Isabel Crook: an appreciation

We are very pleased to publish this touching and informative tribute to the outstanding communist and lifelong friend of China, Isabel Crook (1915-2023), written by her close friend of many decades, Dr. Jenny Clegg.

Jenny, a retired academic, peace activist and member of our advisory group, provides rich insights in the course of summing up Isabel’s lifelong commitment to the Chinese revolution, her unique and path breaking approach to anthropology, her deep empathy for China’s rural poor, and her enduring yet careful optimism regarding the future of socialist China.

We previously reported on Isabel’s death, including here. Among many other obituaries were those published by British newspapers, The TimesFinancial Times, Guardian, and Economist; the New York Times and Canada’s Globe and Mail

“A rare bridge between the West and China”; “a committed communist”; “a peoples’ diplomat”; “a pioneering anthropologist” – so read the obituaries for Isabel Crook (1915-2023). Indeed, she was all of these in one.

Isabel’s 107 years, almost all spent in China, were to span two world wars, two great revolutions, a socialist transition under a Cold War, all through the twists and turns of Mao’s mass campaigns to Deng’s reform and opening up, with China now led by Xi Jinping stepping onto the world stage.

No mere observer, Isabel’s participation in the New China along with husband David saw them personally suffer under the excesses of the Cultural Revolution.  Isabel was kept in confinement for three years by Red Guards, in a room on the top floor of a campus building separated from her boys, still only teenagers, and with husband David in prison. Freed from detention in 1972, both were cleared of all charges in 1973 and, along with other foreign experts, received an apology from Premier Zhou Enlai.

Her commitment was again put to the test with the suppression of the Tiananmen protests in 1989 – the Crooks had called on the government not to use force. Yet despite all this Isabel was to remain optimistic as to China’s future under CPC leadership.

To properly appreciate Isabel’s special contribution to understanding China, and the reasons why she never succumbed to disillusionment, requires both a consideration of her life experiences as well as her anthropological work on rural China.

In particular, through many months spent in the rural areas, living among the people gathering materials on village life, Isabel was to develop a particular empathy for Chinese country folk. Her two separate studies of villages undergoing reform, under first a Nationalist, then a Communist-led government, provided deep insight from a comparison between the failure of one and the success of the other.

Early influences: the Rural Reconstruction Movement

Isabel was born in China, the daughter of Canadian missionary educators.  Leaving for Canada to study, she was to graduate from the University of Toronto with a bachelors and then a masters degree[1] [2] , returning to China in 1939 aged 24 to do anthropological field research in the western province of Sichuan among the Yi, a slave owning society. 

From this remote ‘opium country’, she moved nearer to the wartime capital of Chongqing in 1941 to take part in a year-long ‘action research’ project sponsored by the National Christian Council.  Hired by rural reformer, THSun, Isabel was to carry out a survey of a small market town of 1,500 households.  With the overwhelming majority of its families living in desperate poverty, Prosperity township was decidedly ill-named.

Joining a small team including two experts on cooperatives, Isabel was introduced to the progressive ideas of the rural reconstruction movement.  Founded in 1926 by the influential James Yen, whose work in mass literacy, begun amongst the Chinese labourers in France during World War I, was to gain international acclaim, the movement had a strong following among China’s Christian community and the left wing of the nationalist KMT.

Yen saw the solution to China’s predicament in a revitalisation from the grass roots up: social change had to start with changing the illiterate peasant masses through education.  From this reformist perspective, conditions in China were regarded as better suited to a rural industrialisation based on small scale cooperative enterprises as opposed to the Western path of large scale conglomerates, which in their competition had driven the world into a devastating imperialist war.

The Prosperity project sought to put goals into action, aiming to improve the lives of the township people, and Isabel’s role was a dual one – researcher and reformer, making observations in the process of actively participating in social change.

These ideas of the rural reconstruction movement – building from the grass roots, valuing small scale cooperative enterprise and the researcher contributing meaningfully to society through policymaking – were to be a source of inspiration for Isabel throughout her life and work.

When David, who she met later in 1940, introduced Isabel to the ideas of socialism and communism, no doubt these, especially the CPC’s mass line approach, were to chime with those ideals of rural reconstruction.  At the same time, Marxism provided Isabel with the conceptual tools to make sense of the trials she saw China undergoing.

The pair left China, moving to London where they married in 1942.  Isabel signed up for the Canadian army and joined the British Communist Party; she also took work in a munitions factory where she set about organising the women workers in a union.  After the war, through the China Campaign Committee, David and Isabel were able to make contact with the CPC, a link which led to a life-changing invitation to visit to one of the liberated areas to carry out a study of land reform.

Ten Mile Inn

David and Isabel arrived in Ten Mile Inn, a village of 100 households at the foot of the Taihang mountains in the Shansi-Hebei-Shandong-Henan Border Region at the end of November 1947.  They were to stay for eight months, living in the local peoples’ houses, getting to know the villagers and observing their daily lives.

