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Professor Chen Lin, a dear old friend of the Crook family

By Michael Crook | | Updated: 2023-02-17 10:29
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My father and mother, David and Isabel Crook, and my brothers, Carl and Paul, and many others in our family, count Chen Lin among our dearest of old friends. We are all saddened by his passing.

Chen Lin is a famous man, and many have shared his accomplishments and contributions. I wish to share some anecdotes that may not be public knowledge, known only to very few besides us.

During the Anti-Japanese War, Chen Lin moved to Sichuan. He attended briefly a middle school in Sichuan's Bishan County. My mother was at that time about 25, doing anthropological studies in Bishan 1940-1942. She often claimed that she made her acquaintance with Chen Lin at that time. But alas we have no records or pictures, and now she is too old to give any details.

In 1949, Chen Lin came to Beiwai (Beijing Foreign Studies University), and became a friend of the family. He liked to recall carrying baby Carl (my brother born in August 1949) on his shoulders, with amusing results. He liked to refer to my parents as his teacher, but I believe he soon became a member of the teaching faculty, and my parents' colleague.

Chen Lin had attended American colleges Yenching and University of Nanking, and spoke with an American accent. However, the authorities in the early 1950s decided – rightly or wrongly - that it would be beneficial if Chinese were taught English English, rather than American English, which was "spoken by the US imperialists". Chen Lin decided to change his accent – with help from my father and others. With his talent and musical ear, he succeeded very well! All the years I knew him, he spoke a proper English English.

In the wake of the Tangshan Earthquake of 1976, a trip was arranged for the whole family to visit Jiarong Tibetan village of Bashinao in Zagunao (now called Lixian county) in Aba Tibetan and Qiang autonomous prefecture. This was the village where my mother had conducted her first anthropological studies back in 1938. Again we had the pleasure of Chen Lin's company. The place was now so much more prosperous than 38 years earlier. We all joined in the singing and dancing with the villagers.

In 1980s, after the launch of China's reform and opening-up, there was a mass movement to study English. Chen Lin is well-known for his TV English program, where he teamed up with old friend Cathy Flower. But locally, Chen Lin and others, including my father David, helped to set up an English Corner at Beijing's Zizhuyuan Park. Young people were able not only to see him on TV, but got to practice their English and meet him face to face.

I had left Beijing for university in England in 1973, and after graduation came back to Beijing with my young family in 1978. My wife lona Mancheon was among the first batch of foreign students to enroll in a degree course at Beijing after the "cultural revolution" (1966-76). The policy was unclear, and upon graduating, the university did not award degrees to the foreign students. This was a disappointment. When we told Chen Lin, he interceded with the authorities and as a result, lona and some other foreign students were awarded the bachelor's degree. (This enabled her to go on to a graduate school in the US, where she obtained a doctorate at Yale, and taught Chinese history at SUNY Stonybrook, helping many young people learn about China.)

In 1993, some friends and I embarked on an ambitious project: to start an international school in Beijing. Chen Lin was always ready with advice. After the Western Academy opened in 1994, it became quite a success. One of our fellow founders, Gordon Gurr, who was the CEO of Rolls Royce in China, was so inspired that he decided to try and set up a business school. In 1995, the China-Britain Management Training Centre came into being. But as the students were Chinese nationals, regulations required a Chinese citizen to act as legal representative. Gordon asked me if I knew any suitable people. I suggested Chen Lin. Gordon found him quite suitable. And Chen Lin was happy to be of service. The school has since developed into a creditable institution.

In preparation for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, in anticipation of thousands of foreign visitors, the Beijing municipal government decided to improve English language signage in the city. An Advisory Council was set up, chaired by Chen Lin. He proposed that I join it. Over the decades since, I have visited many sites, examined countless translations, and the city has published standards for translation. Most of the misleading, confusing, or amusing mistakes have been corrected.

Another occasion we often shared was the Foreign Language Fairs the city held in Chaoyang Park. We sometimes shared a platform. Sometimes we sang foreign songs on stage, and even invited members of the public to come up on stage to join us!

