Chinese Destinies: Sketches of Present-Day China, 1933 (journalism)
China’s Red Army Marches, 1934 (journalism)
China Fights Back: An American Woman with the Eighth Route Army, 1938 (journalism)
Battle Hymn of China, 1943 (journalism)
The Great Road: The Life and Times of Chu Teh, 1956 (biography)
Daughter of Earth, 1929
Agnes Smedley wanted to be known, and primarily is known, as an independent American radical, a working-class feminist, and a writer who served the causes in which she believed. She was born in Campground, Missouri, on February 23, 1892, the daughter of a farmer and jack-of-all-trades, Charles Smedley, and his wife, Sarah Ralls. Smedley’s lifelong commitment to the causes of the poor and to feminism were fueled by the wretched life she experienced as a child. Her family moved constantly. Their constant financial instability caused both parents to suffer, something they, at times, passed on to their children. Her mother died at an early age from the cumulative effects of poverty and overwork.
With the help of relatives, Smedley escaped from this life by getting an eighth-grade education and becoming a schoolteacher. At one of her jobs she met the sister of Ernest Brundin, who would later become Smedley’s first husband, and she moved with the two of them to California, where they all became involved in radical political movements. Smedley learned about the anti-imperialist Indian national independence movement, about anarchism and socialism from Emma Goldman, and about Margaret Sanger’s birth control movement. While she admired the cultural sophistication of the Brundins, transplanted New Yorkers, she remained throughout her life a rough, earthy, outspoken person. Eventually she married Ernest Brundin, but they were temperamentally unsuited to each other. After their divorce, Smedley moved to New York City, where she lived among a generation of radicals and artists that made Greenwich Village famous.
In New York, Smedley became deeply involved in politics. She helped to establish birth control clinics, studied Indian culture, and worked at establishing herself as a journalist. There she met Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, who was to become her teacher and, later, her common-law husband. With him she traveled to Germany and the Soviet Union and worked in exile for Indian independence from England.
In 1927 Smedley left “Chatto” for good, taking refuge in Denmark, where she wrote her first book, Daughter of Earth, a thinly disguised autobiographical novel. It summarizes her life powerfully and melodramatically but in unsophisticated language. (She continues this story in her later book Battle Hymn of China.) Smedley reoriented her life, shifting her attention from India to China. In 1928 she went to China as a special correspondent for the Frankfurter Zeitung, and it was there that she did her most important work between 1929 and 1942.
During this time Smedley was one of a few foreign visitors who recognized the power, popularity, and, consequently, the importance of the Chinese Communist forces in the war against Japan. In China, Smedley, always an independent leftist in politics, immediately identified with the causes of the poor industrial workers in Shanghai and with the even poorer peasants in the countryside. She believed that the Communist revolutionaries were nationalists who fought against Western and Japanese imperialism and for agrarian land reform and democracy.
Like most Western journalists in China, Smedley spent most of her early years in Shanghai and other cities controlled by the Nationalist government. Unlike many journalists, however, she was immediately and continuously involved in social and political work. Her first book on China, Chinese Destinies, is a collection of articles which has Shanghai for its background. Her next, China’s Red Army Marches, depicts the struggles of the Communist forces in Jiangxi province to regroup after their early defeats by the Nationalists. Although Smedley never visted Jiangxi, her description of this battle between good and evil forces is based on information she gathered from refugees whom she sheltered and helped.
After a visit to Moscow and a brief stay in the United States, Smedley returned to China and gained fame as the reporter who broadcast news of the Xian incident, when Chiang Kai-shek was kidnapped and forced to agree to a united front with the Communist forces against the Japanese. Living in Hankow (now the city of Wu-han), Smedley also helped to smuggle medical supplies through Japanese territory to Communist forces at their headquarters in Yen-an.
During this period, Smedley (along with the more famous Edgar Snow) spent long periods of time with Communist forces. She was able to interview leaders of the revolutionary armies, especially Mao Zedong and Chu Teh. These experiences formed the basis for her last three books. China Fights Back and Battle Hymn of China are eyewitness reports designed to tell Americans about China’s struggles against the Japanese, especially about the Red Army–its leaders, its organization and tactics–and China’s attempts to shed the feudal culture with which China had, so to speak, bound its own feet.
Smedley’s last book, a biography of Chu Teh, was an attempt to introduce the West to China’s most important military figure. It was published posthumously, and, like all Smedley’s books, it was highly partisan and a bit oversimplified. Nevertheless, Smedley was a highly respected authority on the Chinese situation who advised both the civilian and military arms of the American government on Chinese matters.
With the end of World War II and the onset of the Cold War, Smedley quickly became, like other journalists, military personnel, and diplomats who did not support Chiang Kai-shek, a victim of smear campaigns and political witch-hunts. At the time of her death, Smedley had been accused of spying for the Soviet Union and being a member of the Communist Party. Neither of these accusations proved to be true. Smedley was always an independent radical, and her major writings belong to that tradition of opinionated journalism, popular in the nineteenth century, which was practiced by writers as diverse as Horace Greeley, Jack London, Upton Sinclair, John Reed, and H. L. Mencken.