From February to April 1948, the Crooks were able to closely follow the operations of a work team sent to guide the villagers in the implementation of the Agrarian Law through a ‘Campaign for the Adjustment of Land Holdings and the Purification and Reorganisation of the Party’.  From public and private interviews with villagers, leaders and work team members, the Crooks gathered extensive materials providing the basis of their classic study – Ten Mile Inn: Mass Movement in a Chinese Village.

The volume details the villagers’ customs, patriarchal family relations, marriage arrangements and clan organisations, all set out together with an account of the socioeconomic conditions and structures of local power.

With just a glance through the subtitles one enters the world of rural China – “digging out the landlords’ hidden grain”, “the bean elections”, “washing faces and rubbing off smudges”…

Documenting day by day the interactions of the work team, village leaders and ordinary farmer families as the campaign unfolded, the Crooks’ work was able to demonstrate how the CPC forged a continuing bond with the ordinary farmers as it guided them through the transformation of the village economy.

Land reform was shown to be also a social and political transformation, developing the villagers’ class consciousness and strengthening the village leadership. Getting class analysis right was key.

This was an area which had seen limited land reforms follow a ‘middle peasant line’ from which owner farmers had benefitted disproportionally.  Things had then veered to the left with a ‘poor peasant line’ prioritising the needs of those families in deficit.  This ‘absolute egalitarianism’, sometimes at the expense of the owner-middle farmers, disrupted the mass line of uniting the majority of villagers in transforming the landlord economy.  With wrong classifications, matters had got in a muddle and people complained about the local leaders.

The campaign as it turned out was to be a process of learning by doing – learning through participation in change – in which the work team, the local leaders and farmers together got to the bottom of the problems of the village as well as the local cadres’ failings. This was discovered to be not so much about the persistence of landlord influence undermining land redistribution and perverting the village leaders but rather the shortage of land such that even after redistribution there was not enough to satisfy everyone’s needs. 

Through criticism and self-criticism, the local leaders were to learn from their mistakes and village governance was strengthened. From this it became possible to formulate a future plan with villagers agreeing to make the necessary adjustments in land ownership.

This invaluable record of the CPC’s mass line approach was to become tremendously influential among new generations of scholars and students in the West wanting to understand how People’s China had come about.

Later life: completing the Prosperity study

Invited by the CPC leadership to help out in foreign languages training, David and Isabel were soon to get caught up in the life of New China.  A career in preparing students for the PRC’s diplomatic service at the Foreign Languages Institute (later the Foreign Studies University), the premier tertiary institute for foreign languages learning in China; raising a family of three sons; taking an active part in political study with foreign comrades based at the Friendship Hotel and following Mao’s mass campaigns, Isabel was fully occupied for the next three decades.

Retirement in 1981 saw her set out on new endeavours. When once, some years later, I asked her for advice on my upcoming retirement, she said, “always have a project on the go.”  For Isabel in her later years, there were two: the first, returning to her research materials on Prosperity township.

These notes comprised thousands of pages of data. By 1994 Isabel had managed to put together a three-volume ethnography, consisting of 25 chapters totalling 457,000 words. This plus the notes, now archived in a library local to Prosperity Township, provide an invaluable source of material on what China was like under the KMT before the CPC took over political leadership.

To prepare all this for manageable publication, Isabel enlisted the help of China historian, Chris Gilmartin. Together they decided to focus on the approaches of the reformers – the rural reconstruction team – as they endeavoured to improve the way of life in Prosperity township. Isabel also was able to reconnect with her co-researcher on the original project, sociologist Yu Xiji.

Prosperity’s Predicament: Identity, Reform and Resistance in Wartime China was published in 2013 – Isabel was 98. The volume again provides fascinating details of day-to-day life in the township but of particular value is the exploration of how formal and informal power was exercised in the township – the linkages between the Paoge secret society, the landlords and the retired militia men on the one hand and the Nationalist government structures and the reform project itself on the other.

Particularly revealing is how one of the project’s cooperative enterprises became a battleground between local rival landlord factions. In the penultimate page, in a few succinct words, Isabel penetrates right to the heart of the matter:

“The collapse of the salt cooperative illustrates the shortcoming that has bedevilled governmental and non-governmental rural development  projects in China and elsewhere: the failure to identify the power  structures and vested interests that were hostile to the reform agenda and a corresponding failure to identify or develop allies to meet the  challenge of a complex rural environment.”

Here, combining her anthropological training with the understanding gained observing the way the work team had operated at Ten Mile Inn, her insight lays bare the difference between the KMT’s and rural reconstruction movement’s failure and the CPC’s success, namely the application of a class based strategy.

Gong He

Isabel was also to return to her passion for cooperatives through the work of the International Committee for the Promotion of Chinese Industrial Cooperatives (ICCIC also known as Gong He). The organisation, founded in 1939 on the initiative of New Zealander, Rewi Alley, had rallied international support for rural industrial cooperatives supplying China’s resistance against Japan’s aggression. It was suspended in 1952. However, seeing new opportunities as Deng Xiaoping’s reforms unfolded, Alley revived the ICCIC in 1987 to promote genuine cooperatives in China and build bridges with the cooperative movement internationally.

