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
"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
"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
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
"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,"
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
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
"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
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,"
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
"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
"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
When her eldest son Carl was 8 years old, Crook took her three
children to Canada for the first time and they started learning
"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
"Our entire family has been immeasurable enriched by our
participation in China's great but tortuous revolution," Isabel
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
"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)