Israel Epstein visits Yenan, North Shaanxi in 1944

It took us a while to work through all the Seasonal Customers who kept arriving right up to the 2nd of Christmas days, but now with snow in The Netherlands, Icy Cold, and the first holidays over we get the chance to return and add some more to our China Report website. Keeping in thought with our earlier dreams of Datong in Northern Shanxi, -where I visited not even a month ago-, first up is a small review of the book "I visit Yenan", by Israel Epstein. This book feautures the authors travels in the same region, at the North China Front of 1944, the days of Japanese occupation and communist-led resistance against them.
"I visit Yenan" is a book by a much heard of author, of whom however currently I still posess few facts. Here follows a short list of my initial knowledge – Israel Epstein, born in Poland in 1915 somehow grew up in China before the break-out of world war two. An international correspondent in China for important newspapers in the United States, in Hong Kong he was befriended with Soong Ching-Ling, who in turn was the center of the nationalist-democratic China Defense League. Epstein was in China at least from 1938 untill 1945 and wrote his "I visit Yenan" as dispatches to his newspapers while on tour of the North-China communist areas with other foreign correspondents in 1944. After 1945 he returned to the United States with his wife. Later on however, Epstein was persuaded by none less than Soong Ching-Ling to return to China and help with the new newspaper China Reconstruction ( Now China Today). Soon he became embroiled in newspaper work once more. Not only that, he also became a chinese citizen and later even a member of the standing committee of the peoples consultative conference and wrote and published many books on Revolutionary days. Israel Epstein is a highly honored man in Communist China. All this initial knowledge about the author and the finding of Israel Epstein commemorative stamps on sale at Soong Ching-Ling Residence Museum, I felt, called for further investigation of this man and his history.
As a book in The Peoples Friendship Studies series, a series by former State Publisher and Printer Beijing Foreign Language Press, "I visit Yenan" is a thin hardcover book with a compilation of Israel Epstein’s main dispatches to Foreign Newspapers (US mainly) from his visits in 1944 to the communist-led (and held) area’s of North-China with at it’s center the Capital, militairy headquarters and Political nerve center – the tiny city of Yenan in Shaanxi Province. At the time of Israel Epstein’s Trip the North of China was still mainly occupied by invading japanese armies, but eversince the Long March that ended in 1936, Yenan was the place from which the popular communist-led resistance against Japan was organized. Yenan was legendary, the more so since it was also in oppositon to the so called "Central Governement" which was led by General-gone-Dictator Chiang Kai Chek. Although officially allied into a "United Front against Japan" with this growingly powerful political force (the communists), the Central Governement did everything in it’s powers to deny the Communists their influence, dub the communists "red bandits" and had a newsblackout on information from the communist-led areas going on. Yenan’s radio-transmissions were activily scrambled, letters and newspapers were censored and although "Red Star over China" (Edgar Snow) had already been published as early as 1937 (bringing out for the first time the revolutionary communist message inspiring many youth to flock to Yenan and join the Revolution of China’s Society and the fight against Japan), in China’s main Cities still hardly anything was known for a fact about these communist held areas. Hence, Epstein and his newspaper bosses must have jumped at the opportunity.
What follows in this 87 page book ,compounded by another 32 pages of woodcuttings from liberated China and their descriptions, is the truth on the communist liberated areas as methodically exposed and uncovered on his 1944 tour by a critical and experienced reporter Israel Epstein.
Beginning in Xian Shaanxi, then the border city between Central Governement- and Communist-Rebel-led Area’s, the writer almost casually describes his observations of Governement Propaganda aimed at the touring group of journalists, observations that lead him to question the city as a Fortress against the Japanese Invasion and suspect it as as a strongpoint against the Communist Forces. After this interesting start Central Governement Censorship of his communications with his Newspapers are discussed, and traveling on to Tungkwan more peculiar circumstances of the area surface. The city of Xian is a hive of central governement militairy activity, not so much against the japanese but against the communist rebels. No american provided war-material, which is available in Sian, is delivered to the communist forces fighting against the japanese more up-North in the Province. There is a peculiar peace at the strategic Yellow River bend near Tungkwan which essential to a Japanese Advance. The Chinese Governor of the Yellow River area of North-Shanxi, has struck a deal with the japanese as he did with everyone else, in his efforts to cling to power, a typical chinese political problem of the time. The communist-reformed areas of Shanxi are not nearly as destitute and poor as the Central Governement will have the caravan of journalitsts believe and by the time Yenan in North-Shaanxi is reached it is clear that there are two stories to be told. The Journalists are held up to a KuoMinTang Propaganda Tour and the Rumors about The Communist Forces are far from the Truth. They are not barbarians and bandits but a highly popular group, supported by the civilian population of these rural area’s and quite succesful in sustaining themselves.
The second part of this story takes the reader to Yenan, where freed from his earlier KuoMinTang press-coaches and secret agents, the journalist Epstein can eagerly come to the business of describing the communist Capital, the people, the forces, the motivations and the like in more detail. Information widely unknown to the general world public untill then.
Familiar from other books in the the PFS series (Bertram, Smedley, Carlson), Epstein then describes communist area political organization, the strength and flexibility of the it’s peasant army, the spirit of the revolutionary citziens and travels and meetings with the eighth route army. To be honest – in my opinion here the book could become even more interesting but instead turns a bit sour. That is – thoroughly caught in a spirit that resonates the anti-franco anti-fascist movement, Epstein seems to loose himself in the details of communist organization and strengths of whom he is an instant admirer, losing his touch for creating interesting reading fodder and deminishing in journalistic neutrality. True, the Communist Message, Organization and features were largely still great news to many of the public at the time of 1944, making this newsworthy fact. The newspaper-article shortness of his dispatches combined with the dry meticulous details of political organization, however, turn the second part of the book into less thrilling reading. Although an interesting book on the North-China Front in 1994, what "I visit Yenan" lacks is something with the spice of a personal interview with chairman Mao or General Chu Teh or the romance of scenes in Yenan’s dancing "Barn", which was regular social meet. There are no such highlights, nor are there any entertaining descriptions of chinese landscape or any historic site. There are however many facts on all aspects of communist social organization. As mentioned – losing himself in details, the book carries on with descriptions, and does so right untill page 97, after which some color is brought back to the descriptions by the added 32 image pages of Traditional Chinese Woodcuttings bringing to life the landscape and revolutionary rural areas in 1944.
Concluding , "I visit Yenan" can shed some light on the person of Israel Epstein the writer. A truely thorough essay on the North China Front situation in 1944 and the communist forces of Yenan in perticular, it must have been very informative reading when it hit the newspapers. The political passions of Israel Epstein resonate strongly inside this book, making him from a critical observer exposing KuoMinTang propaganda and myth in the early parts of this book, into an almost too obvious sympathizer with the communist movement in the second half of the book. For those who have no knowledge of the period or region, an interesting extra source but not as interesting and revealing as other titles of the PFS series (Bertram, Carlson, Snow, Smedley). As holiday reading on Shanxi Province, hardly worthwile reading. We would refer you to James Bertram’s much more romantic and lively books in the same PFS series. As a source on Israel Epstein, a very revealing document on his early passions, interests and loyalties. We can now begin to imagine why and how Israel Epstein ended up as a Communist Party Member and high Chinese Official. "I visit Yenan", at the very least, is a tribute to Israel Epstein’s enthousiastic love for China’s People’s Revolution and a historic observation on the early chinese communist movement as it was during world war 2 (in China- Great Anti-Fascist War) in Yanan and North-China.
Now available from our Online Store, and only 120 or so pages long, "I visit Yenan", author: Israel Epstein. Published by Beijing Foreign Language Press.


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