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Silage Choppers and Snake Spirits
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Silage Choppers and Snake Spirits by Dao-yuan Chou, is published by IBON Books, Quezon City, Philippines. ISBN -971 -0483 -37 -2. 

The lives and struggles of two Americans in Modern China.

Reviewed by John Sexton

Joan Hinton, a US citizen and former physicist on the Manhattan Project, lives on the Beijing Agricultural Machinery Experiment Station she set up with her late husband in 1980. Joan has lived in China for 61 years, and witnessed the founding of the People's Republic, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Silage Choppers and Snake Spirits tells her and her husband's tumultuous life story.

In 1948, Joan Hinton quit the Chicago Institute for Nuclear Physics and took a steamer to Shanghai to join her future husband Sid Engst, a radical-minded New England dairy farmer who had joined the Chinese Communists in their Yan'an base two years earlier.

After leaving the USA, Joan never worked as a physicist again. In the following decades she and Sid spent most of their lives working together on collective farms. Sid was the practical, down-to-earth farmer who knew how to get things done. More pragmatic politically than Joan and, to her intense annoyance, taken more seriously because he was a man, Sid was elected to official positions on the farms. Joan occasionally joked with friends about "old, conservative Sid".

While an undergraduate Joan had built a Wilson cloud chamber to view cosmic rays. At Los Alamos she had helped build an atomic reactor. She set about adapting her practical skills to rural China. While Sid sat on committees, Joan set about designing and building farm machinery, from windmills, silage choppers and milking machines all the way up to combine harvesters.

In 1966 the family, now with three children, was transferred to Beijing and drawn into the whirlwind of the Cultural Revolution. Used to living alongside peasants, Joan and Sid chafed in the luxurious foreign ghetto of the Friendship Hotel. With a handful of colleagues, they authored a big-character poster, later personally endorsed by Mao Zedong, demanding that foreigners be treated as Chinese and allowed to join the struggle. Their wish was soon fulfilled only too well, when their friends David and Isabel Crook were arrested by one of the many Red Guard factions and locked up for 5 years.

Despite such setbacks Joan and Sid never abandoned their radical views and continued to cast a critical eye on developments in China and the world until Sid died in 2003. Nowadays, Joan still meets every week with old and new comrades, including Isabel Crook, who is now over 90 years old, at a Peace Vigil Group set up to oppose the US-led invasion of Iraq.

Joan came from a privileged, intellectual background. Her mother, Carmelita, the daughter of a Nebraska newspaper editor, was a campaigner for women's rights. In 1935 Carmelita set up Putney School, a private, co-ed boarding school committed to progressive educational methods. The school flourished and still exists today. Joan's great-grandfather was the Englishman George Boole, who invented Boolean algebra and laid the foundations of computer science. Her brother William wrote the celebrated study Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village.

A feminist like her mother, Joan was always uncomfortable in dresses and the book relates how her absolute refusal to wear lipstick to make a disguise convincing nearly got her arrested while in the Communist underground in Shanghai in 1948.

In 1944, while a graduate student, Joan was summoned to the top-secret Manhattan Project in Los Alamos where the world's top brains were racing to build the world's first atomic bomb.

Silage Choppers and Snake Spirits would be worth reading for the chapter on Los Alamos alone. In those early days, the dangers of radiation were imperfectly understood and safety precautions were primitive. Joan remembers driving a young scientist to hospital after he accidentally touched a ball of plutonium. He became the first recorded victim of radiation poisoning. "It took Harry Daghlian a month to die. The radiation burned straight through his body and the doctor's efforts proved useless. Even putting him on ice didn't affect the burning."

Joan witnessed the first atomic bomb test in the Nevada desert. "I felt like I was at the bottom of an ocean of light. Then gradually it was like there was a magnet sucking this light and it concentrated into this purple mass. It was like burning oil – black on the outside and purple inside; a terrible color of poisonous purple."

Scientists at Los Alamos had seen the Manhattan Project as race against Hitler. With Germany defeated and Japan on the brink of capitulation, many were horrified when the military rushed to use their new weapon on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Joan became increasingly disillusioned with her work and Sid's persistent letters finally convinced her to join him in China.

Silage Choppers and Snake Spirits started life as an oral history project and is inevitably colored by Sid and Joan's political views. They never blamed Mao Zedong for any of the setbacks China suffered in the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution. Rather, they saw self-serving bureaucrats bungling or deliberately frustrating the Chairman's policies. Nonetheless, the book is an inspiring story of their struggle and commitment, as well as a rich seam of information for China specialists.

The chapter on the Great Leap Forward, for example, describes, at first hand, how farm managers were bullied by bureaucrats into trying to meet impossible production targets. Sid and Joan's work unit broke their backs to get results while other farms simply made the figures up. The deception went right the way to the top, with the People's Daily publishing massively exaggerated figures. Plans made on the basis of the figures led to economic disaster.

The book is also a welcome corrective to Anne-Marie Brady's sour and mean-spirited volume Making the Foreign Serve China which portrayed Joan, Sid and the many others who, 60 or more years ago, joined China's revolution as hapless dupes or worse.

The major problem with Silage Choppers and Snake Spirits is poor editing. At 450 pages it is probably too long, and there are far too many typos in the text. I look forward to seeing a revised second edition.

(China.org.cn July 24, 2009)

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