Columnist Vijay Prashad: Meeting Isabel Crook in Beijing

  • Vijay Prashad with Isabel Crook. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • —Submitted photo

Published: 2/12/2019 9:27:20 AM

“Do you mind that Isabel wants to meet at an Indian restaurant?” asked a former student of mine as we walked on a cold day in Beijing, China. Mind? I was thrilled. Not to eat Indian food in China, but to meet the legendary Isabel Crook.

Isabel, born in China to Canadian missionary parents in 1915, worked in the country during the terrible war years of the 1940s to document the condition of rural China. Isabel and her husband, David Crook, went to the areas of China liberated by the Communists in order to do a sequel to a classic 1937 book written by the American journalist Edgar Snow, “Red Star Over China.” The Crooks worked in North China, eating millet and sweet potatoes, looking much like the peasants that they lived among and studied. Their 1959 book, “Ten Mile Inn,” was a landmark work on land reform and its importance for the new China. I had read that book as a schoolboy in India. I was bursting with excitement to meet her.

Isabel was already in the restaurant, sitting with her two sons and with others whom I did not immediately recognize. Over 100 years old, Isabel nonetheless had a bright light in her eyes. There was so much I wanted to ask her, but I worried that I would trouble her with my earnest questions. And besides, over the course of the past 70 years, Isabel has written a great deal about her experiences and her life. It was enough to bask in her presence, to enjoy the company of people like Isabel — sensitive and brave people who believe, against all odds, that the world can be made a better place.


Many years ago, when I first came to Northampton, I received a telephone call from Joan Pinkham. Joan lived in Amherst, where she had been a professor of journalism. We met a few times before Joan passed away in 2012. Joan told me about the eight years she and her husband, Larry Pinkham, lived in China, teaching journalism at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and working as a translator at the Foreign Languages Press. Joan spoke fondly of her time in China, of working to help shift what was an impoverished country into relative prosperity.

What I liked most about Joan was her fearlessness. She told me about her father, Harry Dexter White, who had worked in the U.S. Treasury during World War II and had helped set up the International Monetary Fund. The anti-Communist climate in Washington, D.C. inevitably stormed into White’s life. He was accused of being a Soviet spy, something he fiercely denied. As did Joan, who had her own commitments to the left, but who did not think this required espionage. It was enough to understand world history to know that a new kind of civilization was needed, one that was not to be built on greed and fear. That was the core of Joan’s politics, a political outlook that was familiar to Isabel Crook’s.

At the lunch table in the Indian restaurant, the guests listed names of Americans who had lived in Beijing and contributed in one way or another to the building of China’s institutions. Joan’s name came up. I’m sure she would have been thrilled to be remembered by Isabel Crook.


There are close ties between the Connecticut River Valley region and China. North of Amherst sits the Putney School, which was founded by Carmelita Hinton in 1935. Two of Carmelita’s children would become part of this group of Americans who went to help build the new socialist China. Her grandson, Fred Engst, was at our lunch table. Fred speaks English with a Chinese accent and teaches economics in Beijing. He was raised by his parents, Sid Engst and Joan Hinton, on a Chinese dairy farm. Joan Hinton, Fred’s mother, had been part of the Manhattan Project that developed the atom bomb. She was disgusted when it was used against Japan in 1945. Joan and Sid Engst moved to China, where Sid had already been part of the Chinese Communist Party’s war against the Kuomintang forces. Sid took care of 30 cows used to feed the troops, who won their liberation against enormous odds.

Joan’s brother, William Hinton, died in 2004 at a nursing home in Concord, Massachusetts. Both Joan and William had attended the Putney School, and both ended up being partisans of the Chinese revolution. I had met William a few decades ago at the offices of the Monthly Review Press in New York. Monthly Review, founded in 1949, began life as a socialist magazine, its first issue carrying an article by Albert Einstein called “Why Socialism?” The review slowly turned its attention to the struggles in the Third World. The press had brought out several books on China, including the gripping story of the Chinese Communist general Zhu De by the American journalist Agnes Smedley as well as a biography of the Canadian doctor Norman Bethune who lived and worked in China. William’s book is perhaps the most famous among all of these. Published in 1966, it was called “Fanshen,” and it was an addictive story of land reform in a Chinese village in the late 1940s. The book was almost not written. When William returned to the U.S. from China, the American government seized his notes from his locked trunk. It took him years of litigation to get the materials back. He wrote his book while working as a truck mechanic.


Back in Beijing, it is a cold day outside. No one here has any illusions about the world. These Americans in China had marched in the streets of Beijing against the U.S. war on Iraq. Now, they watched Trump from afar, aghast. But matters are not perfect in Beijing, either.

The government has been cracking down on Marxist students who want to organize trade unions. Deng Xiaoping’s reforms of 1978 broke the back of many of the socialist experiments to which these North Americans had given their lives. Illusions are not the fuel for these sensitive and decent people. The fuel is hope. Isabel Crook, at the center of it all, has lived with hope for over 100 years. It is infectious.

Vijay Prashad is the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. His most recent book is “Strongmen.” He lives in Northamp ton.

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