Israel Epstein: Life-long Love for China

2008-07-11 12:32:46   China Soong Ching Ling Foundation

April 20, 2008 marked the 93rd Anniversary of Israel Epstein's birth. Mme. Huang Huanbi, wife of Mr. Epstein, and Mme. Li Mei, daughter of Mme. Liao Mengxing who was an old friend of Epstein's, were invited by China Soong Ching Ling Foundation (SCLF) and China Radio International (CRI) to CRI's online program "China Forum" to talk about Mr. Epstein's life. We hoped to celebrate this day with our friends online and together gain a better understanding of his love for China and the Chinese people and his influence on his family and friends. To acquire more information about him, our staff visited the Former Residence of Soong Ching Ling situated on the northern bank of Houhai Lake in Beijing and interviewed Executive Deputy Director He Dazhang of SCLF Research Center and former Director Zhang Airong of the Administrative Center of the Soong Ching Ling Residence, who gave us an emotional account of the unforgettable time of their working with Eppie, as all his friends liked to call him. On that spring day, the Former Residence of Soong Ching Ling was as beautiful as a painting. It was the very place where Epstein wrote the well-known biography of Soong Ching Ling. Epstein witnessed the momentous transformations in China, from the flames of war to the founding of New China and from a closed-door and weak China to an open and prosperous China. His love for China brought warmth to the people around him and is touching and inspiring to those who are listening to his stories today. [Click to see the interview transcript]

[Highlights of the Interview]

[Interviews conducted outside the studio]

Interview with Mr. He Dazhang, Executive Deputy Director of SCLF Research Center

Interview with Ms. Zhang Airong, Ex-Director of the Administrative Center of the Former Residence of Soong Ching Ling

A Glimpse of the Former Residence of Soong Ching Ling

This is 'China Forum' on China Radio International. I am your host Qiao Wei. April the 20th marks the birthday of an old friend of the Chinese people, who spent most of his 90 years here in China. He witnessed the big changes in China, from the flames of war to the founding of New China and from a closed and weak China to an open China of civility. This old friend is Israel Epstein. Today, 'China Forum' has invited two guests of honor: Ms. Huang Huanbi, wife of Mr. Epstein and Ms. Li Mei, daughter of the famous lady Ms. Liao Mengxing and a close friend of the Epsteins. They will tell us about Israel Epstein, an internationalist who cherished a profound love for China throughout his life. >>>Watch the interview online.

"Chinese people generally go from patriotism to internationalism. I have gone from internationalism to a patriotism."
                                                                                  -----------Israel Epstein

Host: "Epstein said, "Chinese people generally go from patriotism to internationalism. I have gone from internationalism to patriotism." What an interesting comparison. Ms. Huang, you must have a lot to say on this. How do you understand his words?

Ms. Huang: He was a Jew and both of his parents were Jews. Throughout his lifetime, he always bore in mind these words of his parents, "We Jewish people have been mistreated and oppressed, and therefore we cannot bring the same sufferings to others." He was born in Warsaw and moved to Japan with his parents when he was several months old. When he was two, his family moved to China and settled down in Tianjin following a three-year stay in Harbin.

Host: I know that in 1938, Epstein responded to Mme. Soong Ching Ling's call and joined the China Defense League. Ms. Li Mei, could you please tell us about this chapter of his life?

Ms Li: My mother also joined the China Defense League at that time. That's when their friendship started. This photograph has been shown on many occasions. It is a group photo of the founding members of the China Defense League taken in 1938 when Mme. Soong Ching Ling established the League in Hong Kong. Only a few pictures have been kept and this one is seen most.

Host: The China Defense League was an international organization established by renowned Chinese and foreign personages.

Ms Li: It was an international anti-fascist organization initiated by Mme. Soong Ching Ling. She was famous, prestigious and well-connected with many foreign dignitaries and celebrities. When she set up the China Defense League, the then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the famous American black singer Paul Robeson, the American author Pearl S. Buck and many other foreigners all actively joined and supported the League. The first president of the League was Song Ziwen, not Soong Ching Ling. The League aimed to collect supplies and raise funds from around the world to support China's war of resistance against Japanese aggression. At that time, the Kuomintang monopolized all the overseas donations and controlled the press, thus cutting off all overseas aid for the Eight Route Army and the New Fourth Army. When Edgar Snow wrote the Red Star over China in 1938, he introduced the Chinese Red Army to the world, but this army was still hardly known and it urgently needed publicity to show the world that it was not just the Kuomintang, but also the Red Army that was fighting the Japanese aggressors valiantly.

