Isabel Crook in China

Vijay Prashad with Isabel Crook in Beijing, 2018.

In 1947, Isabel and David Crook arrived in northern China to study what the Communist Party of China had done in a village called Shilidian (Ten Mile Inn). Wretched poverty in that region – exacerbated by the ruinous extractions by the Kuomintang and then Japanese occupation forces – stunned the Crooks. Isabel was born in Chengdu on 15 December 1915, and – by 1947 – had learned her Marxism well, while David had learned his in the frontlines while defending the Spanish Republic. By the time they arrived in Ten Mile Inn, the Communists had been working there for several years. The Red Army comrades worked with the peasantry to demand higher taxation from the handful of landlords (and insisted that they pay tax in cash, while the landless could pay through joining the work groups to build the region’s infrastructure in the anti-Japanese war); these taxes were used to improve the village, building schools and medical centers for the people. Traces of the old hierarchy remained, but the new attitude amongst the peasantry was to build a new life for themselves. One of the signature features of the Communist policy was the emancipation of women, established through the organization of a Women’s League which build an economic foundation for women, which promoted literacy, which fought to end violence against women, and which fought against foot-binding and other sexist practices. Out of this experience, the Crooks published Ten Mile Inn: Mass Movement in a Chinese Village (1979).

On 20 August 2023, Isabel (饶素梅) died in Beijing at the age of 107. Ten Mile Inn is not her only legacy, although – alongside William Hinton’s Fanshen (1967) – it remains the best English-language document of the epochal changes that took place in China’s countryside because of the Chinese Revolution. In 2019, China’s President Xi Jinping awarded her the Medal of Friendship for her work at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, where she taught for seven decades, and where she developed China’s first English-language textbooks. Meeting students of Isabel in China is not a difficult task, since she trained and inspired millions of them to learn languages, including English.

Let’s eat Indian food

In 2018, I had lunch with Isabel in Beijing at an Indian restaurant. Isabel was already in the restaurant, sitting with her two sons. Over 100 years old, Isabel nonetheless had a bright light in her eyes. There was so much I wanted to ask her, but I worried that I would trouble her with my earnest questions. It was enough to bask in her presence, to enjoy the company of people like Isabel — sensitive and brave people who believe, against all odds, that the world can be made a better place.

Many years ago, I received a telephone call from Joan Pinkham (who translated Aimé Césaire’s Discours sur le colonialisme and Pierre Vallières’ Nègres blancs d’Amérique). Joan told me about the eight years she and her husband, Larry Pinkham, lived in China, teaching journalism at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and working as a translator at the Foreign Languages Press. Joan spoke fondly of her time in China, of working to help shift what was an impoverished country into relative prosperity. What I liked most about Joan was her fearlessness. She told me about her father, Harry Dexter White, who had worked in the US Treasury during World War II and had helped set up the International Monetary Fund. The anti-Communist climate in Washington, D.C. inevitably stormed into White’s life. He was accused of being a Soviet spy, something he fiercely denied. As did Joan, who had her own commitments to the left, but who did not think this required espionage. It was enough to understand world history to know that a new kind of civilization was needed, one that was not to be built on greed and fear. That was the core of Joan’s politics, a political outlook that was familiar to Isabel Crook’s.

At the lunch table in the Indian restaurant, the guests listed names of Americans who had lived in Beijing and contributed in one way or another to the building of China’s institutions. Joan’s name came up. North of Amherst (Massachusetts), where Joan lived till she died in 2012, sits the Putney School, which was founded by Carmelita Hinton in 1935. Two of Carmelita’s children would become part of this group of Americans who went to help build the new socialist China. Her grandson, Fred Engst, was at our lunch table. Fred speaks English with a Chinese accent and teaches economics in Beijing. He was raised by his parents, Sid Engst and Joan Hinton, on a Chinese dairy farm. Joan Hinton, Fred’s mother, had been part of the Manhattan Project that developed the atom bomb. She was disgusted when it was used against Japan in 1945. Joan and Sid Engst moved to China, where Sid had already been part of the Chinese Communist Party’s war against the Kuomintang forces. Sid took care of 30 cows used to feed the troops, who won their liberation against enormous odds.

Joan’s brother, William Hinton, died in 2004 at a nursing home in Concord, Massachusetts (two years after their sister, Jean Rosner Hinton, an anti-war activist and great friend of the Cuban Revolution, had died). Both Joan and William had attended the Putney School, and both ended up being partisans of the Chinese revolution. I had met William a few decades ago at the offices of the Monthly Review Press in New York. Since its founding 1949, Monthly Review covered national liberation struggles in the Third World. The press had brought out several books on China, including the gripping story of the Chinese Communist general Zhu De by the American journalist Agnes Smedley as well as a biography of the Canadian doctor Norman Bethune who lived and worked in China. William’s book (Fanshen) is perhaps the most famous among all of these, an addictive story of land reform in a Chinese village in the late 1940s. The book was almost not written. When William returned to the US from China, the government seized his notes from his locked trunk. It took him years of litigation to get the materials back. He wrote his book while working as a truck mechanic.

Curiosity about Chinese agrarian transformation governed Isabel’s life. In 1939, went to Bashinao in Sichuan province to study village life and to teach literacy. During this period, from 1931 to 1945, she worked in Xinglongchang to build an understanding of the rural struggles. In 1981, after she retired from teaching, Isabel returned to Xinglongchang with Yu Xiji, and then in 2013 published Xinglongchang: Field Notes of a Village Called Prosperity (1940-1942) in Chinese. That same year, with Christina Gilmartin, she published Prosperity’s Predicament: Identity, Reform, and Resistance in Rural Wartime China (1940-41). When I asked her about her important work on China’s agricultural transformation, she looked at me and said, ‘For me, one of the abiding reasons to do these studies and to write these books was that they might inspire other peoples, in countries like China – such as India – to work along these lines.’ Comrade Isabel, as she was known by her students, was in Beijing in 1949 to watch Mao deliver his speech when he said, ‘The Chinese people have stood up.’ In fact, Mao should more precisely have said, the Chinese peasantry has stood up. Isabel’s writings document that new dignity, and her work teaching generations of Chinese students is about building that dignity further. The loss of a person like Isabel signals the end of a generation of remarkable people who helped build a new reality in China.

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).