatic Heroine

by J. Lee Simons, Bridges editor

Revered in China for meticulously recording the political climate of the 1930s, at her death in 1997, eighty-nine-year-old Helen Foster Snow was memorialized at the Great Hall of the People. The Communist Eighth Route Army Museum in Xi’an boasts the Helen Foster Snow wing. There is a Helen Foster Snow Society in Beijing, and across China there are hospitals and schools bearing her name. An eyewitness to pivotal political changes within China, her journalistic record is a primary source on the Communist revolution of the 1930s.

Although well-known by the Chinese, many people in the West may be entirely unaware of this historical legacy. How she came to be there and how her life was affected is the topic of Helen Foster Snow: Witness to Revolution, a film scheduled to be premiered 26–27 October at the Helen Foster Snow Symposium on Brigham Young University’s campus.

“I didn’t know who Helen Foster Snow was. I knew the name Edgar Snow, and I could assume, but I didn’t know her. I had to be educated,” revealed Dodge Billingsley, producer and director of the film. He began to read, and although he did not have a China-area specialty, associate producer Eric Hyer did. Hyer, associate professor of political science at BYU, and Billingsley both attended Columbia University in New York in the 1980s; though they attended the same ward, they did not know each other well. Time and circumstances reunited them.

They teamed up with cameraman and cinematographer Rod Lamborn, a BYU film graduate Billingsley had previously worked with on projects in Chechnya and the Middle East. In April 1999, the three men took their first reconnaissance trip to China. Hyer proved to be an invaluable guide—having an extensive background in China.

Film crew at the Great Wall of China, left to right: Doug Chamberlain, first assistant cameraman; Rodney Lamborn, cinematographer; Joe Pia, unit production manager; Dodge Billingsley, producer/director; Eric Hyer, associate producer; and Travis Allen, sound.

Scouting out sites was essential to saving dollars. Billingsley explained, “When you’re shooting video, you don’t really have to do that—tape is cheap. You can figure it out when you get there. A film shoot is very expensive compared to a video shoot. It requires a full crew, and the film itself is astronomically expensive compared to video tape.”

On that first trip, they met with a few Chinese who had known Snow and with government officials who would be critical in receiving necessary permissions. They also traveled to specific locations that had been key during Snow’s eight years in China. “It’s interesting, we were stopped on a street by a policeman when we began filming, asking ‘Hey, what are you doing.’ Hyer just said, ‘We’re doing something on Helen Foster Snow.’ ‘Oh, Helen Snow, of course, go ahead.’ I was surprised that a random policeman knew of her. They were fine with us; we didn’t show them any papers. They knew immediately who Helen Foster Snow was,” Billingsley offered.

“Working in China is always difficult, but this is a sensitive topic to them,” Hyer explained. He stayed in China working on negotiations, while the other two returned home. Based on their expedition, they teamed up with scriptwriter Sue Bergin and began to draft a script in preparation for a return trip and film shoot in August.

Dodge Billingsley

Dodge Billingsley’s specialty is defense analysis in the Caucasus— from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. Covering regional security topics with VERTIC, a think tank in London, by the summer of 1995 Billingsley made a dozen trips into the Caucasus to different war zones to analyze guerrilla warfare and strategies. Eventually his work expanded to Central Asia and the Middle East—much of it being Moslem related.

In 1995, he returned to New York to “try something different”—making documentaries for Video Ordinance. He associate-produced Desert Storm: Desert Victory, a three-part Gulf War series aired by the History Channel, and he produced Firepower 2000, a three-part series on military technology going into the twenty-first century.

Billingsley was offered the chance to produce a film about Chechnya. His expertise in the Caucasus was a natural fit, so he left New York and his job to spend two years filming the documentary Immortal Fortress. He brought his film to Utah, where post-production was done at KBYU. While he was wrapping that film, Sterling Van Wagenen, of KBYU–TV at that time, asked him if he would be interested in doing a film about China—more specifically, about Helen Foster Snow. Billingsley soon became familiar with Snow’s life—especially the pivotal nine-year period spent in China. He teamed up with Eric Hyer, political science professor at BYU to produce Helen Foster Snow: Witness to Revolution).

