From Spain to China: The story of David Crook

We are pleased to republish this fascinating article by He Yan about David Crook, a friend of socialist China if ever there was one. The article appeared in the March 2021 issue of Voice of Friendship, the magazine of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries.

“Cmour sacré de la Patrie,
Conduis, soutiensnos bras
Liberté, Libertéchérie,
Combats avec tesdéfenseurs,
Combats avec tesdéfenseurs!
Sous nosdrapeaux que la victoire
Accoure a tesmales accents,
Que tesennemisexpirants
Voient ton triomphe et notre

Speaking of his teacher David Crook, Zhou Nan, a Chinese diplomat in his 90s lying in bed at Beijing Hospital, began to sing The Marseillaise in French. The Marseillaise is a popular paean of freedom popularized by the French Revolution and the Spanish Civil War.

It was the morning of May 16, 2018, when the sun shone into the room and the song filled my ears. Zhou Nan then stopped singing and said to me, “In 1948, I learned The Internationale and the Marseillaise at the Central Foreign Affairs School in Nanhaishan.”

Spanish anti-fascist battlefield

On the morning of Nov 4, 2020, I went to Zhou Nan’s home. Zhou recalled: “In 1937 before he came to China, David Crook took part in the International Brigades to support the government of the Republic of Spain in fighting Franco’s fascist regime. He taught me The Internationale and The Marseillaise, which he had learned in the International Brigades. Later on, I myself often sang The Marseillaise. Although I forgot the first half, the second half is still in my mind.”

David Crook was born in London on Aug 14, 1910. His Jewish grandparents had escaped from Poland and gone to the United Kingdom in avoid of czar’s religious persecution. His father’s fur business, in spite of earlier development, failed in 1921. As a result, David dropped out of school when he was 15 years old.

David was working at a relative’s factory during the great labor strike in 1926 in the UK. His parents sent him to London Polytechnic and then to Paris to learn French so that he was able to enter the middle class. Dreaming of becoming a millionaire to repay his parents for their upbringing, David traveled to the United States alone in April 1929. As he wrote in his unpublished autobiography — From Hampstead Heath to Tian’anmen (finished in 1993) — “… it is a bad timing. I chose to come to America six months before the US stock market crashed in October 1929.”

David worked at a leather factory as the Great Depression settled in across the United States. He processed stinking pelts every day and earned a pitiful $15 a week. Witnessing the miserable life of laborers on the bottom rung of society, he began to read books and reports about the Soviet Union.

Through part-time work and part-time study, he was admitted to Columbia University. He then joined the Communist Youth League and became an activist in the student movement, which gave him a chance to gain more knowledge about communism. Combining communist theory and practice, he and his schoolmates supported the local miners’ strike in Harlan County, Kentucky, which ended up with his being expelled. That prompted him to join the Communist Party of Britain in London after his graduation from Columbia.

In July 1936, Francisco Franco led a military coup to overthrow the democratically elected left-wing government of the Republic of Spain and establish fascist rule, triggering a civil war in the country. David joined the International Brigades and fought with the Spanish people. He wrote: “Our batch of volunteers rode on from the border of France and Spain to Barcelona at the beginning of January 1937. Uniformed young soldiers of the Republican Army leaned out of the windows, their faces smiling, their right arms raised in the clenched-fist popular front salute, above the vow, whitewashed on the wooden sides of the train: ‘Rather die than submit to tyranny.’ That was the spirit of Republican Spain.”

David was shot in the leg in the battle defending the Jarama Valley. Later, the song Jarama commemorated the battle. The lyrics include: “There’s a valley in Spain called Jarama. It’s a place that we all know right well. For it’s there that we gave of our manhood. And many of our brave comrades fell.”

David recalled in an article: “On Feb 12, 1937, Sam Wild and I were part of a platoon of British Volunteers stationed on the crest of a hill, having been told, ‘Don’t leave that bloody hill till you’re told to.’ Bloody it was and we obeyed orders until none of our mates were left alive. Then we retreated down the slope into a grove of olive trees. There we took cover behind the mounds of earth banking up the trees.”

At midnight, he was sent to the hospital in Madrid where Norman Bethune worked. During his six weeks of hospitalization, he became an assistant broadcaster in English and interviewed Ernest Hemingway. “Ernest Hemingway covered the Spanish Civil War with his pen. Hemingway in a hotel room in Madrid, laughing, gambling, drinking with friends as the bombs burst nearby. It was, of course, the top floor of the hotel, the most dangerous place to be. I was in that room one night with Hemingway and his pals.”

During his stay in the hospital, he borrowed a book from Bethune called Red Star Over China by American journalist Edgar Snow and thus began to follow the Chinese revolution. As he later wrote in his article Red Star Leads Me to China, “I read Snow’s reports on five counterattacks against (the Kuomintang’s) Encirclement and Extermination Campaign and the (Red Army’s) Long March, including the crossing of the Dadu River, flying away from the Luding Bridge and tramping over snow mountains and marshy grasslands. I got to know Yan’an, a revolutionary base area in China, and its local life. I was deeply touched by the heroism of the Chinese workers, farmers, intellectuals and populace in the face of Japanese invaders. … I found things in common between the Chinese People’s War of Resistance against the Japanese Aggression and the Spanish people’s war against fascism. When the International Brigades left Spain, I was eager to fight in Yan’an one day.”

In the summer of 1938, David was sent by the Communist International from Spain to Shanghai, which was under Japanese occupation, to prepare reports on local workers. He taught at St. John’s University. In 1940, he went to Chengdu, Sichuan province, and taught at the University of Nanking, which had been forced to move to Chengdu because of the Japanese invasion. David met Isabel Brown in the office and fell in love with her at first sight. Isabel was born in Chengdu and her parents were Canadian missionaries. In 1938, she earned a master’s degree in child psychology from the University of Toronto in Canada and came back to China. She came to replace her sick sister as a teacher.

Employed by the National Christian Council of China, Isabel participated in the rural construction of Xinglongchang, Bishan county. David often went to see her at that time. In the summer of 1941, they visited a spot by the Dadu River where the Red Army had fought a fierce battle. On the iron chain bridge stretching across the river, David proposed to Isabel.

In June 1941, when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, David decided to return to Britain via New York to fight fascism. He worked with Edgar Snow at the American Committee in Aid of the Chinese Industrial Cooperatives in New York and raised money for China’s anti-fascist war. After a long journey, David and Isabel returned to London one after another. They married in 1942. David was enlisted in the British Royal Air Force and was sent to India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Burma (today’s Myanmar) for intelligence work. Isabel joined the Communist Party of Britain and served in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps.

After the end of World War II in 1945, David retired from military service and began to study the Chinese language at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London, while Isabel pursued her PhD in philosophy in anthropology under Raymond Firth at the London School of Economics. Rereading Red Star Over China renewed their interest in the country. The couple wanted to see changes in China, and their ideas were supported by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Britain which gave them a letter of introduction.

In the autumn of 1947, the couple traveled via Hong Kong to Shanghai and Tianjin. With the help of the underground organization of the Chinese Communist Party, they arrived at Shilidian (Ten Mile Inn) in Shidong village of Hebei province’s Wu’an county, in the Taihang mountain area. They participated in the land reform as observers. In homespun uniforms, they integrated into the local community, eating with farmers while carrying bowls and squatting on the ground. Through talks, they collected historical data and materials on land reform in the village between 1937 and 1947, yielding two works: Revolution in a Chinese Village: Ten Mile Inn; and Ten Mile Inn: Mass Movement in a Chinese Village.

With the liberated areas of north China expanded and merged, the liberation of Beijing and Tianjin were close at hand. In the summer of 1948, the couple finished their investigations and were ready to return to Britain. Wang Bingnan, deputy director of the Foreign Affairs Department of the CPC Central Committee, invited them to teach English at the Central Foreign Affairs School. They agreed.

Training diplomats for new China

In the summer of 1948, as secretary of the underground Party committee at Yenching University, Zhou Nan went to Botou, Hebei province, where he joined the summer training camp for student leaders organized by the Division of City Affairs of the North China Affairs Bureau of Shanxi-Chahar-Hebei Liberated Areas. He later recalled: “In August, my superior told me the central committee of the Party had established a foreign affairs school to train diplomats for the coming new government of China. ‘That’s where you should go,’ he said.

“I was given a letter of introduction and a travel permit from the Division of City Affairs and, with a small pack on my back, I traversed the great plains of Central Hebei, marching by day and sleeping at night. I ended up in Nanhaishan village in Huolu county, Shijiazhuang municipality — which nowadays belongs to Luquan district of Shijiazhuang municipality — and I registered in.

“In September, I was assigned to the advanced class for that time. Our class comprised only about 10 students. David Crook was the teacher. As it turned out, instead of English books, we read from English newspapers and discussed international affairs in English. We sometimes marched to Nanxincheng village, where we joined the faculty and students of North China University of Military and Political Sciences to hear presentations made by President Ye Jianying and Vice-President General Xiao Ke of the university on the War of Liberation.

“We also established a Party group with me as the leader. As a member of the British Communist Party, David Crook took part in our activities. He often joked that I was his political commissar. We were close friends and talked a lot. On Sundays, we always went out for a walk, sometimes joined by Isabel Crook. We went west and ascended to the top of a small hill at the foot of Taihang Mountain.”

The two villages where the schools were located, Nanhaishan and Nanxincheng, were a mere 1 kilometer from each other. Ye Jianying was president of the University of Military and Political Sciences and director of the Foreign Affairs Department of the CPC Central Committee. The Central Committee also entrusted Ye with the supervision of the Foreign Affairs School. The principal of the school was Pu Huaren, a graduate of St John’s University. He used to be a clergyman. After leaving the church, he joined the Communist Party.

The Central Foreign Affairs School was established in a number of cave dwellings in Yan’an. It was later moved to Zhangjiakou, where it was transformed into the English Department of North China United University. In the summer of 1948, it was re-established at Nanhaishan Village with no more than 40 students. They were assigned to elementary, intermediate and advanced classes according to their English proficiency.

The faculty of six or seven teachers was all Chinese except the Crooks and Betty Graham, an American. The school had no dorms or teaching buildings. The faculty and students lived with the local people and taught and learned in the open air in utterly poor conditions.

Lack of textbooks was another big problem. The Crooks later wrote: “The ones we hastily put together were printed on coarse paper made of grass, with occasional stalks running across the page. (Pulling one of these out might extract several letters.) Nor was pedagogy on a high level. On asking about teaching method we were told: ‘Just say anything to the students in English. They’ve never heard the language spoken by a native speaker’.”

The Crooks selected articles from English newspapers. They typed by the dim light of an oil lamp until late into the night. After the manuscript was finalized, they made stencil plates, and “published” these concise but useful English textbooks one after another.

In his autobiography, David Crook recalled:

“When Isabel and I were teaching at Nanhaishan village, we were writing a book on land reform. However, there was no space for privacy in habitual Chinese rural life. I could hardly concentrate on my writing. My students, without any respect, intruded into my room asking me questions at any time during the day. My thoughts on writing were often interrupted by questions like what’s the difference between who and whom. I was angry about it. To stop this, I pasted a piece of paper on my door, announcing: ‘It is teaching time in the morning. Feel free to ask questions. I will write in the afternoon. Please don’t interrupt.’ This became a cause for criticism: ‘A teacher in the liberated area must serve the students wholeheartedly.’ The paper was ripped off.”

The Crooks soon adapted themselves to the frugal life. Students had two meals a day. Millet was the staple. They had meat once every month, a conspicuous improvement. Faculty and students ate the same meals. The Crooks had nothing special. One hot summer afternoon, some students walked pass the Crooks’ dwelling. In the doorway, they saw David Crook sleeping on a door plank. He was unshaved for days and fast asleep, snoring thunderously. One of the students said: “Look! There lies Jigong the Mad Monk.”

There was not much entertainment. Every Saturday night, the faculty and students marched to Nanxincheng Village, where they danced with their friends from the University of Military and Political Sciences using a big barn as their ballroom.

Zhou Nan happily recalled: “There were several huqin players playing folk music from northern Shaanxi, the liberated areas. That was our dancing music. The dancers were all in cotton-padded jackets and trousers. I still remember seeing Ye Jianying whenever there was a dancing party. Most of time, I stood in the corner, watching others dancing. I’ve never been a good dancer. I did it once or twice but always stepped on the foot of my partner.” The Crooks also danced there. Female partners were scarce, and Isabel was popular.

In late September 1948, Jinan, the capital of Shandong province, was liberated. The Kuomintang troops launched air-raids on the school. The Crooks later wrote: “Once, the location of our school and, more important, of the nearby Military Academy headed by Chief-of-General-Staff Ye Jianying, had been pinpointed by some escaped prisoners who had been put on parole, air-raids started. We had no anti-aircraft so could do nothing but get up at 3 a.m. and scatter in the fields, where we carried on informal classes until returning to the village after dark.”

Iron picks and shovels in hands, the Crooks and others dug trenches If alarms were given by someone knocking on a piece of iron rail, they were immediately evacuated. Once, an aircraft swooped down over the roof of the Crooks’ building and strafed it with bullets. The roof was shot through. David Crook said jokingly: “I could see the pilot. He could not see me. That’s how he missed me.”

By the end of October, the troops of Fu Zuoyi, the Kuomintang military chief in North China, marched from Peiping in an attempt to attack Xibaipo village, where the temporary headquarters of the CPC Central Committee was located. Organs of the Central Committee and the schools were immediately evacuated.

Zhou Nan recalled: “It was an afternoon, and we hurriedly finished lunch and set off bearing backpacks. Our destination was the mountains of Zanhuang county in the south. We were still marching when night fell. Tormented by the heavy packs, more of a burden than necessity by now, we were forced to abandon them as the journey wound on. When dawn broke, we stopped near a small village and had some food there. We reached the mountains of Zanhuang county in the afternoon.”

“Days later, news came that the troops of Fu Zuoyi, after being ambushed by the North China Field Army, had retreated to Peiping. Xinhua News Agency published an editorial by Mao Zedong, who sneered at Fu Zuoyi’s failed attack: ‘Your conspiracy has been seen through. You don’t want to lose Peiping, do you?’ The threat from Fu Zuoyi being negated, we returned to Nanhaishan Village.”

This rapid march to Zanhuang county, Hebei province, covered 20 to 25 kilometers. David Crook had just had his appendix removed and was still very weak. He could have ridden a horse, but he refused and went on foot, leaving the horse to students who were ill.

Less than two months later, the Peiping-Tianjin campaign broke out. Ta k i n g orders from its superior, the Foreign Affairs School moved with the army to Liangxiang, a suburban district of Peiping, where its faculty and students listened to a speech by Peng Zhen, secretary of the CPC Peiping Committee, and studied the People’s Daily’s editorial entitled Carry on the Revolution Until Its Victory, written by Mao Zedong. The Crooks took part in both activities. Zhou Nan was an English teacher in charge of the elementary class of the school.

By the end of 1948, Peiping was liberated peacefully. After a walking journey of 160 kilometers, the Crooks and others of the school arrived at Peiping. Zhou Nan and a male student rode bikes into the city through the Xizhimen Gate to find a house for the school. The school first settled at 3 Yuheqiao Street, a former Japanese military post. The house was not furnished. The students had classes sitting on camping stools during the day and slept on the floor at night.

In June 1949, the Foreign Affairs School was renamed Beijing Foreign Studies School.

Zhou Nan recalled: “When summer came, the school was moved to the old military camp of Yuan Shikai’s army in Xiyuan. (Yuan was a warlord, whose military career spanned the end of the Qing Dynasty and the beginning of the Republic of China.) The house was old and in need of repair. The school was enlarged with a new French Department and Russian Department. I was dean of the French Department. On Oct 1, I lived on Yuheqiao Street, within walking distance of Tian’anmen Square. I woke up early that day and went to the square, where I witnessed the founding ceremony of the People’s Republic of China. “

The Crooks were on the reviewing stand in front of the Tian’anmen gate when the ceremony and parade took place, with tens of thousands of other people. They joined the masses in cheering for the victory of the revolution. David later recalled: “When I saw Chairman Mao Zedong stand on the Gate of Heavenly Peace, solemnly declaring the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and the rise of the five-star red flag, I could not help but feel excited.”

Devoted to education

In the autumn of 1950, Zhou Nan left Beijing Foreign Studies School to take part in the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea. He has maintained a lifelong friendship with the Crooks. He said: “David has a down-to-earth manner. He looks like a man from the foreign countryside. He also has the air of an old Chinese peasant. As a member of the school, he got on well with the students. There were hardly any differences between the teachers and students. He easily makes friends with others. I had closer ties with David than with Isabel. They were somewhat dissimilar. Isabel was a little reserved to herself and didn’t talk much.”

In the early 1950s, David Crook was deputy director of the English Department, director of the English teaching and research section and an English teacher. Isabel Crook taught spoken English. There were hundreds of students. Both faculty and students led a simple life under the “supply system” (different from the salary system). The former military camps were the students’ dorms, and faculty members lived in bungalows beside the walls. They used coal stoves for heating in winter.

The school had no proper classrooms when it was first established, a situation that went on for more than a year. When the class bell rang, the Crooks carried camping stools, along with the day’s lessons printed on yellow paper made of grass under their arms, to the military training ground where the whole class of students was seated in groups of circles. They took classes using their own knees as desks. After three classes in the morning, it was lunch time. The school had no canteens. People were divided into groups of 10. The student on duty carried the food pot from the kitchen and placed it on the ground near the kitchen. The Crooks each used a huge bowl made of coarse porcelain. They crouched on the ground like the students, having lunch while talking with each other. Once when they were having lunch, the wind blew some dirt in their bowls. David Crook said jokingly: “Look! God has joined our lunch without saying hello. He gave us some pepper. Enjoy the lunch!” The group broke into laughter.

As more students came, the textbooks printed on grass paper appeared outdated. The Crooks began to compile new ones. Editorials on current events from progressive newspapers such as Daily Worker published in the United Kingdom, scientific articles by J.B.S. Haldane and classics by Karl Marx and reports by Edgar Snow, among others, were their sources. Three volumes, elementary, intermediate and advanced, were printed at a professional printing house. It was the birth of the first set of English textbooks after the founding of new China.

In 1954, the school was relocated to Weigongcun in the western suburbs of Beijing. It had a new name: Beijing Foreign Languages College (now Beijing Foreign Studies University). When the college first allocated its apartments to faculty members, the rule was that CPC members were given apartments facing the north while others got apartments facing south. Rooms facing south are generally thought to be better than those facing north in Beijing, as they receive more sunshine and have better ventilation, especially in winter. The Crooks were afraid to be treated as non-Party members and getting an apartment facing south. “Luckily, we were treated as comrades. Our apartment faced the north. We were happy about it.”
Two years later, the Crooks were identified as specialists by the Ministry of Education, and eligible for a higher salary. They were strongly against it. They said it would harm relations between foreign teachers and their Chinese colleagues and it wasn’t in line with the spirit of internationalism. They refused to take the salary, which was several times higher than the incomes of ordinary teachers. And they opposed the establishment of a “specialist canteen”. They wanted to have meals together with the students. Eventually, the college’s leaders agreed they would have half the salary of an expert and have lunch in the student canteen from Monday to Saturday.

In 1960, the University of Leeds in the UK invited the Crooks to teach, and they thought about going back to Britain.

Just then, they heard that the Soviet government had cut off loans and was withdrawing their experts from China. They didn’t want to correlate their return home with the withdrawal of Soviet experts, so they decided to stay. David Crook told the college’s CPC secretary that they could postpone the trip. The college asked them to stay, and they did.

During the “three years of difficulty” from 1959 to 1961, the Crooks insisted on sharing the hardships with their Chinese colleagues. They ate wild vegetables along with others in the canteen and made steamed buns with elm leaves. They requested the college authority to lower their salaries to help the Chinese people better endure the troubles. The State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs and the college finally made the decision to cut 30 percent of their salaries.

Zhou Nan said: “The Crooks kept a low profile. Unlike some foreigners, they never considered themselves foreign experts. They cared about China’s development and took an active part in activities of the Party.”

In the early 1950s, the Party organization of the college, acting on instructions from its superior, arranged for the Crooks to join the Party group of the English Department. As part of that, they took political courses designed for the Chinese faculty. They found comfort and happiness in this arrangement. They felt they were considered comrades by the Party.

The Party group had a routine meeting every two weeks. The meetings were held at night and featured political courses. Like their Chinese comrades, they joined discussions on big issues of the State, politics and major issues of the college and voiced their own opinions. They were self-disciplined and had self-criticisms. They also helped other Party members to overcome their shortcomings. During a movement the authorities launched to raise people’s political awareness, David Crook offered to deliver a presentation on self-inspection, based on his practices in his job, before the faculty of the English Department. The speech, delivered in English, created a sensation.

In the 1950s, some communist party members from Western countries came to work in China. Members of the British Communist Party set up their own organization in Beijing and had their own activities. At that point, the Crooks ceased their activities in the Chinese Party group, but they were not happy about the change.

When the “Cultural Revolution” started in 1966, the Crooks took part in the movement with great passion. They put up big-character posters on the wall and joined in discussions with their Chinese comrades.

David Crook was imprisoned for five years because of his involvement in the political struggles of different groups at the college. After three and a half years’ detention within the college, the isolation and investigation imposed on Isabel Crook was lifted, and she was again allowed to teach. More than a year later, David Crook was released and he came home. He told the housemaid: “It was harsh at first. The food was provided from underneath the door. I slept on a wooden plank on a gravel floor.”

On March 8, 1973, at a reception celebrating International Women’s Day, Premier Zhou Enlai pronounced the Crooks innocent, exonerated and rehabilitated, along with other foreign experts who suffered persecution. Premier Zhou also apologized to them on behalf of the CPC Central Committee and the State Council. After those remarks, Premier Zhou walked to the table of the Crooks to propose a toast. He said: “Comrade Crook, I offer you my congratulations. How glad to see your family reunited! So much you and your family have suffered! You are a good comrade and good friend of the Chinese Party and Chinese people. Please accept my apology.” The couple burst into tears. The next day, in a letter to the premier, David Crook said that although he was in his 60s, he was determined to follow the examples of Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai, forget about his age and fight for the cause of China until his last breath. Shortly after he was released from prison, David Crook devoted himself to the compilation of the first ChineseEnglish dictionary in China. It was published by the Commercial Press in 1978. In the late 1980s, the Crooks retired but they were no less passionate about China’s education. Both served as consultants to Beijing Foreign Studies University.

Zhou Nan, a student of David Crook, worked as China’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations and vice-minister of Foreign Affairs. Zhou Nan was head of the Chinese delegation in negotiating the return of Hong Kong and Macao to China. “When I returned to Beijing, I often visited the Crooks. They still lived in those three small rooms on the third floor. They didn’t look like foreign experts,” he said.

On Nov 1, 2000, David Crook died at age 90. Isabel kept herself busy writing books. Two books were published on rural China. She was awarded the Friendship Medal of the People’s Republic of China in 2019. At the advanced age of 105, she still lives in the three-bedroom apartment. A wooden portrait of Premier Zhou Enlai catches visitors’ eyes on the wall of her sitting room. On both sides of the portrait hang a pair of scrolls with the following poetic couplet: “Reverently devote my whole life, without a single day of rest until death.”

That exactly reflects the lives of the Crooks.

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