Review: Ten Mile Inn by Isabel and David Crook

This seminal work continues to bring the achievements and challenges of the Chinese agrarian revolution to life for English-speaking readers.

Proletarian writers

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Mass Movement in a Chinese Village: Ten Mile Inn is an exceptionally intriguing and informative book, which builds for readers a vivid picture of the Chinese revolution, its early achievements and the problems it faced regarding land reform, through the microcosm of life in one small Chinese village.

Observers and participants, friends and comrades

The authors, Isabel and David Crook, experienced at first hand the momentous events of the Chinese revolution and stayed to raise their own family in China, despite any and all hardships, giving joyfully of their energy and knowledge to the land, people and political system that they came to identify with completely.

David Crook, a Londoner, was born on 14 August 1910. He was wounded while serving with the International Brigades during the Spanish civil war and later went to China to teach English at Saint John’s University, Shanghai, where he also carried out work for the international communist movement. It was here that he met Isabel Brown, the daughter of Canadian missionaries.

Isabel, although classed as Canadian because her parents had come from there, had actually been born in Chengdu, in China’s Sichuan province, on 15 December 1915 and had spent her whole childhood there.

In 1941, when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, David decided to return to England, reactivating his membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and joining the RAF. His new wife Isabel went with him, and she too became an active member of the party, organising workers in the Finsbury Park factory where she worked during the war.

Both Crooks were actively involved in the struggle against the revisionist elements who had begun to gain strength in the party immediately following the war.

After the war and a brief period of study at the University of London, the Crooks headed back to China in 1947 to observe and write about the land reform that was taking place in some of China’s liberated zones.

With an introduction from the CPGB, the couple was able to settle in Shilidian (Ten Mile Inn) – a village in the communist-controlled northern border region. They became deeply involved with the ongoing struggles of the Chinese people for their emancipation, and in 1949 they entered Beijing with the victorious communist soldiers.

For the next 40 years, the Crooks immersed themselves in all parts of Chinese social life while teaching at the Peking First Foreign Languages Institute (now the Beijing Foreign Studies university), which Isabel helped to set up in 1950, in which she worked until her retirement and on whose campus she still lives.

Both David and Isabel were subject to false charges during the cultural revolution. In this tumultuous and often confused period, many foreign and Chinese comrades experienced such turmoil. David was imprisoned from 1967 to 1973, accused of being a spy.

This did not shake or diminish his or Isabel’s loyalty to the Chinese communist party or the Chinese people in the slightest, however, and he continued to work at the university until his death on 1 November 2000.

As Isabel told a Chinese journalist in 2010: “He was well aware that ‘revolution is not a dinner party’ so he never blamed China for his lengthy stay in Qincheng prison … David’s life and that of our whole family has been immeasurably enriched by our participation in China’s great, but tortuous, revolution.”

For her part, Isabel was sent to work with the peasants in the fields, but she always insists that it was for her a rewarding time, working alongside the people she loves.

Speaking of Isabel, the university’s president, Hao Ping, says that her “legendary life is so closely related to China and the university … she is a pioneer of the country’s English education cause. And she has played a precious and significant role in developing our school.”

Comrade Isabel (as most of her students referred to her) is also an anthropologist and a social activist. Despite her advancing years, she still keeps up with the current affairs of China and the world, and, as an “old friend of the Chinese people and the Communist Party of China”, she is among a handful of distinguished foreign experts who are invited to attend an annual reception with the Chinese premier.

She has even used these occasions to share her thoughts with China’s modern-day leaders on how conditions of life could be improved for rural people.

Isabel has recently become a member of our own party, and at this year’s congress was unanimously voted in as our Honorary President – providing our young members in particular with a living link to the best traditions of Britain’s communist movement.

Rural poverty and degradation

In their book, which Isabel says they wrote in part in the hope that it might also help the people of other poor countries such as India to make revolution, and which has in fact become a handbook of experience and technique for agricultural workers struggling to bring socialist organisation to their own countries, Isabel and David summed up the recent history of Ten Mile Inn, covering the ten-year period that preceded their own arrival in the village.

They noted that, in 1937, “Practically everyone of the village’s 1,500 people depended for a livelihood on cultivating the 4,000 odd mu [about 660 acres, 1 square mile] which then remained. The few exceptions were members of a handful of landlord and rich peasant families whose income was derived wholly or partly from rents, usury or business interests.

“But the overwhelming majority had to eke out a livelihood by labouring on their tiny plots of land. They engaged in back-breaking toil with simple tools whose design had changed little in the course of a couple of thousand years. Many peasants farmed widely scattered plots at a distance of over a mile from both the village and each other.”

At that time, the area suffered (like all rural China) from intermittent famines, which were accepted as an inevitable part of the lot of the poor: “The twenty richest families averaged nearly two-and-a-half times as much land per head as the middle peasant families and nearly seven times as much per head as the families of the poor peasants and hired labourers. It was the members of these poor families who died or emigrated first in times of famine; who were forced by poverty to kill or sell their children; who were driven by hunger to join the warlord and bandit armies; who were imprisoned for non-payment of taxes or lost their meagre property by default for non-payment of debts. Differences of class were a matter of life and death.”

The position of women prior to the revolution was shockingly low: “In the old days the men used to talk about village affairs on the street, but we never dared take part. And when someone came to the door and called out, ‘Is anyone at home?’ we women ourselves would answer, ‘No, there’s nobody home.’ Women didn’t count as human beings.”

Hierarchical feudal clans and temples were also arenas of struggle and compromise between landlords, with rich peasants weighing heavily on the poor peasants and, to a lesser extent, the middle peasants too. Isabel and David revealed the intricacies of all these matters in a very readable and interesting way that brings the time vividly to life.

All this was changing, however. As the Chinese communists fought to push out the Japanese invaders they also organised in the areas under their control, in particular by introducing peasants’ unions to defend the poor peasantry and help them to organise against the oppression that made their lives so burdensome.

Of course, those areas that were neither staggering under the brutal yoke of Japanese imperialism nor lifting themselves up with the help of the communist liberators had to suffer the rule of bandits or Kuomintang forces (virtually the same thing).

“By the end of 1937 the Japanese had not only seized the Peking–Hankow railway. They had penetrated deep into the plain through which it ran, with its rich trading centres and farmland. Some of the bandits and warlords and Kuomintang forces who had depended for their livelihood on this area immediately capitulated and became Japanese puppets.

“Other armed forces, including part of the Kuomintang’s Fifty-third Army, moved westwards to Wu An and adjacent counties of the T’aihang foothills, occupying the small area between the Japanese in the plain to the east and the communist-led guerrillas in the T’aihang mountains to the west. Here they battened on the people, eating their grain, seizing their animals, invading their homes, raping their women. They even demanded a steady supply of opium and heroin, which the Japanese were systematically pouring into the region as a means of undermining its power of resistance.”

And this was the position in Ten Mile Inn. But as hard as the Kuomintang forces were on the peasants of the village, as soon as the Japanese came near they retreated in total disorder with their commanders leading the way. The Japanese garrisoned the townlet of P’aihui, seven miles down the valley from Ten Mile Inn, and established an outpost at another townlet, Yeht’ao, less than three miles to the south-west.

Although Ten Mile Inn itself was never directly occupied by the Japanese, the imperial forces did pass through the village, burning some of the houses and killing ten villagers who had tried to hide from the invaders.

The destabilising and disastrous effects of the Kuomintang forces’ behaviour – both their oppression and their cowardice – on the villagers is summed up in the book as follows:

“The communist forces in the area at this time were small and their operations were on a limited scale. But they were of a vital nature. They were laying the foundations for arousing the mass of the peasants to take part in the struggle against the Japanese invaders, who from their stronghold in the county-town made systematic and regular sorties into the villages to supply themselves with two of their most urgent needs – grain and women.

“The greatest obstacle which the communists encountered in organising resistance was that the peasants’ spirit had been almost completely shattered by the abuses and ruinous exactions of the Kuomintang troops. The latter’s extortions had in the end become so great that the peasants thought bitterly that the Japanese could hardly be worse; and that perhaps they might even be better.”

Arrival of the communists

When the communist soldiers of the advancing Eighth Route Army arrived in Ten Mile Inn, they set about patiently organising the people into anti-Japanese militias – but not before they had helped them to build cave defences and hiding places in the mountains to protect their families and make sure no vital foodstuffs fell into Japanese hands.

The communists also introduced a new tax system, under which those who possessed wealth were expected to pay taxes in money, but those who didn’t were asked instead to give labour for projects such as helping to build fortifications or carrying wounded soldiers away to rear positions by stretcher. And all the while, education classes were being run to help the villagers manage their own affairs.

Another total break with the past was the organisation of a women’s league under the slogan of full equality for women. In these ways, the spirits of the people were lifted and their desire to resist the Japanese strengthened as they started to feel that they had a new future to fight for rather than going back to the oppression and corruption of the Chiang Kai-shek period.

The work of the Women’s League was slow to start but through the education of those who most wanted to go forward – those who could most clearly see that the old way was no good – it was able to get started.

“The major task was to teach the women to spin and weave. Money for the raw materials and equipment came from government loans (administered through the new village cooperative which was set up at this time).” This may not seem very revolutionary now, but these patient, well thought-out steps were laying a strong foundation.

The women organised themselves into groups for the spinning and weaving of cloth for the army: “Each group elected one woman to act as a supervisor whose duty it was to see that army shoes, uniforms and quilts conformed to standard. All the women from 16 to 50 were eligible to do this service and received payment for it.”

This in turn meant that “the women of Ten Mile Inn, who in the past had been forced into unemployment by lack of capital and by urban machine competition, were able to earn money. This improvement of their economic position was the most powerful factor in the beginning of the emancipation of the women of Ten Mile Inn.

“Perhaps the chief characteristic of the women’s work at this period, however, was that it was in the nature of an offensive on all fronts at once. It called for equal rights for women, freedom of marriage, no beating by husbands or parents-in-law, increased production of all sorts (including farm work, but especially spinning and weaving), economic support for the front through rear service (making shoes, uniforms, etc), and besides all this, literacy classes, bobbing of hair, unbinding of feet and opposition to face-saving.”

The book is full of such examples of the Chinese communists’ skill in using slow but steady practical steps to carry the masses forward. It also underlines the necessity of looking at the history and context of things in order to understand them properly. It was this dialectical method that David and Isabel used to trace the very real gains that were made in pushing forward land reform during the early days of the Chinese revolution.

By the beginning of 1942, “almost two years of communist influence and reforms had considerably improved the economic position of the labourers and tenants. This had greatly strengthened their bargaining position and had given them a new confidence in themselves. The result was that some forty of the poorest families in the village, all of them either tenants or farm-labourers or both at the same time, organised a union.

“These were the people to whom the communists’ wartime policy of reduction of rent and interest was a vital issue. Besides having little or no land of their own, they were all more or less heavily in debt. Double reduction could be put into effect only if these villagers were well organised and courageous enough to demand it. Unlike the village government and the cooperative, the peasant union was one institution which the landlords and rich peasants could not dominate.”

And further on the role of the union: “The main purpose of the communists, who set about organising it in the first place, was to make the union a training ground for the development of a capacity for leadership and for independent organised action on the part of the masses themselves. Little by little a dual power was to be established in the village. And though at the outset the peasant union was to be only the shadow or secondary organisation, its objective was to produce leaders who would take over the village government itself.”

The struggle continues

The book proceeds to tell the story of the rise of the communist party in the village, the problems it encountered and the solutions that its local members came up with, including how they coped with betrayals, lies and intrigues of the rich peasants and landlords who were trying desperately to keep their grip over the rising poor, who had for so long been the biddable source of all their wealth.

In telling this seemingly small part of China’s story, the Crooks were also able to demonstrate the struggle to raise standards in all fields that led eventually to the popular communist rule of this vast, multinational country.

As vibrant today as it was when it was written, this is a book that any student of China, or of communism in general, will find fascinating. In June 1949, a few months after the Crooks had arrived in Beijing with the liberating communist forces, Comrade Mao Zedong gave a speech at an event celebrating the party’s 28th birthday. Much to the surprise of many, he declared that “the victory is just the first step of a long march of 10,000 miles”, and added: “building socialism will take a long time”.

Looking back at that time recently, Isabel commented: “David and I both thought Chairman Mao was too modest in saying that, but now I see he is right. Ninety years have passed since the founding of the party, and the long march is not ended yet. There are still a lot of things that need to be done.”