Snow, Helen Foster (1907–1997)

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Snow, Helen Foster (1907–1997)

American activist and writer. Name variations: (pseudonym) Nym Wales. Born in Cedar, Utah, on September 21, 1907; died in Guilford, Connecticut, in January 1997; daughter of John Moody (a lawyer) and Hanna (Davis) Foster (a teacher); attended University of Utah, 1925–27, and Yenching University and Tsinghua University, Peking, 1934–35; married Edgar Snow (d. 1972, an author, foreign correspondent, and photographer), on December 25, 1932 (divorced 1949).

Was a foreign correspondent and activist in China (1931–38); was active in establishing Chinese Industrial ("Gung Ho") Cooperatives in Shanghai (1938).

Selected writings, all published under pseudonym Nym Wales except as noted:

Inside Red China (1939); (with Kim San ) Song of Ariran: The Life Story of an Asian Revolutionary (1941); The Chinese Labor Movement (1945); Red Dust: Autobiographies of Chinese Communists (1952); Notes on the Beginnings of the Industrial Cooperatives in China (1958); Notes on the Chinese Student Movement, 1935–36 (1959); My Yenan Notebooks (1961, reprinted as An American Experience in Yenan, 1973); (memoir under Helen Foster Snow) My China Years (1984).

Writer and activist Helen Foster Snow became best known for her role in the founding of the Chinese Industrial Cooperatives in the late 1930s. She was also a prolific author and a genealogist. Snow was born in Cedar, Utah, on September 21, 1907, the daughter of John Moody Davis, a lawyer, and Hannah Davis Foster , a schoolteacher. She attended the University of Utah from 1925 to 1927 and began her professional life as a string correspondent for the Scripps-Canfield League of Newspapers in Seattle, Washington, in 1931. That same year, the prospect of a secretarial job through her father's mining connections drew her to China, where she would remain for almost a decade. At that time, China was in the midst of political and social upheaval, as Communists and Fascists vied for power. Politically naive on her arrival, Snow soon found herself sympathizing with and actively supporting Communist activities.

In 1932, Helen married foreign correspondent, writer, and photographer Edgar Snow, whom she had met in China. Though Edgar preferred to remain outside of politics, he helped Snow and Rewi Alley organize the Chinese Industrial Cooperatives in Shanghai around 1938. These organizations, known as "Gung Ho" cooperatives, spread throughout China by the late 1950s. Snow has been credited with creating the concept, which she believed offered a viable way for emerging nations to produce goods and compete economically.

Conversant in French, Spanish, Italian, and various Chinese dialects, Snow traveled extensively throughout Asia, Indonesia, and Europe. After returning to the United States from China, she became active in several organizations, including the National Society of Literature and the Arts, the Association for Asian Studies, the U.S.-China People's Friendship Association, and the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars. During the World War II years, Snow worked as a book reviewer for the Saturday Review of Literature. She served as vice-chair of the board of directors of the American Committee in Aid of Chinese Industrial Cooperatives from 1941 to 1952, and was a sponsor of the American Committee for Spanish Freedom in 1943, during the Spanish Civil War. She was also a board member of the Committee for a Democratic Far Eastern Policy from 1945 to 1956 and was a co-founder of the Congress of American Women in 1945.

Under the pseudonym Nym Wales, Snow wrote a number of books about China, including Inside Red China (1939), China Builds for Democracy: A Story of Cooperative Industry (1941), The Chinese Labor Movement (1945), Red Dust: Autobiographies of Chinese Communists (1952), Notes on the Beginnings of the Industrial Cooperatives in China (1958), and Notes on the Chinese Student Movement, 1935–36 (1959). Snow also published several books under her own name, including her memoir, My China Years (1984), as well as works on genealogy and contributed to numerous books and anthologies. Her books on China have remained important records of the country's history during the pre-revolutionary years.

In 1978, Snow, who had divorced in 1949, returned to China to work with a television crew on a documentary program. She was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters from St. Mary's of the Woods College in Indiana in 1981. That year, Snow was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She died in Guilford, Connecticut, in January 1997.


Contemporary Authors New Revisions Series. Vol. 46. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1995.

Fadool, Cynthia R., ed. Contemporary Authors. Vols. 57–60. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1976.

"Obituary," in The Day [New London, CT]. January 14, 1997.

Elizabeth Shostak , freelance writer, Cambridge, Massachusetts