Dr. Mark Levine, an American sociologist and musician who is now teaching at Beijing’s Minzu University of China (中央民族大学), is the initiator and organizer of a series of lectures on “Foreigners in the Chinese Revolution” at Peking University. Talking about how the idea came to him, Levine laughed and said, “It is a long story.”
It all began with an obituary of Israel Epstein in New York Times eight years ago. Levine said he remembered vividly it was June 2, 2005, three months before he came to China.
“The headline read ‘Chinese Communist Israel Epstein dies’,” Levine recalled. It caught his attention as he knew Epstein is not a Chinese name because it was also the name of his grandmother.
Dr. Levine performing at Lanxi Bar (兰溪酒吧) in Beijing. Photo: weibo.com
He read the obituary and was deeply touched. “It was just an extraordinarily fascinating story,” he said, “It never left my mind. I clipped the obituary and brought it with me when I came to China.”
When in China, Levine mentioned this story time and again to people he met, especially to his agent, Fu Han (傅涵). One day in 2010, Fu surprised him by arranging a mysterious call, which turned out to be from Huang Huanbi (黄浣碧), Epstein’s widow.”
Thanks to the efforts of Fu, Huang invited Levine to her home. He happened to visit on the day of Qingming festival, a day when the Chinese people sweep the tomb of their ancestors. So she also invited him to go to the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery to see Epstein’s grave.
A few days later, Levine was invited by Huang to a tree-planting activity held by an organization called Gung Ho (The International Committee for the Promotion of Chinese Industrial Cooperatives) which Epstein and a number of other “old foreigners” such as Rewi Alley, Edgar Snow and Helen Snow all participated in.
Through this activity, he met more people, including the then 95-year-old Isabel Crook. Subsequently, Levine expanded his acquaintances with more and more of such old foreigners and their children.
Fascinated by the stories of these foreigners, Levine shared them with his students and younger colleagues at Minzu University where he worked. He realized that many people, particularly the young generation, are not at all familiar with these people.
It was this realization that prompted him to bring the stories to more people. “I can’t just keep it all to myself,” Levine said, “This is something very special.” He talked to the dean of the School of Foreign Studies at his university who heartily agreed to his proposal to invite these people to give talks to the students. “Invite as many as you can and let’s get it started as soon as we can,” he was told by the dean.
The on-line version of the obituary of Israel Epstein in New York Times. Photo: nytimes.com
In the Fall of 2010, with the support of the dean and the Foreign Affairs Office of the university, Levine invited eight speakers, who are all children and grandchildren of those foreigners who had been part of the Chinese revolution, to speak in a series of lectures titled “They helped building China.”
Despite the fact that the time and place of these lectures changed from time to time, there were always plenty of attendees, sometimes more than a hundred. Both the students and the teachers who attended the lectures gave rave reviews. And the speakers were also thrilled to have such an opportunity to share their parents’ experiences which they are very proud of.
When the series finished, Levine was contacted by International Talent, the official magazine of the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs (外国专家局), which encouraged him to bring the lectures to other schools.
In February 2012, at a memorial of Edgar Snow held at the Peking University, Levine met Dr. Li Yansong (李岩松), vice president of the Peking University and director of the China Center for Edgar Snow Studies, and Dr. Sun Hua (孙华) from the School of Journalism and Communication of the Peking University who is deputy director of the Edgar Snow center. They were both eager to hold the lectures at the Peking University.
At their invitation, in the spring of 2012, Levine organized a short series of five lectures at the Peking University, which he later developed into a regular class at the School of Journalism and Communication. The students attending the series can get credits if they finish their assignment of reading a book written by one of those foreigners and submit an essay at the end of the course.
Scheduling the speakers requires a lot of work, Levine said. “Every single one of our speakers is busy. They all have jobs and they travel a lot within China, some internationally. And I don’t want to put too much pressure on people.”
But all this hard work paid off. The course was well-received by the students. A junior student majoring in Journalism said, “It is a great opportunity to hear about these people’s stories from their offspring rather than just read them from the books. I am touched by what they have sacrificed for our country. ”