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Meeting Helen Foster Snow 80 Years Later
American actress talks about the Snows and the Long March
By Liang Xiao | NO. 42 OCTOBER 20, 2016

Elyse Ribbons (right) on the set of the TV series Red Star Over China (GAO DU)

Edgar Snow, the first Western journalist to give a full account of the history of the Communist Party of China (CPC) following the Long March, visited the CPC's revolutionary base area in northwest China in 1936. His book Red Star Over China remains a seminal account of the historic event and is a must-read for those who want to understand China.

Eighty years later, Red Star Over China is set to hit the headlines again, this time as a TV series to be aired on Hunan Satellite TV based in central China's Hunan Province, to mark the 80th anniversary of the end of the Long March. The series focuses on Snow's experiences during his stay in China from 1928 to 1941.

Helen Foster Snow, the wife of Edgar Snow, did not have the high profile her husband enjoyed though she too was a journalist writing under the name Nym Wales. But in the TV series, she is the most important female character. Elyse Ribbons, an American entrepreneur and actress living in Beijing who plays Helen Foster Snow in the series and has deeply researched her character, is indignant about the journalist not getting due credit.

"She edited Mr. Snow's manuscript for Red Star Over China, and wrote part of it. A lot of the photos were taken by her, she risked her life to get them out of Xi'an. But she was not credited with any of that," Ribbons told Beijing Review.

In April 1937, Helen secretly left Peking, as Beijing was called then, and endured hardships and perils to finally arrive in Yan'an, capital of the communist base in Shaanxi Province, by herself. Within five months, she had interviewed many prominent communist leaders, and had five long conversations with Mao Zedong. Edgar Snow's book was greatly enriched by all this precious material.

"You know how difficult it was? She had to sneak out in the trunk of a car, she was under house arrest. Her trip to Yan'an was crazy in the first place! For a woman to do that by herself back then, what a brave woman!" Ribbons exclaimed.

During her research, Ribbons said she discovered similarities between Helen Foster Snow and herself. Helen came to China in 1931 when she was 24, got a job at the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai and then started to write articles for magazines abroad. She came to China for adventure. At that time she did not have any special empathy for China but finally, fell deeply in love with the country.

Ribbons came to China in 2001 as an overseas student, also worked in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, and then became a media professional.

"I fully believe that China has developed, but it has not changed. The economic factors are better for everyone, the education is available for everyone, those things have all become better, but the cultural roots of China are still there. So I think the same things about China that allured Helen allured me," Ribbons said.

She feels if Edgar Snow had not visited northwest China and written his book, then the Long March would not have been known so widely to the outside world. After the completion of the TV series, she has come to know not only Helen better but has also gained insights into the Red Army and the Long March.

"The significance of the Long March is that the communists could finally settle down and do their real good work," she said. "They could create schools and factories in Yan'an, laying the foundations of the Chinese communist philosophy. All these efforts are bearing fruit today."

She thinks that the Long March can be regarded as a reflection of the Chinese national spirit: no matter how difficult it is, the Chinese people will never give up.

"How many people died during the Long March? They had no shoes sometimes, they barely had anything to eat, and they had to climb snowy mountains. Yet they persisted and gave up everything to adhere to the original aspiration," Ribbons said.

As an American who has lived in China for over 14 years, Ribbons thinks China and the United States have many things in common. In both countries, people believe that if a person works hard, he or she will succeed.

"In the United States, this belief is called the 'American Dream' while in China, it is the spirit of the Chinese dream," she said.

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

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