Man of the people

By Lin Qi (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-10-20 09:21
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Man of the people
Isabel Crook, wife of David Crook, a language professor at Beijing Foreign
 Studies University before retirement, lives in their Beijing home on the university campus. Wang Jing / China Daily

Man of the people
Left: David Crook and Isabel Crook with their elder son Carl in 1952. Right:
 David Crook and Isabel Crook in Shilidian, a Communist-controlled village
 in northern China, 1948. Photos provided to China Daily

British communist David Crook's devotion to China is celebrated a century after his birth and a decade after his death. Lin Qi reports

Ten years after David Crook (1910-2000) passed away, the British communist, teacher and writer is still remembered for his idealism and volunteerism, as his family, colleagues, students and friends commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth.

Crook's interest in China and its revolution was sparked by reading Edgar Snow's Red Star Over China, in Spain, in the late 1930s. It was not until 1947 that he and his wife, Isabel Crook, were able to observe the land reforms in the Communist liberated areas. He spent the year collecting material for his classic book, Revolution in a Chinese Village.

Soon after, David began a long career in English-language education. He taught English and world history at Beijing Foreign Studies University for decades until he retired in the late 1980s. He wrote and spoke about China, providing the outside world with an accurate picture of New China against the backdrop of the oversimplifications of the Cold War.

"David's life and that of our whole family have been immeasurably enriched by our participation in China's great, but tortuous, revolution," Isabel says.

David was born in London to a middle-class Jewish family, which emigrated to seek a better life in New York City when he was age 18. But the Great Depression began shortly after their arrival, revealing to David capitalism's dark underbelly.

He joined an investigation team formed by activist classmates at Columbia University to look into the coalmine strike in Harlan County, Kentucky. But authorities forcibly blocked the group, and it was never able to reach the mines.

The bitterness of the experience led David to join the Communist Party of Great Britain, after he returned to his homeland in 1935. The following year, he volunteered for the International Brigade in Spain and fought to defend the Spanish Republic against the fascists.

In 1938, David took a teaching job in Shanghai and then moved on to a university in Sichuan's provincial capital, Chengdu. There he met Isabel Brown, the daughter of Canadian missionaries. Isabel, who was raised in China, shared David's interest in rural land reform.

They wed in London in 1942. As World War II raged, David joined the British air force and was stationed in India, Ceylon and Myanmar. Isabel joined the British Communist Party and served as a Canadian Women's Corps nurse.

David returned to China after the war to research the revolution's progress a decade after Snow's report. After presenting a letter of introduction from the British Communist Party in 1947, the couple was able to settle in Shilidian (Ten Mile Inn) - a village in the Communist-controlled border region of Shanxi, Hebei, Shandong and Henan provinces.

David was accepted as a comrade in the Party. Soon after arriving in Shilidian, he "first experienced the salutary practice of criticism and self-criticism", Isabel says.

There were two occasions when David and his wife prepared to leave the country but ended up staying.

The first was in 1948, when the couple planned to return to Britain to write up their research. The Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party asked them to stay to equip New China's future diplomats with English-language skills.

The second came when David was preparing to accept a good position at the University of Leeds in 1960.

"Khruschev abruptly recalled thousands of Soviet experts working in China. If David left then, he would be seen as taking the Soviet side against the Chinese," Isabel says.

"So he told the school's Party secretary that we might delay our departure. The response was, 'Stay'. And we stayed."

David was unjustly imprisoned for five years during the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976) and was released in 1973.

"It was his optimistic and disciplined personality that helped him cope with imprisonment," Isabel says.

"For instance, he could receive the People's Daily in prison but he knew very few Chinese characters. He couldn't keep a dictionary. So he asked for a Chinese-English booklet of Lin Biao's quotes and used it as a dictionary," she recalls.

"He was well aware that 'revolution is not a dinner party' so he never blamed China for his lengthy stay in Qincheng prison."

Upon being freed, David enthusiastically jumped back into teaching and working on a Chinese-English dictionary, which is still in use.

At age 67, he developed a well-received world history course to raise students' awareness about social and international issues.

"He searched books on the shelves of foreign friends in Beijing and bought textbooks with money out of his own pocket when he was on home leave," Mei Renyi, a student of David and Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU) professor, recalled in David's memorial in 2000.

"He designed the syllabus, wrote handouts, gave lectures, invited guest speakers and coached younger Chinese teachers. The students appreciated his efforts and gradually came to like his course."

When the university started a program to train English instructors from remote, poor and ethnic areas, the Crooks turned their home into an English corner for them, Mei recalled. "They visited Inner Mongolia, Qinghai and other places where the students came from and helped raise the level of their teaching," Mei said.

"David's lofty character and selfless, undaunted devotion continue to inspire us."

David was not only a serious academic but also a loving father, who attached great importance to family life.

"We were an outdoor family," his eldest son, Carl, recalls.

"My father would take us hiking on mountains and picnicking every weekend, and swimming in summers.

"He liked cycling and tennis as well. He kept swimming as a lifelong hobby. He swam almost an hour a day at the Friendship Hotel with the help of a migrant domestic helper a year before he died," Carl continues.

"Father insisted on reading Western bedtime stories in Chinese for us, even though his Chinese was not as fluent as my mother's," he says. "He was humorous and joked a lot. He could sing songs in French and German. He collected a lot of records of Western classical music."

David's second son, Michael, says, "Father made a lot of his life decisions out of the organization's needs. He put personal gains after the benefit of the people."

Chen Lin, a BFSU professor, says, "All his life, he lived up to the political commitments of a devoted communist and internationalist, a great educator and a good friend of Chinese people."

A grand commemoration of the 100th anniversary of David's of birth, which will be staged at the Great Hall of the People on Oct 20.