Chinese cuisine is surely one of the best in the world. To help foreign clients, many restaurants in Beijing made their own English translations of their menus, often with ludicrous, if not outrageous, even offensive results. The council decided to make better ones. Chen Lin's family and mine have eaten out together for decades. Knowing my love for good food, Chen Lin proposed that I help develop guidelines for menu translation. I helped create a formula that would give clients a good idea of what each dish might be – chief ingredients, style of cooking, etc. E.g. Spicy chicken cube sautéed with peanuts. But the council decided that to spread Chinese culture, the Chinese names of a few signature dishes should be preserved, like mapo doufu, or gongbao (old spelling "kung-pau") chicken. But what does "gongbao" mean? Herein lies a Chen Lin connection. Gongbao, literally "Palace Protector" (of the heir to the emperor) was an honorific title given to trusted officials of the emperors. Chen Lin's great-grandfather Ding Baozhen, who had served as governor of Sichuan, famous for its chilis, as well as Shandong, famous for its peanuts, had once held this title. Love of peanuts must run in the family. Many times I heard Dad say "Chen Lin's coming! Get out the peanuts!"

But Chen Lin was quite cosmopolitan. A favorite restaurant of ours was the "ресторан".

It is widely known that Chen Lin loved to sing. I do not have his beautiful singing voice, but nevertheless love to sing. Two memorable occasions: In 2008, on the approach of the 110th anniversary of the birth of the great American singer Paul Robeson, Chen Lin proposed that an event be organized to commemorate this great man who had sung "Chee Lai" to support the Chinese people's war of resistance against Japanese Aggression. The family took this up enthusiastically, and helped organize a musical event at the former residence of Soong Ching Ling. It was highly successful. In my minds ear, I can still hear Chen Lin's sonorous deep voice singing Ol' Man River.

Chen Lin speaks at an event of the 110th anniversary of the birth of the great American singer Paul Robeson in 2008. [Photo provided to]

My father had promoted the Old Scottish tradition of holding Burn's Nights to commemorate the great Scottish poet and songwriter Robert Burns. Some years ago, long after my father had passed away, Chen Lin proposed we should hold a Burns Night in Beiwai ! I invited a number of British friends, including a Scottish friend who spoke with a very strong Scottish accent – to sing some favorite Burns songs in a karaoke room in Beiwai Hotel. It was a very jolly occasion!

In 2010, when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Noam Chomsky visited China, we invited him to a gathering at my brother Carl's house at Wanshousi, Beijing. Chen Lin was among our guests. We all enjoyed the lively exchanges with professor Chomsky.

My father had died at the age of 90 in year 2000. To mark the 10th anniversary of his death in 2010, Chen Lin mobilized his fellow alumni – the cohort of 1949 to donate funds to make a bust for David Crook. The then-Chinese State Councilor Liu Yandong came to Beijing Foreign Studies University to unveil the beautiful bust which now stands east of the main building, Beiwai East Campus – a place my family like to visit several times a year.

My mother was born in 1915. In 2015, Chen Lin proposed that his fellow alumni raise funds to make memorial benches to commemorate Isabel on her 100th birthday. These now stand either side of the bust of my father.

As mentioned before, I had helped establish the Western Academy of Beijing in 1994. I became the registered founder/operator. This was a problem. Because all schools in China are required to have a founder, and being a mere mortal, this was unsustainable. We decided to establish a not-for-profit organization to replace me as founder. Chen Lin gave good advice. In 2015 WAB Educational Institute was established. Chen Lin helped us organize a symposium, and also served as Chairman of our Academic Council. Last year, the change of founder was accomplished. I am personally most grateful for his support.

Last year saw Chen Lin's 100th birthday. It was during COVID times, and we could not all go and wish him happy birthday at his new residence in Changping. So I spread the word among his old friends and colleagues who remained on the Beiwai campus where he had lived so many years in Building 19. We gathered in the Activity Centre and sang happy Birthday to him.

We gathered to celebrate Chen Lin's 100th birthday in 2022. [Photo provided to]

In his book "People I have known", Chen Lin told some interesting stories about my father and mother. I wish I had the skill to do the same about him, but I do not. So I offer these little anecdotes by way of a tribute.

Professor Chen Lin's contributions to education, to international friendship should long be remembered!

Michael Crook is a teacher and translator, and Chairman of the International Committee for the Promotion of Chinese Industrial Cooperatives.

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