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Israel Epstein: A Special Chinese Citizen Who Brings China to the Outside World

By Liu Dong


IT was the midsummer of 1951, and at the personal invitation of Soong Ching Ling, Israel Epstein and his late wife, Elsie Fairfax-Cholmeley, returned to China from the USA to help set up China Reconstructs in Beijing. On their arrival at Beijing Qianmen Railway Station Chen Hansheng, vice chairman of the editorial board, and Zhang Yan were there to meet them.


Owing to the strained relations between China and the USA at that time, this had not been an easy journey for the couple. They had been obliged to make detours to Poland and other countries, and to overcome several setbacks before finally returning to China.


Israel Epstein himself had not the slightest inkling at that time that he would not leave China, the country for which he has a special affinity, for the next fifty years, and that he would become a special Chinese citizen who would bring China to the outside world.


Decades of Hard Work for a Magazine


As soon as they reached Beijing, Epstein and his wife Elsie devoted themselves to the founding of China Reconstructs, a magazine introducing China to the outside world. In the preparatory stage, there were only 3 or 4 staff members and no office. As a result, the first issue was created after discussion and editing on a park bench. Epstein as the executive editor, and his wife were always on the move. In order to guarantee the typesetting and printing quality, they went to Shanghai once a month, a train journey entailing four days and four nights, to check the final proofs, and to supervise the printing.


Later, Epstein was appointed editor-in-chief of China Reconstructs, a post to which he devoted himself for decades. This not only laid a solid foundation for the shaping of the magazine's characteristics, but also fostered a large number of personnel skilled in international communications.


Epstein has always stressed that the highest priority of the magazine is to meet the needs of readers. "Our readers are foreigners, and have different historical backgrounds, social environments, customs, and experience. I must emphasize the need to discern and focus on what our readers are interested in, and write articles easy for them to understand, and not just try to please the editor."


During his decades as editor-in-chief, Epstein has always taken a realistic approach, and introduced the true China to the outside world. This stems from his rich historical knowledge of China and other countries, as well as his keen awareness, observation and analysis of China's reality.


He was keen to foster young personnel, and did so by sharing with them his own precious and original experience. He would tell young reporters, "The most important thing is accuracy, the second is the readers' preference."

"What you should do is to introduce your own ideas and experience. Priority should be given to new concepts, and stereotypes avoided. All of this stems from a rich knowledge, so you should undergo a thorough training in basic skills." "In order to make your articles more compelling and of greater worth, you should make full use of your eyes, ears, and brain, and combine what you get from these with your historical and other relevant knowledge, and what you know to be the interests of our readers."


Introducing a True China to the Outside World


Epstein has lived in Beijing for decades, and he became a citizen of the People's Republic in 1957. Talking about China, he said, "I love China and its people; it is a special affinity that connects me with this beautiful country. I feel at home here."


During the past decades, in his role of editor-in-chief of this magazine, he has taken great care in the presentation of China's image. As an authority on international communications, Israel Epstein has played the role of senior adviser. He has also worked on the English versions of several important works, such as The Selected Works of Mao Zedong, and The Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping.


Apart from editing and translating, he has written, from his own distinctive point of view, numerous books on China. In his book, From Opium War to Liberation, he observes and analyzes China from a historical as well as an international angle, thus reflecting his grasp of Chinese history and current reality. In it he wrote, "Everyone makes his own history in his own country, but on a global scale, all are inseparable from the other, and make a common history."


His Tibet Transformed integrates his study of history with his observations of reality. Between the 1950s and the 1980s, he went to Tibet four times, both overland and by air. He interviewed 700 or 800 people, took notes totaling nearly one million words, and carried out extensive research on Tibet.


After Soong Ching Ling's death, Epstein published her biography, Woman in World History -- Soong Ching Ling, of about half a million words, the fruit of years of painstaking labor. It aroused international interest, and was awarded the "National Book Award" by the Press and Publications Administration of the P.R.C.


His deep love for China and for Soong Ching Ling has compelled Israel Epstein to travel to countless places both inside and outside China, gathering and endorsing material, as well as visiting and talking with kindred spirits.


Authenticity is always his number one priority, all facts mentioned in this book were verified. "There will not be found in these pages any quotation marks around words by Soong Ching Ling which she did not actually say or write, or which were not put down by the hearers." If any issue arises that cannot be confirmed, he would rather omit it than fabricate something out of mere conjecture. Epstein's own interpretations, at times unavoidable, are identified as such. This strict adherence to known fact stems from his fidelity and respect for Soong Ching Ling.


There is, for example, a lack of firsthand material regarding the second occasion on which Soong Ching Ling lived in exile in Germany, and on the role she played in the Xi'an Incident, which appears as something of a flaw in this biography. Instead of prevaricating, he omitted accounts of these two instances, giving explanations, thus making the whole work more convincing.


He gives a vivid portrayal of Soong Ching Ling, this beautiful, elegant, and distinctive woman, through details of her daily life. One such instance was an occasion when Soong Ching Ling invited George Hatem, her good friend, to her home for a meal, and on seeing his faded red tie, said, "It seems I ought to give you a new one." When George Hatem answered, "I wear it because it is a gift from you," Soong Ching Ling smiled, saying "Then I shall definitely give you a new one."


As he writes in his preface, "The aim of this biography is to have the reader meet her face to face."


It can be said that Epstein's biography of Soong Ching Ling has set an example for us.


(China Today January 2002)