As a member of the executive committee from 1993, Isabel was to participate actively in China’s ‘reform and opening up’ process.

With rural industrialisation taking off throughout the country in the 1990s, and reforms in ownership systems underway, interest in cooperatives was growing as a means of developing the public economy in new ways whilst restricting privatisation.

Limited by the shortage of capital, local enterprises were encouraged to upgrade machinery through self-raised funds, paying off debts and providing employment while modernising work methods so as to adapt to the new environment of market competition. 

The increasing separation of enterprise and government saw opportunities to reform the top-down management style of the collective economy and reconstruct political power from the grass roots up.

As the ICCIC debated what makes a successful cooperative, whilst some emphasised the importance of efficiency and economic results, Isabel strongly advocated self-management and self-help: genuine cooperatives – following the Gong He ‘work-together’ spirit – with voluntary owner-member control and democratic management were to be seen as key to stimulating enthusiasm and providing incentives to produce.

Ever the anthropologist-observer seeking change for the better, Isabel’s comments on a visit to a Gong He experimental centre in Shandong in 1991 no doubt also drew on her wartime work experience in the London munitions factory:

“Much needs to be done to promote active member participation in all aspects of the work… annual elections and year-end appraisal of management personnel appears to be the extent of democratic  management.  Practical measures could be taken. For example, a  committee for improving working conditions could achieve useful results with little cost by installing fans to improve the quality of air, putting in  more windows for light, and adjusting the height of the work benches.  This could initiate member participation in the day to day running of  the coop and at the same time produce tangible results.”

At meetings arranged for the resident foreign experts with Premier Zhu Rongji and then Premier Wen Jiabao, Isabel took the opportunity to speak about ICCIC and to call for a cooperative law.

Isabel and ICCIC were also active in China’s opening up process: not only was the organisation the first Chinese NGO with foreign members on the executive board, but it also broke new ground in NGO development when in 1998, with Isabel’s encouragement, it took a decisive decision to cease reliance on government funding and become independent.  Now with son Michael on board, ICCIC was to obtain a grant from the Canadian Cooperative Association (CCA).

With Isabel’s participation, ICCIC underwent a transformation from an organisation of foreign friends of China and senior CPC officials into a space of lively research, experimentation, and debate on the cooperative economy with younger economists, academics and government researchers all involved.

Developing exchanges of information and experience with organisations such as CICOPA  (International Organisation of Industrial and Service Cooperatives, a branch of the International Cooperative Alliance) and the CCA , ICCIC played a useful role in deepening understanding of China within the international cooperative movement.

A not uncritical optimist

In 2019, Isabel became one of the 10 people to receive a special friendship medal created by Xi Jinping to honour the contribution of foreigners to China’s development and international ties.

Some years earlier, Premier Li Peng had said to Isabel and David: “Together with the Chinese people you have gone through wind and rain and sharing their trials and tribulations have done much for the cause of liberation and socialist construction and for the promotion of mutual understanding and friendship between them and the people of other lands.”

Isabel was a witness to China’s remarkable transformation from a war-torn land of beggars, bandits and people in rags under a corrupt KMT government, to one set on a path to prosperity, overcoming the problems of poverty, unemployment and instability, under Communist leadership.

She inhabited the different worlds of China and the West simultaneously, digesting the experiences of one into the other. Continued contact with former students as they developed their careers in the diplomatic service gave her privileged insights into the workings of the CPC and the government.  But for Isabel, understanding China started with concern for the conditions of the people.

Attuned to life in the countryside, her deep empathy for Chinese rural folk led her to the Party.  She was to write: “As an anthropologist I had studied the terrible situation in rural Sichuan and could understand why the Communists with land reform and other policies enjoyed massive support.”

What struck Isabel, in particular, at Ten Mile Inn was how the Party, instead of telling people what to do, mobilised them to brainstorm ideas and come out with the right idea, so they would feel ownership of the results. Rather than bestowing ‘liberation’ from above, it was this mass movement approach, son Michael emphasises, that Isabel saw as key to the CPC’s success.

Never uncritical, Isabel would consider the pros and cons of policies as they emerged. She was all too aware of the shortcomingsof the CPC, having seen for herself how things could go wrong, horribly so in the Cultural Revolution and in 1989.  However, drawing on her wide range of experiences as researcher, observer and participant, Isabel was able to weigh up the complexities of subsequent events. 

It was her insights into how the Party was able to connect with the people through processes of mutual and collective practical learning and its capacity in the end for self-correction, steadily improving its governance bit by bit, that allowed Isabel to remain positive about China’s overall direction for the future.

In her work as in her life, Isabel remains an exceptional guide and inspiration in a world in which people-to-people understanding between the West and China becomes ever more urgent.

Isabel and David Crook, Ten Mile Inn: Mass Movement in a Chinese Village, Random House Trade Paperbacks, 1979

Isabel Brown Crook and Christine Kelley Gilmartin with Yu XiJi, Prosperity’s Predicament: Identity, Reform and Resistance in Rural Wartime China, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2013

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