My China Eye: Memoirs of a Jew and a Journalist
By Israel Epstein
Long River Press, 360 pages, $24.95.
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When the Chinese Communist Revolution finally came to eat one of its most devoted and passionate children, Israel Epstein, on a spring night in Beijing in 1968, the transplanted Russian Jew and prolific propagandist was suddenly, for the first time, pricked by doubt.
Sitting in a tiny jail cell as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution raged outside, with nothing more than a bucket to keep him company, Epstein’s thoughts turned to the great leader: “Mao Zedong in one of his writings advocated always asking ‘why,’ but I had done it too seldom or switched off the question too soon. Why had so many longtime revolutionaries, in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, ended as felons, with an executioner’s bullet or hangman’s noose? Was it true that the class struggle by its objective laws, independent of human will and even perhaps of self-knowledge, turned friends into enemies as well as foes into friends? I must think, think, think, I told myself.”
And he would have time to think: five years in the Chinese gulag, one of the millions locked up as part of Mao’s attempt to consolidate power.
But really, all Epstein needed were a few seconds: “But my objective was unchanging. To stay in the revolutionary ranks, to live or die if need be as a revolutionary, was who I was…. Never, I vowed to myself, would I renounce what I had so long honored before the hostile press at some border crossing, and end up ‘dining and whining’ at capitalist tables, which was what I called the performance of ‘penitent’ deserters from the Red Banner. I would rather die.”
A specimen of Epstein’s sort is not easy to come by in this new century: an unrepentant communist, one of the last of the Mohicans. He was a 90-year-old man writing in 2005 whose “objective” remains unchanged — even after Stalin, even after Pol Pot, even after the fall of the Berlin Wall — a man who can look back at Khrushchev’s 1956 renunciation of Stalin and declare that Nikita went too far, that denouncing the dictator wholesale was “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” The only way to read Epstein’s new memoir, “My China Eye,” and not end up banging your head against a wall is to think of it as looking at a rare butterfly — caught and displayed behind glass, the now-extinct, blind, red butterfly.
Israel Epstein was born to Bundists, Jewish socialists who had to keep away from Moscow during the 1917 revolution because they were, as Epstein put it, “left of the Mensheviks and right of the Bolsheviks.” This is how he happened to grow up in China. When he was 2, his parents took refuge first in Harbin and then in Tianjin, a city occupied in the 1920s by a few Western powers. There he managed to get an English education. The communism arrived with the mother’s milk — even his alphabet blocks had “B” for Bolshevik and “M” for Menshevik. Yiddish was spoken in the home, and he was aware of himself as a Jew, but the real tradition that was passed on was love of the proletariat. The only mention of Palestine came in Epstein’s father’s tirades against Zionism.
Throughout his memoir, Epstein refers to himself as a journalist (his very first piece was in the children’s column of the Jewish Daily Forward: a letter from a Jewish boy in China). But from the beginning of his writing life, he was bound tightly to the Communist Party and never wrote a critical word against it. From 1937 to 1945, he was on the frontlines of the Sino-Japanese War and World War II, writing mostly for left-wing papers and emphasizing the people power of Mao’s militias over what he saw as the weak and corrupt American-backed forces of Chiang Kai-shek. He even paid a visit to Mao, who was headquartered at Yan’an, a city in a remote corner of northwest China, and came away with a very favorable impression: “pensive, outspoken, readily finding plain words to convey meanings, but not a phrasemonger, displaying flashes of humor.”
After the war, he made his way to the United States and then published a book, “The Unfinished Revolution in China.” He joined the small chorus of Mao supporters — including Edgar Snow with his influential “Red Star Over China” — arguing that America should drop its support for the Nationalists and back the Communists instead (it’s a school of thought, incidentally, that came to see the Korean and Vietnam wars as avoidable if only America would have backed the right horse in China’s post-World War II civil war). But by the early 1950s, the Cold War was on already and Epstein began feeling McCarthy’s hot breath on his neck. And in 1951, with his
Communists having managed to chase Generalissimo Chiang to Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China a fact, Epstein couldn’t resist moving — along with his second wife, Elsie, a fellow traveler — to live in his promised land.
His praise for the China he found on his return can be hard to stomach from this remove. The People’s Republic was, in his eyes, nothing short of paradise on earth. Class differences had been swept away. “The soil itself,” he writes, was healthier. The cities were clean and beautiful, with “young pioneers” diligently watching the sidewalks to make sure no spitting or littering was taking place. No inflation. No corruption. People’s state of mind had changed, with “passive, depressed moods” giving way to “buoyancy and activity.” Even the children joined in the new spirit of communist thrift and minimalism, with Epstein reporting that Chinese kids didn’t like to “wear anything freshly bought” and so they asked their parents to sew on a patch or two. He said he actually overheard children complaining that their clothes didn’t look “simple and hardworking” enough.
Epstein failed to see the elements of this new society that were clear harbingers of the totalitarian repression to come. He got excited about the new “Mao suits” that become “virtual uniforms” for all men, whether they liked it or not. “I was anxious to change to this style as soon as possible,” he wrote. But he couldn’t see that this erasure of individualism was only a few steps away from the number that would take the place of his name during his years in prison.
When Mao unleashed the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960s, giving students and young people carte blanche to attack establishment figures he perceived as enemies, Epstein eagerly joined in. Having been born too late to experience the Bolshevik Revolution (which he calls the “greatest, most spectacular world event of the last generation”), this was his chance to live out his revolutionary fantasies, to be in the “ranks of struggle and action.” Epstein set up one of the proliferating Red Guard groups, one especially for foreigners, called the Bethune-Yan’an Rebel Regiment of Mao Zedong Thought. He marched in rallies and denounced enemies of socialism. He memorized and regurgitated Mao’s words, which, quoted incorrectly, could have dire consequences. “Woe to any quoter who had even one comma in the wrong spot, or a stroke missing from one of his characters,” Epstein wrote. “That could be, and often was, seized upon as a sign of hatred for the revolution and the Chairman.”
When they came for him — with charges of espionage that were never taken to a court of law — Epstein went stoically. And there are no harsh words or bitterness for his five years in prison, where his main reading material was Mao’s collected works. The only writing he was allowed was what he estimates were 1,500 pages describing every banal activity that might have been construed as a crime, none of which satisfied his captors. He even neglected to request help from Zhou Enlai, the most popular figure in the regime and an old acquaintance of his, because, Epstein wrote, “I knew how he worked night and day on larger issues.”
Epstein was released in 1973, and he gave no thought to leaving China or to abandoning the cause that had turned on him. Instead, he lived out the rest of his days in Beijing, as an editor of the regime’s English-language mouthpieces and a prominent member of the Communist Party apparatus. Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao paid him yearly public visits on his birthday. And when he died this past May, both the president and the premier joined a thousand mourners (according to China Daily) at the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery in Beijing to pay their respects.
There has been no real airing of the horrors perpetrated by the regime that Epstein proudly supported his whole life. But we do now know that Mao was responsible for the murder of at least 70 million people during his reign, as Jung Chang and Jon Halliday reported in their recently published book, “Mao: The Unknown Story” (Knopf). It’s not a number widely discussed, and certainly not while the chairman’s face still looms over Tiananmen Square. But it certainly puts him and Communist China in the ranks of Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany. What would Epstein make of this 70 million? Would it faze him? Probably not. Epstein’s book is a damning document, precisely because it is the portrait of a man whose professed idealism was more precious than anything reality could dish up. To read this memoir is, in fact, to have confirmation of what we already know well: The world has seen more than enough of this brand of idealism. As for Epstein, his end was just the way he wanted it. Before being buried in the land of his dreams, his coffin was covered in the red-and-yellow flag of the Chinese Communist Party.
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman