Isabel Crook, Maoist English teacher who spent her life in China supporting the regime – obituary

With her husband she laid the foundations for foreign-language teaching in China but was accused of wilful blindness to the regime’s crimes

Isabel Crook with Xi Jinping in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 2019, after being awarded the Friendship Medal
Isabel Crook with Xi Jinping in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 2019 after being awarded the Friendship Medal Credit: Wang Ye/Xinhua/Alamy

Isabel Crook, who has died aged 107, was born in China to Canadian missionaries but became an ardent Maoist; she devoted most of her life to the country, working as an English teacher at Peking First Foreign Languages Institute (now the Beijing Foreign Studies University, or BFSU) and collaborating with her husband David Crook, an English communist, on studies of land reform and revolution in rural China.

In 2019 China’s president Xi Jinping presented her with the country’s Medal of Friendship, a prize “reserved for foreigners who have made contributions to China’s socialist modernisation and promoted co-operation with other countries”. The Medal, according to the Canadian Globe and Mail, had only been awarded eight times, recipients including Vladimir Putin, Raúl Castro, former president of Cuba, and Nursultan Nazarbayev, authoritarian president of Kazakhstan.

Politics aside, Isabel Crook and her husband did much good in their adopted country, where they were credited with laying the foundation for foreign-language education, including devising a curriculum and compiling textbooks for English teaching – and helping to equip diplomats of the “New China” with English-language skills. But at the same time they stood accused of wilful blindness to the crimes of the Communist regime.

On October 1 1949 Isabel Crook had been one of the few foreigners invited to see Mao Zedong declare the founding of the People’s Republic, arriving in Tiananmen Square in the back of a Communist army truck. She kept the faith over the next half-century as tens of millions died of starvation or were massacred as a result of such policies as the Great Leap Forward (1958-62) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

Isabel Crook in her younger days

By some estimates between 60 million to 80 million people may have perished due to Mao’s policies, making him responsible for more deaths than Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin combined. Her husband, Isabel Crook explained, had persuaded her early on that violent revolution was necessary: “He convinced me by saying if you had a very serious acute illness, that could be cured with an operation, would you not have an operation rather than go on suffering?”

The Crooks were imprisoned as suspected spies during the Cultural Revolution. But nothing could shake their faith. There would, David Crook wrote to an American friend from Qincheng prison, be “painful experiences” during a revolution: “But the gains are the overwhelming aspect, not the losses.” Isabel, who was arrested in 1968, recalled writing to their friends abroad after her husband’s arrest the previous year, that “David has gone to the countryside to teach the peasants. I wasn’t going to give anyone the satisfaction of gloating over China’s difficulties.”

Recalling her own incarceration in a 2019 interview with Nicholas Shakespeare in The Spectator, Isabel Crook said, “When I was locked up, I read Volumes I-IV of Mao’s complete works three and a half times... I loved his rare shafts of humour.”

Isabel Brown was born on December 15 1915 in Chengdu, the capital city of south-west China’s Sichuan Province, to Homer Brown, dean of education at West China Union University, and his wife Muriel, née Hockey, who ran kindergartens and schools for disabled children. At the time of Isabel’s birth China’s last emperor, Puyi, was still living in the Forbidden City after abdicating three years earlier.

The Crooks' 1979 book

As a child, Isabel became interested in China’s many ethnic minorities and, she wrote later, “sharply critical of the lifestyle most of the missionaries led, with their large houses, many servants and imported comforts which contrasted with the far lower standard of living of their Chinese fellow Christians”.

After graduating in sociology and anthropology at Toronto University, in 1938 she returned to China, where she carried out anthropological fieldwork in villages in south-west China. “It was then I first came to realise revolution was needed for the poor farmers,” she recalled.

It was in the summer of 1940 that she met David Crook, a committed member of the British Communist Party who had fought as a volunteer in Spain, been recruited to Stalin’s NKVD and sent to China during the Second Sino-Japanese War. “I wanted to find something to do, a cause,” Isabel recalled. “I wrote to my mother and I said: ‘Please send me some of those religious books so I could get a cause.’ I read them. I didn’t get any cause. And it was just at that time that I met David Crook, and he was a communist. And when he talked... I liked passion. I decided that my cause would be communism.”