Billingsley attended Columbia University, where he received his undergraduate degree in peace studies [war studies]. He received a master’s degree in war studies from King’s College Department of War Studies at the University of London.

In early October, he will be speaking and showing Immortal Fortress, his film on Chechnya, at a conference in London.

Check for updates on Helen Foster Snow: Witness to Revolution at

Acquiring the Archives

Snow’s family donated her vast collection of papers and photographs to BYU in 1997. Once the import of her archive was evaluated, there was significant interest to tell her story. Special interest groups and members of the government in China applauded the effort to bring this historical period to film.

Cheryl Brown, then an associate academic vice president at BYU, and Hyer traveled to China to represent the university at Snow’s memorial. During the long flight they discussed the collection and what could be done with it. Hyer formulated three core ideas revolving around Snow’s life: 1) her story was interesting—one that would be good for the university to tell, 2) a film could be produced, and 3) a translation of essays written in Chinese about Snow could be published. On their return, Brown passed a copy of My China Years, Snow’s autobiography of those turbulent years, to Sterling Van Wagenen, then a director of film projects at KBYU. He ultimately approached Billingsley, who was finishing another project at KBYU.


“The coup for BYU, in my opinion, was that they owned the photographic part of the archives, because Helen’s written works are also at the Hoover Institution on Stanford University’s campus,” said Billingsley.

Harvard Heath, curator of Twentieth Century Western and Mormon Americana at BYU, has been responsible for cataloguing the Snow Collection. The photo collection alone has been appraised at over $350,000. Rare, one-of-a-kind photos like the ones of Mao Zedong (Tse-tung), Communist leader of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) 1949–76, put her photos in a class all their own. Billingsley remarked that “she was among the first journalists to use hand-held cameras, and in a way she was a pioneer of photojournalism.” The archive is slated to be on display during the symposium in October.

Clockwise from top left: A young Mao Zedong (Tse-tung)—future communist leader of the People’s Republic of China 1949–76; Rebel Red Army leaders Po Ku, Chou En-lai, Chu The, and Mao Zedong; (left to right) Labeled by Helen as the “Three Musketeers”: Sung Ming-jiu, Ying Teh-t’ien, Mao Feng-shan; Mass meeting at Yun-yang; Helen was traveling from Xi’an to Yan’an. “Person to person in the villages the Red Army soldiers are telling all about the Red Army. The villager will then tell all his neighbors. That is how the revolution came in China, word of mouth” (Helen’s comments from My China Years).

Filming in China

The most difficult obstacle in the project was the passage of time. By the time Snow passed away at a ripe old age, many of her friends, who were high-ranking officials in the Communist Party, were also gone. “We interviewed, or met, ten or fifteen people in April 1999, and three or four had passed away by August. Had we wanted to interview them, it became irrelevant,” said Billingsley. “This should have been done twenty years ago.”

The Ministry of Culture charges film crews a per person, per day fee, which can mount up fast. The BYU crew managed to negotiate the fee down, but it still amounted to thousands of dollars for the privilege of shooting in China. “Dealing with the Chinese is really interesting. When you’re a tourist it’s great. Once you bring a film crew in, it’s a little more complicated,” revealed Billingsley. They finally arrived and filmed during 1–23 August 1999. The cost was not without reward; there was much for the film crew to shoot about Snow.


Hauling equipment from site-to-site, unloading and reloading it, was daunting in itself. Having signed papers from the Ministry of Culture did not alleviate the need for new deals at every location the crew went to for a film shoot. That required tedious and often vigorous confrontations with local authorities in order gain permission to film. Those irritations did not prevent the film crew from accomplishing what might have been deemed an impossible task. The completed documentary contains color footage shot on location, interviews (six hours with two-thirds in Chinese that must be translated), and re-enactments of some events (using Chinese actors in period clothing); documentary black and white footage from the U.S. National Archives; and many still photos from Snow’s collection that have never been seen by the general public.