Host: We know that the semi-monthly magazine China Defense League Newsletter came into being shortly after the League was founded.

Ms. Huang: It was an unsophisticated semi-monthly publication, like this brochure, very simple. It was mostly in English. Only a few issues were in Chinese.

Host: At that time, Mr. Epstein was an editor of the Newsletter?

Ms. Li: He was in charge of editing the publication. When the Kuomintang staged "the South Anhui Incident" in 1941, China Defense League Newsletter broke the news blockade and disclosed this incident to the world.

Throughout his life, Epstein regarded Mme. Soong Ching Ling as his role model. He described her as "a perfect bi-cultural woman."

Host: Mr. Epstein recorded China's development with his pen. He forged profound friendships with many of our state leaders, including Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China's reform and opening-up, and CPC General Secretaries Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Of course, the first to be mentioned should be Mme. Soong Ching Ling.

Host: Soong Ching Ling regarded Epstein as her most trusted friend and comrade.

Ms. Li: Yes, he had worked with her for several decades.

Host: Based on their long-standing friendship, Mr. Epstein must have had a profound understanding of Mme. Soong Ching Ling. Ms. Huang, what did he have to say about this much respected lady?

Ms. Huang: His remarks about Mme. Soong Ching Ling were very sincere and respectful. They were both very young when they were in Hong Kong. At that time he was just twenty-three, Liao Gong (editor's note: honorific title of Liao Chengzhi) was about thirty and the others were all in their twenties or thirties. At that time, Mme. Soong Ching Ling was forty-five, so she was like a loving mother to them. He regarded her as one of the greatest women in the world. First of all, she was a great patriot. Because she studied in the US, she spoke excellent English and understood both Chinese and Western cultures, she still loved her country dearly. He also said, "Mme. Soong is a perfect bi-cultural woman, very beautiful and graceful."

Host: Although she was fully acquainted with two different cultures, at the bottom of her heart, Mme. Soong loved her motherland all along. As a matter of fact, Mr. Epstein was the same. He had a strong faith in his choice of citizenship and in the country he had chosen. In this sense, they were very similar. That's why they were bosom friends for many years.

Ms. Huang: And that's why Mme. Soong always wrote "Yours Forever, Soong Ching Ling" at the end of her letters to him.

Interview with Mr. He Dazhang, Executive Deputy Director of SCLF Research Center

Don't regard Mme. Soong Ching Ling as an antique. She always stood at the forefront of the times.

Whereas Mme. Soong May Ling was like an enamel basin, hard on the outside, Mme. Song Ching Ling was the complete opposite.

As a veteran journalist, Epstein spent a decade writing the biography Woman in World History -- Soong Ching Ling, and in his latter years he completed his My China Eye-Memos of a Jew and a Journalist.

Host: He was relatively young when he wrote Woman in World History -- Soong Ching Ling, but when he wrote My China Eye, he was already quite advanced in years. What kind of perseverance and willpower encouraged him to complete those two works as he had to search his memory and do a lot of work to collect and sort out historical data? Ms. Huang, could you please tell us the difficulties that Mr. Epstein had to overcome?

Ms. Huang: When he wrote Woman in World History -- Soong Ching Ling, he was already over seventy. He began to use the computer in 1985. Computer was something quite new to him. He encountered some difficulties in writing both books. Woman in World History -- Soong Ching Ling is a biography. There were things that Soong Ching Ling had never mentioned when she was alive, thus making it more difficult to write. Sometimes when the computer broke down and he lost what he wrote, Eppy always cried, "Oh! God, Let me hang myself!" A lot of friends including people from the computer company came to help him debug the computer and problems were solved. My China Eye was not about his personal life, but about the China's experience that he himself witnessed: from a semi-colonial, semi-feudal country to a China that embraces reform and opening-up. The book has both Chinese and English versions. He wrote this book in order to present China to the world. It was quite hard for him to write the final parts of the book, especially when he was very unwell. The last two chapters were completed with the help of a friend from CRI who typed them out for him verbatim.

Ms. Li: He kept on writing this book till the last moments of his life. At that time, we were all very nervous and concerned about his health because he had already had several operations. We were afraid that he wouldn't be able to finish it, but he did his utmost and completed the book.

Host: Ms. Huang, could you tell us, what were his guiding principles for news reporting as a senior journalist?

Ms. Huang: He had been a journalist all his life, from a reporter to an editor and then to an editor-in-chief. His reports were articulate and easy to understand. He often told us that the most important thing for a journalist was to report things as they are and not give false information. He said that unlike literature or artistic creation, news reporting should be accurate and free from empty talk, exaggerations and flowery languages.

Host: So truthfulness was the core of news reporting as he understood it.

Ms. Huang: Right. And a "bicultural perspective" was another feature of his writings. He wrote about China's history and development and he wanted it to be understood not only by Chinese people, but more importantly, by foreigners.

Host: That is to present a true and comprehensive picture of China to the outside world and help friends from all over the world to learn about and understand China.

[Interview with Mr. He Dazhang, Executive Deputy Director of SCLF Research Center]

Those who offered to write Mme. Soong Ching Ling's biography but were rejected numbered at least double-digit.

Epstein's biggest wish was to go to Tibet by train!

Host: Mr. Epstein passed away in 2005, at the age of 90. I think that throughout his life, he had been working to fulfill his wishes. Ms. Huang, do you know of any wishes that he did not manage to fulfill?

Ms. Huang: He had visited Tibet four times over the past decades. His biggest wish was to go there again by train. Unfortunately, the Qinghai-Tibet Railway was put to use only after he passed away.

Host: He first visited Tibet in the 1950s.

Ms. Huang: The first time was in 1956. It took him a week to travel from Sichuan to Tibet by bus and truck. It was a hard journey but he was young at the time and could stand it. I went with him on his fourth trip in the 1980s.

Host: Was he able to withstand the altitude sickness?

Ms. Huang: Of course he wasn't in the same shape as when he was younger, but he still could endure the harsh conditions. When we were over 5,000 meters above sea level, the road got so bumpy that he was sent to mid-air in the car. He said humorously, "The bumpy road has healed my backache!"

Host: What impressed him most when you were in Tibet? You must have taken a lot of pictures at the time.

Ms. Huang: He had visited Tibet three times before sitting down to write the book Tibet Transformed, which gave a detailed account of the transformation and reforms in Tibet. He wrote the book in English, and there's no Chinese version yet. The Tibetan People's Publishing House only translated the Content and the Preface of the book.

[Interview with Mr. He Dazhang, Executive Deputy Director of SCLF Research Center]

"China is my home country." Epstein's love for China brought warmth to the people around him.

Host: Now, let's go back to the year of 1938, when the family of Ms. Li's mother (Liao Mengxing) became acquainted with Epstein. They forged a very deep friendship over the years.

Ms. Li: They were very good friends. Eppie upheld justice and was very sincere. My mother was very close to him in the family. She thought he was very adorable and humorous. I first met him when I was only six and we took this picture. Epstein was a twenty-three-year-old journalist then. He always remembered the first time he saw me. My mother passed away earlier than him and in the 1990s I started going to parties of along with Eppie and his friends. At that time I was also a SCLF Council member. At a Council meeting, we sat together. I was sixty at the time and he said, with a naughty smile, "Nan Nan is also a grandma now!" He was still calling me by my childhood nickname. Look, he's so adorable in this picture. That's our Eppie! A very humorous and lovable person.

Host: He faced his life with a bright smile, because his heart was filled with the world, for his country, for his family and for his friends. I think Ms. Huang must have a lot to say on that.

Ms. Huang: First of all, he loved his country dearly. He lived in China and throughout his life regarded China as his home. We engraved these words on his gravestone. He said: "I love China. I love the Chinese people. China is my home. This love tied my career and my life to the destiny of China". These words came from the bottom of his heart. During the "Cultural Revolution", he was mistreated and locked up for nearly five years. But he never complained. When he got out of the prison, he continued his work happily. He said: "I fear nothing but letting me part from China. I believe the Communist Party of China will clear my name."

Host: In fact, he could have chosen the U.S. citizenship, but he made his choice to be a Chinese citizen in 1957. We know that in 1957, China was poor and backward. It was just moving towards development. Not everyone could make such a choice easily. It was a historic choice. We wonder what Mr. Epstein thought when he recalled his choice of citizenship.

Ms. Huang: He said that he had never thought about applying for U.S. citizenship, because he had grown up in China and loved China dearly. He had lived in the U.S. for 5 years and his parents settled down there, but he had never thought about becoming an American citizen. In 1951, Mme. Soong Ching Ling invited him to return to China to lead the work of founding the magazine China Reconstructs, which was later renamed China Today. He settled down in China and later applied for Chinese citizenship.

Host: I think Mr. Epstein was a very optimistic person who knew how to love and what love was. How did he express his love to you, Ms. Huang?

Ms. Huang: I joined China Reconstructs in January 1960 when I was in my twenties. Everybody called me 'Xiao Huang' because I was young at that time. Later on, some younger people joined in. They also called me 'Xiao Huang' and so did Eppy. When he called me that on some public occasions, people always mistook me as his guide or interpreter. So he called me 'lao tai tai', or 'old lady', instead. In this way I went from 'xiao' (little) to 'lao' (old). A foreign friend of his once asked, "She's got a name, why do you call her 'old lady'?" He answered with a joke: Once upon a time, he said, there was an old couple who called each other 'my dear' all the time. A friend said to the old man, "You two must be deeply in love! I'm so envious!" The old man whispered to him, "Guess what? I've forgotten her name!"

Yes, he was a very lovable old guy. We all called him 'Eppy'. He hated titles like 'Mr.' or 'Miss'.

Host: To me, Eppie was an adorable and optimistic senior man who loved life and the world.

Ms. Huang: An adorable and optimistic old guy.

Host: Just now, Ms. Li, you mentioned 'adorable'. Would you please share some interesting episodes with our listeners and friends on line?

Ms. Li: For quite a few years, I can't remember the time exactly, maybe since 2000, a group of us, mainly people who once worked with Mme. Soong and were mostly SCLF Council members, would have Spring Festival parties at Eppie's home. We had some very interesting people, and many of them were engaged in cultural work.

Ms. Huang: This picture was taken during the Spring Festival of 2000.

Host: It was a party of SCLF Council members. Ms. Huang was in the picture too.

Ms. Huang: Some of the people were staff members. For example, this woman, Kyoko Nakamura.

Ms. Huang: This is Dai Ailian (Tai Ai-Lien), a renowned dancer. She was also an old friend of ours and a SCLF Council member. She got to know Mme. Soong and Eppy in Hong Kong.

Ms. Li: She raised funds for the China Defense League in Hong Kong and Chongqing, and staged many charity performances.

Host: We noticed that Mr. Epstein wore red at the traditional Chinese festival. On such occasions, what did he talk most about with his friends?

Ms. Huang: Everything.

Ms. Li: Small talk.

Ms. Huang: Small talk, serious discussions about state affairs and recollections of the past. Dai Ailian, the dancer, was very talkative. The whole family called him 'Eppy'.

Host: Just 'Eppy'?

Ms. Li: Eppy is the abbreviation of his English name. He was called Eppy by people in our circle including my mother and Mme. Soong Ching Ling.

Host: There's a character 'Ai' in Epstein's Chinese name, which means love. He really loved life, loved the world, loved the people around him and was most lovable.

[Interview with Mr. He Dazhang, Executive Deputy Director of SCLF Research Center]

Cut a thin slice of the birthday cake for him, so thin that it is transparent.

[Interview with Ms. Zhang Airong, Former Director of the Administrative Center of the Former Residence of Soong Ching Ling]

Israel Epstein's belongings, witnesses of his life

An old-fashioned camera once used by Israel Epstein
Israel Epstein's pipe used when he was writing
A Khatag presented to him by Tibetans
A letter written to him by Mme. Soong Ching Ling
Historical videos and photo album of Israel Epstein

Host: At the end of our interview, would you please each say one sentence about Israel Epstein? What kind of a person was he and what kind of strength and legacy did he leave us with?

Ms. Li: Although he did not have black eyes, black hair or yellow skin, he loved China very much.

Host: A person with love is forever happy.

Ms. Huang: What's most important is that he had a goal in his life, to devote himself to his country – China.

Host: A person has immense strength.

Ms. Huang: He loved this country and its people.

Ms. Huang: The thing we had in common was the love for China. Many of my relatives now live abroad. My father once asked me to go to the US, but I didn't go.

Host: Love is at the core of our discussion today. We miss Eppie deeply because of our love for him. Love also brings us strength. Ms. Huang and Ms. Li, thank you very much for sharing with us your stories about his illustrious life. With that, we wrap up this edition of 'China Forum'. See you next time.

[A Glimpse of the Former Residence of Soong Ching Ling]

The picturesque Former Residence of Soong Ching Ling, where Israel Epstein wrote the well-known Soong Ching Ling biography, Woman in World History. It is situated on the northern bank of Houhai Lake in Beijing.

Producer: 'China Forum', China Radio International.
April, 2008.