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Agnes Smedley

  • Given name:
  • Last name:
  • Alternative names:

    Rusty Knails

  • Date of Birth:
  • Place of Birth:
    Missouri (US)
  • Date of Death:
  • Place of Death:
    Oxford (GB)
  • Profession:
  • Introduction:

    Agnes Smedley was an American journalist, writer and activist. Between 1929 and 1941, she lived in China, where she wrote reportages for European and American newspapers. As a feminist and socialist writer, she focused on the concerns of rural people and paid special attention to artists and their work during the Chinese revolution.

    Word Count: 51

  • Signature Image:
    Smedley, Agnes. “Chinese Woodcuts 1935–49.” The Massachusetts Review, vol. 25, no. 4, 1984, pp. 553-564.
  • Content:

    Agnes Smedley was an American journalist, writer and activist who is well known for her publications on the Chinese revolution.
    Born in Missouri, she grew up in precarious circumstances, but was able nevertheless to attend Tempe Normal School (now Arizona State University) and San Diego Normal School (now San Diego State University), for a year each. From 1917 to 1920 she lived in New York, working as a secretary and, at the same time, contributing articles to the socialist magazine The Call and Margaret Sanger's Birth Control Review. In 1919, she moved to Berlin, where she became friends with Käthe Kollwitz after a collaboration on birth control pamphlets, which they translated and illustrated. There she also met the Indian nationalist leader Virendranath Chattopadhyaya and became involved in the Indian independence movement.
    Between 1928 and1941, Smedley lived in China. She stayed in Shanghai for some time, but also travelled around the country as a reporter, as some of her photographs demonstrate. Through a feminist perspective, she wrote – among other issues – about the role of Chinese women during the civil wars. As a correspondent, she wrote reportages for German, British and U.S. newspapers, such as the Frankfurter Zeitung and the Manchester Guardian. She established a friendship and working relationship with Lu Xun (1888–1936) a protagonist in the May Fourth Movement who is widely regarded as the “father of modern literature” in China. In 1927, together with other May Fourth writers, he had to leave Beijing in order to escape Kuomintang persecution and settled in Shanghai in the relative safety of the foreign territories.
    Smedley continued to write about and be engaged with Chinese social politics after her return to New York. She also continued her preoccupation with art, as shown in her 1949 contribution to a Tribune Gallery of New York publication. In her essay, Chinese Wood Engravings, Smedley wrote about the art of Chinese wood carvings, its revolutionary potential and the role of Lu Xun. As a prominent leftist figure and the epicentre of the politically and socially engaged Woodcut Movement, Lu Xun was soon followed to Shanghai by the Kuomintang and forced to move back and forth across the city boundaries, switching territories repeatedly. He secretly found shelter at his friend Uchiyama Kanzo's Uchyama Bookstore, located on an extra-settlement road on Szechuan Road, and stayed in Shanghai until his death in 1936.
    During her time in China, Smedley maintained an illustrious network that included the German architect Rudolf Hamburger and his wife Ursula Kuczynski, who worked for the espionage ring around Richard Sorge, who in turn worked for the Russian GRU. Smedley published a number of books about her experiences and observations in China and the first of these, Daughter of Earth (1929) was translated into Japanese by Ozaki Hotsumi. Both Ozaki and Sorge were sentenced to death in Tokyo in 1944. Smedley repeatedly visited the Communist and Nationalist forces on their route marches and on the battlefield. In 1941 she left China for the USA,  but left that country in 1949 because of anti-communist persecution and moved to England. She died the same year in a hospital in Oxford.

