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“Over the last 100 years, I have witnessed two world wars, two revolutions, a number of mass movements.” So wrote Isabel Crook, who devoted her life to observing — and participating in — the making of modern China.
The daughter of Canadian Methodist missionaries in China, Crook documented the waning of the Kuomintang regime and the rise of the Communist party through the lives of villagers in rural China. The writer was a rare bridge between the west and China, with a longer lived experience of the country than most of its leaders.
Crook, who has died at the age of 107 in Beijing, was born in 1915 in Chengdu, the capital of the southwestern province of Sichuan. She attended Christian schools in the city, before leaving to study anthropology at the University of Toronto.
Immediately after graduation in 1939, she returned to southwestern China and carried out research in a village near Chongqing, the provisional capital where the Kuomintang government had retreated after the Japanese invasion. There, she studied 1,500 households as part of a rural reconstruction project funded by the National Christian Council of China.
“Banditry was endemic,” she wrote, describing how she and her collaborator Yu Xiji would set off for house visits armed with sticks to beat off guard-dogs. But as young women in their early twenties, they were seen as non-threatening and were eventually welcomed by the villagers.
Crook chronicled intimate moments of village life, from the responses of citizens to the state’s attempts to reform marriage and legalise divorce, to their efforts to avoid conscription. Crook later published their observations as a book: Prosperity’s Predicament: Identity, Reform, and Resistance in Rural Wartime China.
While in Chengdu, Isabel met David Crook, a British communist who had initially arrived in China as a Soviet spy but became disillusioned with Stalinism over the course of his stay. She was inspired by his politics and he by her audaciousness — a mutual male friend described Isabel as “nice, but frankly, so much character scares the hell out of me.” The pair moved to London, where they married in 1942. Soon after, Isabel joined the London School of Economics’ anthropology department.
The Crooks returned to China to document the Communist party’s gaining of territory from the Kuomintang. As Isabel puts it, this was the “beginning of [her] role as a participant-observer of the Chinese Communist Revolution”. They published their writings as Ten Mile Inn: Mass Movement in a Chinese Village.
On October 1 1949, the couple witnessed the founding of the People’s Republic of China in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. They settled in the capital, and taught English at what became the country’s top languages university, the Beijing Foreign Studies University. She gave birth to her three sons in the city.
Crook stayed at BFSU until her retirement, her tenure only interrupted by the Cultural Revolution, which arrived in 1966. The duo joined a couple of the factions on campus and were, in David’s words, “carried along by the revolutionary storm”.
David was seized and jailed for five years by a group of student Red Guards, some of whom had been his friends at the university; Isabel was detained on the campus for three years. Their interrogators played their testimonies off against each other, trying to prove their dishonesty as traitors to communism. After their release, they were both rehabilitated, and went on to witness the national mourning that followed Mao Zedong’s death in 1976.
The Crooks’ life-long commitment to communism was often tested by the way the party centralised and wielded its authority. Seeing their students mobilise for the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, the Crooks wrote to the state media urging the government not to use force.
At a banquet given by senior officials in 1990, David criticised the bloodshed of the June 4th massacre, but ended his speech pledging their life-long devotion to China — a narrative that, as foreigners, placed the Crooks beyond political reproach.
Despite their criticisms of the state, the Crooks remain highly celebrated by the government. David died in 2000, but in 2019, Isabel became one of 10 people to receive the Friendship Medal, created by President Xi Jinping as China’s highest honour for foreigners.
Crook lived to see the end of the Chinese communist era that had so inspired her, and Beijing’s embrace of capitalism. But through it all, the Communist party’s tight grip on power continued unabated.