Dec 13, 2013
A Story of Rural Wartime China, 70 Years in the Making
Isabel Crook spent most of the year from 1940 to 1941 walking the streets of a rural village in Sichuan province called Prosperity, carrying a stick to beat off guard dogs and wearing a simple blue jacket and straw sandals. She gathered extensive notes on the lives of the townspeople—which families were too poor to own a pot for boiling water, which establishments offered a smoke of opium.
Isabel Crook. See more photos. Carl Crook
Now, 70 years later, she has finally published a book on that research. “Prosperity’s Predicament: Identity, Reform, and Resistance in Rural Wartime China” has had a “very, very long history,” says Ms. Crook, who has lived in China for most of her nearly 98 years.
In between gathering the material for the book and finally putting it together, the woman who came to be known as Comrade Isabel has had a long history herself.
The tall, slender daughter of Canadian missionaries was born in Chengdu in 1915 and spent much of her youth in China, returning to Canada for her studies.
Returning to Chengdu in 1942, she met her husband, David Crook, a committed Stalinist who had spied for the KGB in Spain and Shanghai. The two moved to London during World War II and married in David’s native England.
After the war, they returned to China, where they studied Communist land reform, says one of their sons, Michael. David published research on a village called Ten Mile Inn in northern China in 1959, and the couple decided to stay in China after being invited to teach at what was then called Beijing’s Foreign Languages Institute.
As China headed into the Mao years and the Cultural Revolution, the Crook family remained in Beijing. Eventually, David was jailed in Beijing’s Qincheng prison for five years on suspicion of being a spy, while Isabel was held on the campus of the university for three years. David Crook describes his experience in an autobiography as being filled with solitary confinement, interrogation and very little contact with his family.
But neither David nor Isabel held China responsible for the excesses of that time. “I was free in 1973,” David, who died in 2000, wrote. “Old friends and new asked me why I did not leave China after ‘the Chinese’ had treated me the way they did. My answer was, it was not ‘the Chinese’ but Chinese enemies of China.”
Isabel also says she “treasured” being able to witness such an important part of Chinese history firsthand. “If you love experience in life, it’s a great thing.”
The Life of Comrade Isabel Crook
Isabel Brown with her parents Homer and Muriel Brown in Chengdu in 1940.
After she retired from teaching at Beijing’s Foreign Languages Institute, now called Beijing Foreign Studies University in the 1980s, Isabel finally turned to her field notes, which had sat in a steel box for almost 40 years. She wrote a version encompassing three volumes and 25 chapters, something she admits needed a little paring down.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Isabel, along with Northeastern University professor Christina Gilmartin, revisited many of the 1,500 families she had observed in Prosperity, which is today called Daxing. Ms. Gilmartin died in 2012, but the final elements of the book, which focus only on the original study, were eventually finished by Gail Hershatter and Emily Honig, history professors at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
“[Isabel Crook] is really an extraordinary character, and very determined,” says Ms. Hershatter. “She wanted to see this book done and put so many decades of work into thinking about it.”
Isabel, in an interview from her apartment in Beijing, talks about her research as if it happened just yesterday—from observing the domestic power women in the village held to the influence of a semi-secret society called the Robed Brotherhood, or paoge, that controlled many of the elements of life in the town behind the scenes.
Although villagers were naturally suspicious of outsiders—especially representatives from the Kuomintang government, headquartered in nearby Chongqing, who were also knocking on doors to collect taxes and conscript their sons in the fight against the Japanese occupation—most accepted Isabel and a Chinese colleague with whom she was conducting the research.
“I dressed like them and I spoke Chinese, but with an accent,” Isabel says. But because her colleague was from Shanghai and also spoke with an accent, they were both welcomed, she says.
“The vast majority of people were poor,” Isabel recalls. “But it was a community, really a community.”
Isabel says she isn’t a big fan of China’s moves toward modernization, starting with the changes wrought by Deng Xiaoping. “I think the Deng reforms let out market forces which are very hard to curb.
“There should be careers for people in the countryside and in the city,” she says, “like yin and yang.”
Although she never got around to publishing the updated research she gathered on her second foray into Prosperity, Isabel feels there is another book waiting to be written, says her son Michael. “However, she’s turning 98 [this week],” he says. “I don’t think she’s going to write it.”
In the preface to the book, she writes: “the path to publication has been more labyrinthine than the street that winds through the market village in Sichuan where I began the research over 70 years ago.”
Ms. Crook, along with Ms. Hershatter and Ms. Honig, will speak about “Prosperity’s Predicament” at the Bookworm in Beijing at 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 17. Contact the Bookworm for reservations at order.
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