    Word Count: 510

  • Media:
    Aino Taylor, Agnes Smedley in Kuomintang uniform as worn by Communist troops in central China during the United Front in 1939, Agnes Smedley Collection (© University Archives, Arizona State University Library).
    Smedley, Agnes. China blutet. Cover, Dietz Verlag Berlin, 1949. The German exiled artist John Heartfield (née Helmut Herzfeld) did a letterpress print for Cina blutet for his brother’s publishing house Malik Verlag during their exile in Prague in 1936. The print is archived at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and belongs to the Jan Tschichold Collection. Jan Tschichold was a calligrapher, typographer, and book designer. In 1933 he fled with his family to Switzerland and stayed for longer periods in London and Hampstead where he was involved in the design of the Penguin Books.
  • Author:
    Mareike Hetschold
  • Known addresses in Metromod cities:

    72 Route Grouchy, French Concession (now 52 Yanqing Lu, Xuhui Qu); Normandie Apartments, Avenue Joffre, French Concession (1850 Huaihai Lu Zhong Duan, Huangpu Qu); Le Bearn Apartments, 449–479 Avenue Joffre, French Concession (Huaihai Lu Zhong Duan, Huangpu Qu)/ 96 Rue Marcel Tillot, French Concession (Xing’an Lu, Huangpu Qu), Shanghai

  • Metropolis:
  • Mareike Hetschold. "Agnes Smedley." METROMOD Archive, 2021,, last modified: 15-09-2021.
  • Richard Paulick

    After studying with Hans Poelzig, Richard Paulick worked in Walter Gropius’s office and frequented the Bauhaus in Dessau before emigrating to Shanghai in 1933. After his return, he became an influential planner and architect in the GDR, from 1950 until his retirement

    Word Count: 41

    Richard Paulick on board ship, en route to exile, photography, 1933. (© private archive, courtesy of Natascha Paulick).Richard Paulick on a weekend boat trip around Shanghai, photography (© private archive, courtesy of Natascha Paulick).Richard Paulick sketches in the landscape, photography (© private archive, courtesy of Natascha Paulick).Richard Paulick (with a pipe) in his office. His brother Rudolf is standing in front of the plan cupboard, photography (© private archive, courtesy of Natascha Paulick).Ye Qianyu, cover print, The Second-class Rail Carriage, Modern Sketch, July 1935.
    Voice of China

    Song Qingling, widow of the founder of the republic, Sun Yatsen, supported the political magazine Voice of China in 1936, which appeared in Shanghai in English. After the Japanese army invaded China in August 1937, the magazine had to cease publication.

    Word Count: 39

    Cover, Voice of China, no.1, 1 April 1936 (© Eduard Kögel 2006).
    Cover, Voice of China, 15 March 1937 (© Eduard Kögel 2006).Content, Voice of China, 15 April 1937 (© Eduard Kögel 2006).Cover, Voice of China, 1 June 1937 (© Eduard Kögel 2006).Grace & Max Granich, photography, China Reconstructs, September 1972.
    Exhibition of prints by Käthe Kollwitz

    A German woodcut exhibition organised at the Zeitgeist Bookstore presumably took place in June 1931. In June 1932. A further exhibition with more than 200 works by German artists, including works by Käthe Kollwitz and George Grosz, was shown at the Chinese Y.M.C.A.

    Word Count: 44

    Advertisement for the Zeitgeist Bookstore.
    Agnes Smedley in her apartment with a lamp designed by Rudolf Hamburger, photography, 1931 (© Hamburger family).Käthe Kollwitz, The Ploughmen, sheet 1 of the cycle “Peasants War”, 1907, line etching, drypoint, aquatint, reservage, sandpaper, needle bundle and soft ground with imprint of Ziegler's transfer paper, Kn 99 VIII b. (© Käthe Kollwitz Museum Köln).Smedley, Agnes. “Chinese Woodcuts 1935–49.”, The Massachusetts Review, vol. 25, no. 4, 1984, p. 553. Reprint of Li Hua, Ploughing, Angry Tide series, 1947. 5_ Ye Qianyu, cover print, The Second-class Rail Carriage, Modern Sketch, July 1935. The print was inspired by George Grosz.Wang Guodong, cover print, Pornographic behaviour under the blue sky and red sun, Modern Sketch, February 1936. The print was inspired by George Grosz’ sketch The Kiss.Ye Qianyu, cover print, The Second-class Rail Carriage, Modern Sketch, July 1935.