By Isabel Crook
I was born Isabel Brown in 1915 to Canadian missionary parents in Chengdu, China. As a child, I lived in Chengdu and was educated as a Christian in Christian colleges. Over the last 100 years, I have witnessed two World Wars, two revolutions, a number of mass movements, and have, by invitation of the Chinese government of the time, been asked to live in villages in rural China to take detailed notes on people’s lives and living conditions as an anthropologist.
I obtained my M.A. degree with a minor in anthropology from the University of Toronto. On my return to China, the project director T.H. Sun hired me to join the staff of a rural reconstruction project sponsored by the National Christian Council (NCC) in Sichuan’s Prosperity Township. I was to help carry out a major survey of Prosperity’s 1,500 families. The project appealed to me both in its own right and because I was looking for an opportunity to gain more anthropological experience to support an application to a doctoral program. When I arrived in the market village in the fall of 1940, I joined a team of four people – a nurse, a teacher, a sociologist, and T.H. Sun’s secretary, the only male member. Together we began the house-to-house survey in the spring of 1941.
The circumstances under which the data for this study was gathered accounts for both its richness and its gaps. The time was not propitious for conducting a survey. Grain levies, conscription and press-ganging were causing acute fear and suspicion throughout the countryside. Banditry was endemic. We set out on our household visits armed with stout sticks to beat off the ubiquitous dogs that protected the scattered farm homes from thieves and bandits as well as malevolent spirits. But by this time we were seen by many as familiar, non-threatening young women, without connections to local authorities, so the dogs were called off and we were welcomed. Even so we proceeded with caution in order not to exacerbate villagers’ fears or offend their sensibilities. As well as gathering the necessary information for the survey, we pursued our own research interests, collecting every possible detail for our evolving portrait of the community and its inhabitants. In the evenings, we discussed what we had learned that day, adding each new fact or event to the careful record that ultimately provided the information on which the book ‘Prosperity Predicament’ is based.
In October 1941, with the survey completed, I returned to Chengdu, where I was born and where my father had served as Dean of Education at West China Union University. Xiji joined me there early in 1942 and together we spent several more months sifting through the materials we had gathered. But before we finished our analysis, circumstances changed dramatically. Conflict in the Pacific arena of World War II intensified, the rural reconstruction project of which we were a part folded, and we had to find other employment. In my case, my parents had returned to Canada, and my fiancé, David Crook, had gone to England to enlist in the Royal Air Force. I decided to follow David to England, where we were married on July 30, 1942.
During my first year in England, I volunteered for war work in a munitions workshop and joined the Canadian army. After the war ended, I entered the London School of Economics anthropology Department on a veteran’s grant to work with Firth. My course work proceeded smoothly until my husband David, newly demobilized from the Royal Air Force, decided to resume his career in journalism by returning to China. I decided to go back to China with David where together we would undertake a study of areas liberated by the Communist Party that Party leaders hoped might serve as a sequel to Edgar Snow’s 1938 Red Star Over China.
Going to China in l947 and visiting the liberated areas marked the beginning of my role as a participant-observer of the Chinese Communist Revolution. During our time studying the Ten Mile Inn areas, David and I led simple lives. We ate millet and sweet potatoes, wore suits of homespun cloth, lived in peasant homes and slept on kangs. We were witness to the land reform which soon spread across China in a movement which changed history.
David and I were also asked to teach English at a newly established Foreign Affairs School, where we would help prepare a
few dozen students for future diplomatic service. After Liberation, the school moved from Hebei to its permanent location in northwest Beijing, where it became the Beijing Foreign Languages Institute (now Beijing Foreign Studies University). Taking up a faculty post in the English department (David went on to become vice-dean of the Department), I began a career of teaching which was totally engrossing and included much work on reforming the curriculum, developing appropriate teaching methods for students from rural areas, and defining egalitarian relationships with students, staff, and colleagues. During this time I also continued to participate in mass movements as they came along, the most all-consuming of which, the Cultural Revolution, swept through my campus in the summer of 1966.
Retirement presented me with a wonderful opportunity to complete my study of this Sichuan township during the war. Invigorated by the influx of western-trained sinologists in the l980s, Chinese scholarship was also becoming more vibrant, eventually leading to the revival of sociology and anthropology. Yet another motivation for me to return to the study was that I wanted to produce a work that would be useful both to my former students and to those currently enrolled in Chinese universities who were so ignorant about pre-1949 Chinese rural society.