Eric A. Hyer

Eric A. Hyer’s interest in Chinese foreign relations is the result of early influence by his father, emeritus professor of history with a China focus at BYU, and by early experiences while still a young man. Fresh out of high school, Hyer spent the summer of 1971 studying intensive Chinese at BYU, then continued studying at Taiwan Normal University’s Mandarin Center. Following a two-month break backpacking around the world, East to West, he returned to Taiwan and served a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In 1979, diplomatic relations were established between the U.S. and China, and in 1980 Hyer became one of the first American students to study in mainland China. He studied at the Beijing Language Institute, where his fellow students were Czechs, East Germans, Palestinians, Cambodians, and North Koreans.

His interest in Asia took him to the continent regularly—literally traveling the width and breadth of China, often backpacking. In 1996, along with family members, he backpacked in Tibet and over the Karakoram Mountains to Pakistan.

Hyer said he likes to “stay on the fringes,” meaning the borders. He believes “borders are where things happen, where cultures and countries confront and often conflict with one another.” Hyer said the fascinating part is the “multicultural cooperation” that develops along political and cultural boundaries.

Hyer is an associate professor of political science at BYU, where he received his BA degree. He received his MA, PhD, and certificate in Asian Studies from Columbia University.

He and his family lived in China while he taught at Foreign Affairs College in Beijing as a Fulbright scholar.

Telling the Story

Although Snow’s chronicling of a turbulent period in recent Chinese history may be construed by some as controversial, she introduced Mao when he was little more than a rebel in the northwest territories in and around Yan’an and Bao’an. A new order of things was forming in China for all future leaders and for all people of China—for years to come.

“There was no flow of information; communists were labeled as bandits, and the fact was, no one knew who the communists were. Were they good, were they bad, who were they, and what were they doing. People like Edgar and Helen Snow, and a few others, all of maybe four or five others, went into these areas during that time, and brought out the only known accounts,” Billingsley explained. “The Chinese have actually used Snow’s, and the other Western writer’s, records to supplement their own recollections of childhood in the communist base camps.”

Born Helen Foster on 21 September 1907 in Cedar City, Utah, Snow received training as a secretary and was working in Salt Lake City prior to leaving for China in 1931. Chinese citizenry were starving to death under Imperial rule when Snow arrived. Billingsley set the scene. “Japan was raping and pillaging in the north, the nationalists were dealing with the communists and their problems by mass-executions, and a lot of other less-than-reasonable activities.”


By contrast, Hyer described a very different lifestyle for Snow and her continental friends. A contemporary with Bertrand Russell, who was also in China, Snow associated with a tight enclave of fifty or so people, whose income went a long way on China’s 1930s economy. “Europeans controlled Shanghai—not the Chinese. Snow’s circle of friends had status and lived a very cosmopolitan life of privilege,” according to Hyer.

Edgar Snow, journalist and husband of Helen Foster.

“Reading her journals you see she was just herself. And then you try to give people a chance to see this story, but set it in the framework of the time. We look at the communists now, and we know about the 20–50 million people that starved to death during the economic upheavals and resulting famine—all the crazy things in cultural revolutions. One China expert told us, ‘You have to try and put the story into the 1930s framework.’ The communists were dirt poor agrarians trying to liberate the common people, and you couldn’t corrupt a communist, because they had nothing to corrupt. They were not the wealthy, or the in-power group. And later the communists were totally different, and she missed all of that. She was ostracized here during the McCarthy period, and she didn’t have any windows into China after she left,” Billingsley summarized.

Snow wrote of her new circumstances, “None of this fits in with my Pollyanna psychology. I may decide to leave China sooner than expected.” She met and married Edgar Snow, a journalist posted to China, on 25 December 1932. Her stay lingered for eight years. And in spite of her access to leisure, Snow involved herself in such a way as to rival any modern-day activist. “In 1935, she was on the streets protesting with students and hiding them from the authorities. At that time it was illegal to publish any information about the communists, but she was writing for the foreign press—not the Chinese,” said Hyer.

Left: Helen as a child in Cedar City, Utah, where she was born 21 September 1907. Center: Helen at West High School in Salt Lake City. Right: A thoroughly modern Helen in Salt Lake City before departing for China.

Billingsley added, “Snow became such an activist she could never just be a journalist; she always got involved. She was young and related to the student movement. Many in the student union became communists later—communist leaders. There are a lot of people we met that said ‘she came in and rescued me from prison,’ ‘I was a prisoner in nationalist China, and at the time it could have meant at least torture, probably death.’

“Snow and others came and, as foreigners, had the power to take some of the students out, and those students remember and love her. In fact, two of them also became part of the power base in PRC. She wrote the biographies on all the men and women who would become the leaders of the PRC.”

“As an academic, this is an exercise in revisionist history,” said Hyer. “Snow did not get recognition for her historical contributions—written and photographic. She was there when history was being made. As a scholar that’s how I see it.”

M. Sue Bergin

Eight years ago, Sue Bergin was approached by a friend to do a screenplay for a feature film about Helen Foster Snow for Sony Pictures. Would she be interested? Yes, but the rights were not obtained and time passed. In the interim, Bergin had opportunities to work with Sterling Van Wagenen (previously at KBYU) and Jim Bell (former editor of BYU Magazine and currently at KBYU). These contacts put her in place when the second offer came to work on a Helen Foster Snow script. They asked, and the answer was still “yes.”

Bergin received her BA degree from BYU in university studies (emphases in English, music, Spanish) and a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University. She worked as a reporter for the Ogden Standard-Examiner, then as national news editor for BYU Public Communications, a features writer on science research at BYU.

Four years later, she determined to pursue screenwriting in Los Angeles. For eleven years she experienced the typical Hollywood roller coaster ride. While there, she obtained an MFA in screen writing from UCLA. In 1988, she returned to Utah to be closer to her family (parents, six of eight siblings, nine nieces and nephews). Since then she has been involved with freelance projects, writing regularly for BYU Magazine, editing for the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, and last year she launched an Internet business. She has been working on the Snow project for the past year.

Scriptwriter Bergin was faced with the Herculean task of sorting through books and newspaper articles to begin to form a picture of Snow’s enigmatic personality. The producers handed her a rough outline from which she produced a draft script. Billingsley and Hyer then reworked the script to bring it up to historically accurate academic standards and hand it back to Bergin for final drafting.

Billingsley elaborated on the process. “On one level, this is a document from the university that no one is going to be able to say ‘well, that’s not right, historically.’ We kind of went over the top on that, and it became the primary story. Now we’ve got to bring it back, because it’s Helen’s story, in China. It’s not a history story; any university could do a story on Chinese history. And we realize that we have two sub-themes rolling through this film, we need to put Helen back on top. It works now, because we know that the document is sound academically. Someone reviewed the film, and said, ‘Wow, this is the first time I have understood the Xi’an incident.’”

Left: Helen and Ed in the early years. Right: Ed and Helen in 1943; they divorced in 1949, and she never remarried. Ed lived in exile in Switzerland for the remainder of his life.

According to Hyer, Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-Shek had correctly identified the communists as the enemy to fear. However, patriotic students saw the Japanese encroachment onto Chinese soil as an affront and demonstrated their displeasure, convincing Marshall Zhang in Xi’an to oppose Chiang. In October 1936, Snow attempted to be smuggled north to Yan’an, the communist hide out. She was delayed twelve days. While in Xi’an, she managed to interview Zhang, who told her he was planning a coup d’etat against Chiang. Snow immediately sent this news to London. On 12 December 1936, Zhang made good on his intentions, capturing Chiang and forcing him to band with the communists against the Japanese.

“As the filmmaker you hope the story is done well enough that everyone recognizes the value in it. When you do a historical documentary, I don’t think it’s ever possible that everyone enjoys it, because history is always told with a bias. We bring up issues. Some people will say Snow had socialist leanings. Others say ‘No, no, she didn’t believe in any ideology, she just believed in the individual.’ Many of her Chinese friends were communists.

“What’s also a challenge for a university like BYU, that is known as a very conservative school, is how do you portray a woman who was inactive in the faith from which the university was founded and who was very liberal in her political thinking? How do you explore those things, do justice to history, but at the same time not put a label on it? Its like the film is right in the middle of a circle, and how far to the edge can you take the film and make it a credible film, accurate to history, but not go over the lines? People as interesting as Snow are often very much an enigma. She was a very complex person,” elaborated Billingsley.

From left to right: Helen at her typewriter in her Connecticut home. A middle-aged Helen with her cat, Mao—Chinese for cat. Helen prior to her death at age eighty-nine 11 January 1997.

Bergin’s challenge was to capture that complexity through the script. A major source of reference was Kelly Ann Long, assistant professor of history at Colorado State University. Her doctoral dissertation is based on personal interviews with Snow in the six years prior to her death. Billingsley commented, “There were experts on Helen Foster in her generation, and her family members are certainly experts, but Long is an outsider. She could see things independent of Snow’s family. She was interviewed for the film, and she will be coming to the conference to present a paper.”

The script is set now, and the film is in the final stages of technical editing. “We’re bringing the film to what’s known as ‘picture lock.’ From there, we do a lot of technical editing, but the content doesn’t really change, we’re not building the story anymore. It’s just the technical areas that go into making a film broadcast quality,” Billingsley said. These steps to the final version will take place primarily at LDS Motion Picture Studio, where the facilities are among the best in the West for sound mix and digital video editing.

Public Response

In addition to a nationwide call for papers from scholars, Hyer has been working to bring a Chinese delegation to the October conference. In May, he and Billingsley made a trip to China to meet possible Chinese organizations that will act as venues for the film. “To do that, we need to premier the program in certain markets—Beijing, Xi’an, and Yan’an—that are the three key areas of Snow’s story. We’ve been considering Shanghai as well,” remarked Billingsley.

Hyer reported that many of the organizations contacted are interested in the movie, including U.S corporations with outlets in China. The Asia Society in New York also expressed interest in premiering the film. The team hopes to sell the film to a national PBS audience as well.

This endeavor will assuredly add to the already cordial relations the university has with China. The 1979 Young Ambassadors tour was well-received and has been rebroadcast on a regular basis. In the intervening years, twenty of the university’s performing groups have toured in China. Most recently the ballroom dance company returned from a successful five-week tour that included four stops in China. The university has selected China as one of its “special focus” countries. Hyer explained that focus then paved the way for projects concerning China to be eligible for additional funding.

When questioned about the influence the film might have on U.S.–China relations, Billingsley replied, “It can be a tool. Let’s face it, no matter what the stories are, everybody likes a story about themselves, and this, in a way, is a story about the Chinese as well as Helen Foster Snow. We have Chinese who knew Helen disagreeing on camera about the exact same topic, but that’s okay, they saw it differently.”

The film was made possible in part by funds from Brigham Young University’s Special Country Focus Fund, the Harold B. Lee Library, the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies, the Women’s Research Institute, Family Home and Social Sciences, College of Humanities, George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles  Foundation, Utah Humanities Council, and the Utah Council for the Arts.


The symposium to premier Helen Foster Snow: Witness to Revolution is scheduled for Thursday and Friday, 26–27 October 2000. A fourteen-member delegation from China, including reporters, will be present. Scholars from U.S. and China as well as others interested in or having knowledge of Snow will be selected to present papers. Thursday will include a morning sneak preview of the movie, followed that evening by an invitation-only banquet and formal premier. Sessions will continue on Friday, and visiting delegates will be treated to travel and tourism on Saturday. Arrangements may also be made for a trip to Sunday morning’s Music and the Spoken Word with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Kelly Ann Long

Long grew up along the front range of Colorado and, except for periods of extensive travel, spent her life there. She taught high school from 1980 until 1998, before moving to Colorado State University. At Poudre High School in Fort Collins, Colorado, Long taught English, AP humanities (history and English), Asian humanities; and in the International Baccalaureate Program, junior and senior English and junior U.S. History. She has completed her first year, tenure-track appointment at CSU. In addition to teaching, Long is active in the field of educational outreach as a member of the editorial staff for Education About Asia magazine.

In the summer of 1999, she participated in a Council For International Educational Exchange summer seminar that visited the Three Gorges Project on the Yangtze River. Summer 2000, she will participate in a five-week institute Religions, Philosophies, and Culture in India, a joint program of the University of Hawaii and the East–West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

She has participated in several National Endowment for the Humanities institutes and seminars for school teachers, including the Writer as Social Critic in Modern China, Institute for Teachers of Chinese (enabling her Chinese study and improving her language skills), and The American Scene: Texts of the Depression Era.

Her Fulbright studies took her to China in 1991, and she has since traveled and studied in China in 1993, 1995, and 1999.

Long has also served as a consultant and presenter for groups of educators through programs arranged by the Social Science Consortium, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Asia Society.

Nym Wales

My first introduction to “Nym Wales” (Helen Foster Snow) came in 1990, when I took a book off a library shelf at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. I was participating in a seminar on Writers of Social Protest in Modern China, designed for high school teachers, and sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. I was also researching the life and writing of Ding Ling and found a cross reference to Inside Red China and Women in Modern China.

After reading about Ding Ling, I asked one of the program directors who Nym Wales was, and he told me that she was Helen Foster Snow. Furthermore, she was still alive and living in Madison, Connecticut, not a long drive from Hartford.

I became more interested in Helen Snow’s American perspective of 1930s China and read more of her work after returning home. I introduced myself to her by letter and phone in fall 1990 and made a trip in October for my first in-person meeting. Helen both startled me and engaged my curiosity during that introduction. She could be abrasive and scolding at moments, shouting out corrections if I had something wrong in my account of an event or her role in it, and at other times, she could be vulnerable, warm, nostalgic, and insightful. I sensed in her an earnestness and longing to be recognized and heard her insistence that she had been slighted in the historical record.

As a high school teacher, and a student of history, I was familiar with the stories of famous men, and the typical references to the good women who stood behind them. Something about Helen captured my interest, and I began looking closer at the story of Edgar and Helen Snow to learn more about the woman behind the scenes, to understand what it was like to be married to a famous man—from her point of view, and attempt to understand how she might have been misrepresented, or under-acknowledged, for her own merit and contributions. Having taught high school for many years, I knew that women were under-represented in history textbooks, which fueled my interest in learning more about a unique American woman.

Over the next five years I called Helen often, visited her on three occasions, and collected correspondence and over thirty hours of tape-recordings of phone or in-person interviews. In the summer of 1991, I traveled to China as part of a Fulbright-Hayes summer seminar program. While in Xi’an, I had the chance to meet and interview An Wei, a Chinese scholar who focuses on Helen Snow and who had spent a year in Hartford interviewing and working on translations of Helen Snow’s work.

During 1992–93, I received a National Endowment for the Humanities-Dewitt Wallace Teacher-Scholar Award, which provided a one-year sabbatical from my teaching responsibilities. I researched the lives of three American women involved in U.S.–China relations—Agnes Smedley, Anna Louise Strong, and Helen Foster Snow .

I wrote a paper about Snow, Portrait of a Solitary Soul: The Contributions of Helen Foster Snow to Sino–American Relations, and presented it at the Western Conference of the Association of Asian Studies. It was positively received by the audience and selected for publication in the Selected Papers in Asian Studies New Series #41, spring 1993. That reception encouraged me to continue my research into the life of Snow, and in 1993, I presented When Helen Snow Went Gung Ho, at an International Conference in Baoji, China.

I entered the PhD program at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and received a degree in modern U.S. history with a comparative field in U.S.–China relations. It seemed natural to make Helen Snow the topic of my dissertation.

In spring 1998. I graduated and taught for the summer institute at Madonna University in Michigan. I was hired in mid-summer to fill a vacancy at Colorado State University for the 1998–99 academic year while the history department conducted a search to replace their Asian historian. I taught courses in Asian Civilizations and two upper-division courses in Chinese history. Pleased with my work, the department offered me a tenure-track appointment that draws upon my background and interests in American Studies and U.S.–China relations and also allows me to continue outreach to K–12 schools.

Because of these great opportunities to teach, I put my work on revising the dissertation on hold for some time. Fall 1999, I made a series of revisions, and I am currently undertaking more sweeping revisions to the manuscript and will begin the process of seeking a publisher this summer.

by Kelly Ann Long