Agnes Smedley: A Revolutionary Life

Agnes Smedley (1892-1950) was an American writer and loyal friend to the Chinese people during the 1930s and 1940s. She made an indelible contrition from the victory over Japanese and Chinese fascist in China. Smedley passed away over 70 years ago, but her ideals and writing have endured in China.

Smedley was born on February 13, 1892 to a poor family in Missouri. Her father was a miner and this environment contributed to her motivation to help the unfortunate people who were in the bottom rungs of American Society. Her upbringing and family situation contributed to her independent and strong personality. For a brief period, Smedley studied at the Tempe Normal School later to become Arizona State University. She worked as a teacher, journalist, and an advocate of independence for India from British colonial rule. In the last two decades of her life, Smedley devoted all her energy, talent and passion to China’s revolution. Smedley stayed in China for 12 years during the turbulent war times. She returned to the United States for medical treatment in 1941 but continued to speak about Chinese war of resistance at conferences, in the newspapers and on the radio. Smedley worked tirelessly to raise money for the Chinese resistance until the end of her life.

The exhibition is divided into four sections based on the timeline of Smedley’s experience. The first section introduces Smedley's childhood, family background and her experiences growing up. The second section covers Smedley's first visit to China from 1928 to 1933. The third section covers Smedley's participation in the Xi'an Incident from 1936 to 1940, her work with the Chinese united front, and her interviews and reports on the anti-Japanese war. The fourth section tells the story of Smedley's moves from Hong Kong, New York and London. Between 1940 and 1950 she helped the new Chinese government to become more well-known internationally through her writing and speeches. It is the intention of this exhibit to highlight Smedley’s legendary life using the rich historical resources from Arizona State University Library’s Special Collections and Digital Repository.

The Arizona State University Library and Shanghai Museum of Sun Yet-Sen’s Former Residence collaboratively are holding the exhibition Agnes Smedley: A Revolutionary Life from May 6 to July 31, 2020. The exhibition is also planned to held in Peking University.

About Exhibition

Agnes Smedley: An American Revolutionary

Almost fifty years have passed since Nixon and Mao initiated the modern era in American-Chinese relations and the progress in mutual interest and understanding has been remarkable. But there is an older history, now gone from living memory, that helps us see how the roots of our modern connections were formed by earlier generations.

The exhibition we present here of the life and work of Agnes Smedley gives powerful testimony to the history of an earlier generation. Agnes Smedley was born to a miner’s family in the “wild west” of America but had the opportunity to attend a small “normal school” in Tempe, Arizona, that has since grown into one of the great research universities of the world. Arizona State University is proud of its contemporary graduates but especially proud of the impact that one remarkable woman from our earliest days had on her times.

Journalist and activist, friend of suffragettes and socialists, Smedley was taken with the idea of China and came to northeast China and Shanghai in 1929, coming to know the literary and intellectual leaders of that time. In 1936, she went on to Xi’an and Yan’nan, where for five years she came to know and work with the leaders of the revolutionary movement that would succeed a decade later. Finally, from 1941 to 1950, she moved to Hong Kong and endured the wartime there, before returning to the United States. She died in the U.K. in 1950 but is buried in Peking as a sign of where she found her true home.

This exhibition draws on materials from the Agnes Smedley Special Collection of the Arizona State University Library and from the University’s digital repository. It captures the unique qualities of her life, times, and adventures in two cultures. We are proud to be able to tell the story of a remarkable former student from our university in a fresh and interesting way, using these original documents, through the hospitality of our Chinese partners. The exhibition will be hosted by the Museum of the Former Residence of Sun Yat-Sen in Shanghai, by the China Center for Edgar Snow Studies of Peking University, and by the Edgar and Helen Snow Studies Center of Northwest University (Xi’an). We are very grateful to all three host institutions for the partnership we have made with them in this common undertaking.

We hope that this common exploration of the history of this remarkable woman will advance understanding of the way the Chinese and American people have found ways to improve mutual understanding and cooperation over the last century and will be an opportunity for study, reflection, and further historical investigations on both sides of the ocean that separates us.

James J. O’Donnell
University Librarian
Arizona State University

Photos of the Exhibition in Shanghai
Museum of Sun Yet-Sen’s Former Residence

Episode One:
Northeast China and Shanghai Years

Episode Two:
Xi'an Incident, Yan'an, & At The Front

Episode Three: