FROM CHINA WITH LOVE
Born Isabel Brown, her parents were Homer Brown and Muriel Hockey. She was the oldest of four children but a brother and sister both died of malaria in infancy, leaving her with just one younger sister, Julia.
Homer and Muriel were both Canadian Methodist missionaries and teachers who went to China after it had become a republic in 1911 – ‘liberated’ from the monarchy. Neither knew each other but they met at West China Mission in Chengdu and were married in 1915.
Homer, who was a fluent linguist, immediately enrolled in the Canadian army and went to the Western Front. He served as an interpreter with the Chinese Labour Corps.
He returned to China to become Dean of Education at the West China Union University in Chengdu.
Muriel was also a much-loved teacher, and amongst other charitable works, set up a school for deaf Chinese children.
Isabel and her sister went to the Chengdu Canadian school. When China was attacked by the Japanese in 1931, the school was relocated 100 miles to rural China, to avoid being bombed. It was there that Isabel became fascinated with the people of rural China.
She went to the University of Toronto and graduated in child psychology and social anthropology, immediately returning afterwards to China.
She then set off with a Chinese colleague to study the villages of Lolos in West Sichuan, a Yi minority people who lived there. They were a slavery-based society who believed in shamans.
She remembered crossing torrential rivers, “on rafts that sank ankle-deep beneath the surface…the current was so strong that we were carried miles downstream”.
It was opium country, full of bandits. She was not worried by them, saying they were not really criminals. “They were poor farmers in the off-season. They had to go up to the hills and come down to do their banditry”.
She then joined the Chinese National Christian Council and was sent to an extremely poor rural area, close to the city of Chongquing, which had become China’s wartime capital in the 1930s. It was a reconstruction project but Isabel (and a friend) were charged with doing research on 1500 families. “We set out on our household visits with stout sticks to beat off the ubiquitous dogs”. When the villagers realised the two women were no threat to them, the dogs were called off.
Her research was extensive and took many years. She intended to turn it into a book entitled ‘Prosperity Village’. It was almost written (and had been advertised for sale in Britain), when the Second World War intervened.
In the meantime, Isabel had met David Crook. He was a British and Jewish member of the Communist Party who had fought in the Spanish Civil War with the International Brigade. He had been a Soviet spy, reporting to the NKVD (USSR’s secret police) on republicans in Barcelona who were not loyal to Stalin.
His espionage handlers transferred him to Shanghai in China, and there, they mysteriously severed contact with him. Unsure of what to do, David made his way to Chongquing, where he met Isabel.
David proposed to Isabel on the Luding Bridge over the River Dadu (a significant place for Chinese revolutionaries). He also converted her to communism, convincing her of the need for violent revolution. “He convinced me saying if you had a very serious acute illness that could be cured with an operation, would you not have an operation rather than go on suffering?”
They decided to get married in the UK. Both of them made their way to Britain separately, having difficult and dangerous journeys.
They married, and David then signed up for the RAF. He served in India, Ceylon and Burma.
Isabel worked in a munitions factory. She joined the British Communist Party and in her spare time sold the ‘Daily Worker’ newspaper outside Euston Station. She also enlisted for the Canadian Women’s Army Corps and served as a nurse.
After the war, she enrolled for a PhD at the London School of Economics (LSE). The research she had done on ‘Prosperity Village’, served as her thesis.
When this was completed, David and Isabel decided to return to China. Their intention was to stay for 18 months. Instead, they were to spend the rest of their lives there.
All three of their sons, Michael, Carl and Paul, were born and brought up in China.
They returned to a China in civil war. The Nationalists (Koumintang), led by Chiang Kai-Shek, were fighting the Communists, led by Mao Zedong. The couple moved to the ‘liberated’ communist-controlled regions of the country.
David intended to write articles for British papers on the civil war, whilst Isabel returned to her research projects. But nobody was interested in David’s writing, so he joined Isabel on her travels. They moved from place to place on a mule cart, sleeping on peasant’s floors and eating maize and rice. They also noted how the peasants saw the Communists as a ray of hope.
They were in Peking (Beijing) when it fell to the Communists in 1949, having travelled there in the back of an army truck. They climbed the Qianmen Gate to observe the celebrations. She noted that nobody seemed to think it strange that two westerners were joining in with the euphoria. “It was the most joyous moment I think I’ve ever watched.” And she heard Mao declare the creation of The People’s Republic of China.
They were invited to stay in China and create a language school for the diplomats that the new communist government needed to go around the world. This was to become the Beijing Foreign Studies University. Isabel was to teach there for 40 years. She never intended to become a teacher, but she absolutely loved it. Isabel designed the curriculum and started writing textbooks, which were used throughout schools in China.
The couple visited a rural community called Shilidian (Ten Mile Village). There they observed the changes to rural life under Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’. They wrote a book, published in 1951 entitled ‘Revolution in a Chinese Village – Ten Mile Inn’.
