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Memoir chronicles Epstein's life
(China Daily)
Updated: 2004-06-17 17:10

"In the past, there was much talk about how the advancing world would change China.

Israel Epstein brings out the Chinese version of his latest book "A Memoir of More than 80 Years in China." [China Daily]
"Now we are in a period when the role of China is changing the global situation more and more, and attracting more and more notice worldwide.

"This is a very great change in international circles and culture."

Making the remark on his 89th birthday on April 20, Israel Epstein knows all too well about changes, especially those that have taken place in China.

A longtime witness to the changes here and a knowledgeable scholar of both Chinese and world contemporary history, Epstein has experienced the dramatic and historic changes in every sphere in China, a country he has adopted as his own.

In what he calls the "twilight of my days," he has offered to share his China experiences in "A Memoir of More than 80 Years in China," which saw its Chinese version roll off the presses in April, with the English original soon to follow.

Epstein, born in Warsaw in 1915 to a Jewish family, was brought to China when he was only 3 by his parents, who were engaged in revolutionary movements against Tzarism.

Though he grew up with a Western education, he has witnessed throughout his life how the Chinese people, time and again, were invaded and humiliated by foreign imperialists and how fearlessly they fought back.

His memoir altogether contains 31 chapters, covering his life since his childhood in Harbin and Tianjin.

He worked as a journalist at age 15 for the Peking Tientsin Times English-language newspaper. He covered China's battles against the Japanese aggressor in Nanjing, Wuhan and Guangzhou and recorded actions which took place at Tai'erzhuang, where the Chinese army waged fierce battles against the invading Japanese soldiers.

He devotes a special chapter to recalling how he worked together with Soong Ching Ling (1893-1981) - Madam Sun Yat-sen, in Hong Kong during the war.

He says that his life in the wartime capital of Chongqing and his historic visit to Communist-led Yan'an, in 1944, was a turning point in his life. He had chances to interview leaders who had devoted their lives to the Chinese revolution, such as Mao Zedong (1893-1976), Zhu De (1886-1976) and Zhou Enlai (1898-1976).

He says that it was through this historic visit that he saw the future of a new China. He thus chose the road for himself to follow.

His visit to Great Britain in 1944 and five years in the United States from 1945 on helped him maintain a broader view of China's role in the world, he wrote.

Probably the most important part of his memoir covers his life in China from the beginning of the 1950s, including his four visits to Tibet, what happened to him during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), his days in prison and freedom regained.

As a journalist and historian, Epstein has kept up his penmanship and published a number of books about what he has seen and experienced in China.

The titles that have won acclaim include "Unfinished Revolution in China" (1947); "From Opium War to Liberation" (1954); "Tibet Transformed" (1983); and "Woman in World History - Soong Ching Ling" (1993).

Each of these was a product of years of work.

For instance, to write the book on Tibet he visited the region four times, either by land or by air, between 1956 and 1982, with each trip lasting almost two months. He interviewed hundreds of people there and took endless notes, not to mention the many books on Tibet he read for research.

Epstein was the only person authorized personally by Soong Ching Ling to write her biography before she passed away in 1981. It took him several years to research and write this landmark work, which appeared on the centennial of Soong's birth in 1993.

"The aim of this extensive biography, is to have the reader meet the subject," Epstein wrote.

"Whenever possible the story is told in her own words, drawn from all available written material, including hundreds of personal letters, the testimony of participants and eyewitnesses and my own recollections over four decades."

Apart from his regular work of editing the English-language journal China Reconstructs (now renamed China Today) and writing books, he has also served as a standing committee member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference since the mid-1980s, offering criticisms and suggestions on China's work in various aspects of culture and journalism.

With his mastery of the English language, he has been considered an authority to improve the English translation of important documents, including selected works of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

Critical of the erroneous trends in China's publicity for the international audience, he has written many letters to China's top leaders, suggesting ways to improve the work.

Looking from within

Foreign visitors to China have treasured the chance to listen to Epstein discussing China.

But as a veteran scholar of China, Epstein has continued to probe ever deeper into the essence of the nation.

He looks at China from a unique angle, making it much easier for foreigners to understand what is happening in China.

"Unlike 'watchers' from the outside, we saw the international arena as it looked from within China," Epstein once said. "Considering our familiarity with both worlds, our perceptions might help others to a rounder view."

Epstein begins his memoir with a chapter entitled "Crossroads - Westward back to the East." It tells readers to what depth he has been absorbed in the different concepts of the East and West.

"In the West the compass is said to point North. To the Chinese, who invented it, it is 'the South-pointing needle,"' he wrote. "The dual views do not affect its ability to indicate all directions.

"But it does draw attention to the relativity of things and multi-polarity of concepts. Also to the acute and ancient awareness of the Chinese built even into their everyday language, of the unity or relation of opposites."

In the last chapter, Epstein talks about the loss of his wife Elsie Chomeley, and about his twilight days.

"In the twilight of my days, I am often asked if I regret my choice of life?

"In the place and time in which history placed me, I can think of nothing better and more meaningful than to have witnessed and linked myself with the revolution of the Chinese people, one-fifth of all humanity, with their weight in the fortunes of the entire world.

"In this process, as in all else, there have been joys, pains and zigzags. But the overall road has been upward, contributing to progress nationally and internationally."

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