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Another red star over China
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Isabel Crook at her home in Beijing.    Guan Xin


Isabel Crook went to see the ballet The Red Detachment of Women last month, just three days after celebrating her 92nd birthday in Beijing.


"I can't remember how many times I have seen The Red Detachment of Women, including ballet, movie, play and Peking opera versions, but a vigorous performance always touches me," she says.


The plot centers on a girl in a village on Hainan Island who becomes a Red Army soldier in the 1930s. Crook, a Canadian sociologist and retired language professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, says the story makes her nostalgic.


Born to a Canadian missionary family in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, in 1915, Crook has spent around 70, sometimes turbulent, years in China.


"One of our childhood games was to collect cartridge shells in the fields to see who could find the most," Crook recalls.


Later, she went to Canada to complete her higher education and returned to China in 1938 with a master's degree in sociology from Toronto University.


"I came back to China with the intention of doing a social work survey for my future PhD dissertation, but I met a man, David Crook, who changed my life," she says.


David, born of middle-class British-Jewish parents in 1910, was a British Communist Party member and was teaching at a university in Chengdu.


They met in 1940 and got married in London, 1942.


Shortly after the marriage, Crook joined the British Communist Party and became a nurse in the Canadian Women's Corps, as World War II raged. David joined the British air force, serving in India and Southeast Asia.


After the war, the couple decided to return to China, inspired by Edgar Snow's book Red Star Over China, which was published in 1938.


"If I had not married David, I probably would not have gone back to China after World War II and I would have missed the opportunity to witness and participate in China's revolution, the most significant social change happening in the world at that time," Crook says.



David and Isabel Crook at Shilidian, a village in Hebei Province. File Photo


"Snow's book sparked our lifelong interest in China. So, we wanted to write a book about China but a very different one," Crook says.


Snow's book gave an overview of the political and military events during the Communist revolution, but the Crook book concentrated on economic and social change taking place in the countryside.


"We thought such a book might help revolutions in other poor countries, such as India."


Thanks to the British Communist Party, the couple managed to reach Shilidian (Ten Mile Inn), a village in Hebei Province and the "capital" of the border region of Shanxi, Hebei, Shandong and Henan provinces. It was 1947 and the area was controlled by Communists, who were fighting the Kuomintang led by Chiang Kai-shek.


Crook and her husband lived with a village family and ate in the mess hall with the staff of government departments. They spent their time interviewing villagers about the history of the area and took part in meetings.


"The profound lesson I learned was that people have to liberate themselves and they need mass-line leadership - 'from the masses to the masses.'"


There were two occasions when Crook and her husband considered leaving China, but they decided to stay.


The first time was in 1948, when, having completed their research, they were preparing to return to England. Instead they were asked, on behalf of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, to stay and teach.


"I was very happy to have the opportunity so that I could see how the Party kept changing China and creating a new society," Crook recalls.


The couple then began a career in education, at a school teaching English to the future diplomats of new China. Over the decades, scores of their students have become ambassadors or other senior officials representing China abroad.


"Crook is a pioneer of the country's English education cause and she has played a significant role in developing our school," says Hao Ping, president of the Beijing Foreign Studies University.


In the eyes of her students, Crook is an easy-going, affectionate but strict and responsible teacher.


"Isabel tried to work and live like an ordinary Chinese person," says Zhang Zailiang, a professor at the Beijing Foreign Studies University and one of Crook's former students in the 1950s.


"For example, she did not live in the Friendship Hotel, where most foreign experts stayed. She chose to live in a dormitory within our university."


Zhang says Crook's professionalism and ability to inspire others are two of the reasons for her success as a teacher.


"I could gain the necessary five-points-score in all subjects except oral English because of my strong southern accent. Isabel consistently refused to award me with five points, which drove me to work hard to correct my accent," Zhang, a native of Ningbo in Zhejiang Province, recalls.


Zhang later became director of the United Nations interpreter training center and chief of the UNESCO Chinese simultaneous interpretation team in the 1970s. He also established the first simultaneous translation courses in China.


The second time the Crooks considered leaving China was in 1959-60, when China's relations with the Soviet Union became strained. David was prepared to accept a good position at Leeds University.


"But I said that the Soviet Union abruptly recalled thousands of experts working in China. If you left too, then you would be seen as taking the Soviet side against the Chinese," Crook remembers saying.


"I never regretted my stay, even during the storms of the 'cultural revolution' (1966-1976) when I was locked up as a suspected spy and David, like so many others, was unjustly imprisoned - for five years," she says.


But she does have one regret - her poor Chinese.


"I can understand Chinese but I have a mixed accent of Sichuan, Hebei and Beijing dialects."


However, she is proud that Chinese is the first language of her three sons.


When her eldest son Carl was 8 years old, Crook took her three children to Canada for the first time and they started learning English.


"I thank my mother for giving me the opportunity to learn Chinese," says Michael, Crook's second son, who runs an international primary school in Beijing. "When we meet, my brothers and I speak Chinese. We think in Chinese and our culture is Chinese."


"Our entire family has been immeasurable enriched by our participation in China's great but tortuous revolution," Isabel Crook says.


When David died in 2000 at the age of 90, the family held a celebration at the university because they thought he was lucky to have spent such a meaningful life there.


"No tears and no mourning, red everywhere. People sang revolutionary songs and danced and it was a very happy day," Crook recalls.


"I am lucky too. As a sociologist, I really care how people change an old society and form a new world. And I think I have gained a lot from my experience in China."


(China Daily by Wang Ying January 3, 2008)


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