They kept returning to the village. Isabel started a primary school there, providing it with all the pens, pencils and paper that was needed. She also bought the village it’s first spinning wheel – and as nobody had ever seen one before, she taught the locals to use it.
Through the 1950s, they remained enthusiastic supporters of Chairman Mao, despite increased skepticism amongst their friends. She rejected, “the doubts of some friends and the fears and obstructions of enemies”.
They were also forced under the ‘Great Leap Forward’ to spend three weeks doing agricultural labour in another remote village. They spent their time there planting trees. David said this was ‘redemption’, for all the suffering Britain had inflicted on China in history.
In 1959, they returned to live in Ten Mile Village, and in 1966 published a second book, ‘The First Years of Yangyi Commune’. It was much less enthusiastic than its predecessor.
By now, China was in the throes of the Cultural Revolution. David and Isabel were arrested. David was accused of being a spy. His situation was made worse when his past as a Soviet agent was uncovered. By now the communist countries of China and the Soviet Union were at loggerheads.
He was sent to Qincheng Prison where he spent 5 years in solitary confinement, never seeing another prisoner.
Isabel was sentenced to 3 years ‘house arrest’ – except it wasn’t in her house but in the university, so she could keep teaching. She didn’t see her children in person for any of this period – although she could watch them through the window as they walked to and from school. They could not see her though.
She spent a lot of the time reading the Complete Works of Chairman Mao, all four volumes, which she read three times over.
In her letters to friends living abroad, she never told them about David’s imprisonment. She said he had been sent to the countryside to educate peasants. “I wasn’t going to give them the opportunity to gloat over China’s failings”.
She was released in 1971, David in 1973. And yet, both remained supporters of Mao. She said she understood and forgave her captors. She said mistakes could be made on the road to progress. And she still loved China. “You don’t reject a whole country because a few things go wrong”.
David said imprisonment was a painful experience, “but the gains are the overwhelming aspect, not the losses”.
The new Premier of China, Zhou Enlai, was trying to moderate the excesses of Chairman Mao. He held a reception for arrested foreigners and vindicated them. Isabel was delighted.
When Zhou Enlai died in January 1976, Isabel cycled many miles in deep snow to watch his funeral cortege. But she was thwarted. The government, now led by the ‘Gang of Four’ headed by Madame Mao, banned any mourning.
In September 1976, Chairman Mao died. The Crooks noticed a subsequent liberalization of the country right up until 1989.
That year there was a new wave of protests against the authorities, culminating in the protests at Tiananmen Square.
Isabel and David visited the square, taking food, drink and blankets to the protestors. David wrote to the People’s Daily newspaper. “We fervently hope that no attempt will be made by the Chinese leaders to settle the present crisis by force”.
But it was settled by force. David was extremely disillusioned by the violence used against the protestors, Isabel less so. She said it must be considered part of the process of transformation.
However, they decided to stay in China. “We belonged, and that is why we stayed”.
They became advisors to the Chinese government.
David died in 2000. Isabel stayed on. The university allowed her to stay in their small apartment on campus.
After much more research, in 2013, she finally published her earlier work, which should have come out in the 1940s. Updated, it was called ‘Prosperity’s Predicament’.
In 2016, her son Michael, made a documentary about her life, which was shown on Chinese state television (CCT). She said they had chosen to stay in the country in 1949 because they were, “participants in a revolutionary movement embracing a whole people”.
She praised the Chinese – “wonderful things have been achieved – from abject poverty to a modern, technological country”.
She said she had lived her life adhering to both Methodist and Communist principles, which she said were the same – public service.
She also called herself a Chinese patriot. The documentary made her a national hero.
Nevertheless, she (and the late David) received much criticism as apologists for Chairman Mao. They totally ignored the fact he had slaughtered between 60-80 million of his own people, making him the worst killer in history.
Isabel was surprisingly delighted to receive a card from Queen Elizabeth 2nd on her 100th birthday – “a foot in both camps”, she quipped.
In 2018, she was made a Doctor of Letters by her Alma Mata, the University of Toronto.
Aged 103, she fell out of bed and broke her leg. It made her determined to keep going.
In 2019, she was given the title ‘Honorary Citizen of Chongqing’.
A statue of David was erected in the grounds of their Beijing university.
Also in 2019, Isabel was awarded the Chinese Friendship Medal. This is the top honour that can be given to foreigners. It has only been ever awarded to 9 other people including the Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Cuban leader Raul Castro.
Her son Michael took her on a three-day trip back to Chengu, to visit all the places she had known. She said the highlight of her trip was having Chengu beer – “the best in the world”.
It was awarded to her in person by the President of China, Xi Jinping.
She told Xi Jinping her proudest achievement was raising the literacy rate in China. He told her she was a living witness to the birth of a new China.
Isabel died in her apartment in Beijing aged 107. She had lived there for 67 years. Her younger sister Julia, survives her. At her own request there was no funeral and her body was donated to medical research. “Our beloved Isabel is immortal”.
Tributes flooded in. “She always had a sense of public duty. She was there, doing what she thought was right”.
RIP – Republic Imprisons Partner