They married in London in 1942. David then joined the RAF and served during the war in India, Ceylon and Burma while Isabel joined the British Communist Party and served as a nurse in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps.

Prosperity's Predicament revisited research Isabel Crook had undertaken decades earlier

At the end of the war, inspired by Edgar Snow’s book Red Star Over China (1938), they returned to the country, then in the throes of civil war between the Chinese communists and nationalist Kuomintang, and in 1947 evaded a nationalist blockade to cross into a Communist-controlled area in northern China. After presenting a letter of introduction from the British Communist Party the couple was able to settle in Shilidian (“Ten Mile Inn”) – a village in Hebei province where, as Isabel recalled, they “first experienced the salutary practice of criticism and self-criticism”.

“We ate millet and sweet potatoes, wore suits of homespun cloth, lived in peasant homes and slept on kangs, heatable brick beds... We were witness to the land reform which soon spread across China in a movement which changed history,” she recalled in an autobiographical piece. Based on their study, the couple wrote a book entitled Revolution in a Chinese Village: Ten Mile Inn, published in London in 1959.

The book was praised by the Communist Party of Great Britain as a “seminal work, which has been bringing the achievements and challenges of the Chinese agrarian revolution to life for English-speaking readers”. In fact during the land reform period, landlords were subjected to mass killing by the CCP and former tenants, with the estimated death toll ranging from hundreds of thousands to millions. Mao himself estimated that as many as 2-3 million were killed.

 The Crooks returned to Shilidian several times, reporting on progress in The First Years of Yangyi Commune (1966) and Ten Mile Inn: Mass Movement in a Chinese Village (1979), studies which, Beverley Hooper observed in Foreigners under Mao (2016), were regarded by non-leftist reviewers as “as much reflections of the authors’ revolutionary romanticism as scholarly analysis”.

In 1948 they were planning to return to Britain to write up their research but were asked by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party to stay to teach English to future diplomats at a new foreign affairs school in Beijing. From the outset, they insisted on being “regular members” of the teaching staff, so that they could become, in Isabel’s words, “participants in the Chinese revolution at the grassroots level”.

In 1958, during the Great Leap Forward, the Crooks were sent for three weeks of agricultural labour to a remote village, David describing the work as “a kind of redemption... poetic justice for Britain’s pillage of China”.

Isabel Crook, then aged 103, is carried into the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 2019 to receive her Friendship Medal from Xi Jinping Credit: Liu Bin/Xinhua/Alamy

He was clearly aware of the subsequent terrible famine when an estimated 30 million people died of starvation, but placed most of the blame on adverse natural conditions, admitting that he felt “bound more than ever to be loyal and unquestioning”. Thereafter, apart from the period in which they were locked up during the Cultural Revolution, they remained at the school from its inception to their retirement in the 1980s.

They struck a rare note of dissent in 1989 when they visited student hunger-strikers in Tiananmen Square with bottled water and plastic sheets, and wrote to the communist People’s Daily hoping “that no attempt will be made by China’s leaders to settle the present crisis by force”.

After David’s death in 2000, Isabel, who continued to live in a modest apartment on the BFSU campus, revisited the research she had begun before they met and in 2013 published Prosperity’s Predicament: Identity, Reform, and Resistance in Rural Wartime China (1940-1941), with Christina Gilmartin and Yu Xiji.

In 2019 a new Chinese ambassador to Canada held Isabel Crook up as an example of good bilateral ties between the two countries, a year after two Canadians – a former diplomat and a businessman – had been incarcerated by Beijing on allegations of espionage. But David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China, was withering: “Not only is the example of Isabel Crook unlikely to inspire much more than compassion for her suffering on behalf of such an unworthy cause, but... we are also reminded that the Communist Party of China has a long history of capriciously locking up foreigners.

“Isabel Crook fits the classic description of what China’s Communist Party calls an ‘old friend’... Such individuals tend to maintain an unwavering devotion to China, despite the fact that another feature common to ‘old friends’ is a long spell in one of Mao’s brutal, Cultural Revolution-era prisons.”

Isabel Crook is survived by three sons.

Isabel Crook, born December 15 1915, died August 20 2023