War journalist Israel Epstein and his dedication to China

To many of the Chinese today Israel Epstein the name sounds unfamiliar. But the late war journalist managed to shine some light with his pen into the blind spot of the country’s memory of the history of the frontal battlefield led the Kuomintang in China’s anti-Japanese war (1937-45) as part of the World War II.

Israel Epstein was born in a Jewish family on April 20, 1915, in Warsaw, which was then under the Russian Empire. His father had been imprisoned for leading a labor uprising against the authorities and his mother had been exiled to Siberia. In 1917, the Epsteins finally reached Tianjin, about 135 kilometers away from Beiping(北平), now Beijing, and settled down in the city’s Italian concessions area, after initially staying in Harbin where they first arrived to escape the anti- Jewish persecution.

“In Harbin our world had been Russian. In Tianjin, it was Western, mainly Anglo-American, so English became my language of choice and easiest expression,” Epstein wrote in his book.

“I had wanted to be a journalist since early childhood and fulfilled my wish,” he said.  

Growing up in China, young Epstein’s interest shifted towards events and trends in China and these actually became the sole topic in his writing for the years after. He was a witness of the country of decades of wars and revolutions.

“At the night of July 7, 1937 I heard gunshots from the Marco Polo Bridge in Beiping…” Epstein wrote in his book “History should not be forgotten”.

The Marco Polo (Lugou) Bridge( 卢沟桥), located about 15 kilometers from downtown Beijing, has been of strategic importance since ancient times. The Marco Polo Bridge incident marked the beginning of the eight-year war of the Chinese people against the Japanese aggression.

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As the war broke out, the Epsteins decided to leave for the US by ship, but 22-year old Israel Epstein stayed to report the war.

After Beijing and Tianjin were occupied by the Japanese, young Epstein was assigned by United Press to Nanjing, then China’s capital, to report the war from both front and rear.

“With time, I learned to sleep through curfewed night raids…”

“I saw soldier patients who were victims of internationally prohibited weapons. Mustard gas had pitted their flesh with cheese-like holes, which penetrated agonizingly ever-deeper.”

“After the fall of Nanjing, climaxing that of Beiping, Tianjin, Shanghai and other major cities, China was in the deepest crisis in her long history.”

In April 1938, Chinese regular forces led by Kuomintang won a first victory over the Japanese since the war began. It was in Taierzhuang(台儿庄), on the border of Jiangsu and Shandong Provinces.

Screenshot of The 400 Million, a documentary on the Chinese resistance against  the Japanese aggression directed by Joris Ivens in 1939. 

“Amid the ruins lay the dead, many soldiers one a peasant, the goose he had been carrying to safety, dead also, just beyond his prone outstretched arm.”

“Nearby, the driven-out Japanese had cremated their own dead, on iron spring beds they had dragged into the open, sometimes able to do only half the grisly work before they fled.

“Chi Fengcheng(池峰城), commander of the Chinese 31st Division which, in a bloody hand-to-hand street fight finally dislodged the invaders… Seventy percent of his force, he said, had fallen in the previous months’ fighting and in the final victorious encounter. Outside the city wall, half shattered by shelling, stood four Japanese tanks, disabled and abandoned.”

Epstein (center) reports on the Japanese aerial bombing of Guangzhou (1938)  

In Guangzhou, “I still remember the week-long “contributing” gold movement” which started on August 13. Each of the six platforms set up in the downtown area was crowded with donors. The local people said,“This is our answer to enemy’s bombs.”

As a foreign reporter, Epstein also had to face great  danger to fulfill his job. In one piece of news he wrote:

“Have just returned from four days in No Man’s Land during which I witnessed a Japanese landing at a hitherto untouched river port, was subsequently chased by three Japanese planes and bombed for 45 minutes, and walked and boated a total of 80 miles.”

“Scott and I had tried to get out by way of back creeks and bypaths in order to bring out first pictures of the Japanese occupation. The Japanese were blocking the delta waterways with constant aerial surveillance, patrols by armed launches and landing parties of a hundred or so men each at key points.”

“We had with us two Browning .45 pistols lent by the U.S. gunboat, at Rey’s request, for protection from robbers. But it would have been fatal to attempt to resist the Japanese with them.”

But after Guangzhou was occupied, Epstein went to Hong Kong. And his first period of war report came to an end. Because the UP fired him almost as soon as he got to Hong Kong.

Why the UP dismissed Epstein? According to Epstein, the UP then believed that China would soon lose the war as most of its major cities like Guangzhou, Wuhan, the war-time capital, fell. So they could reduce the number of reporters from China. And Epstein was seen “too pro-Chinese” thus would not be suitable to be employed in the occupied area any more.

And what Epstein did in the decades to come deepened his image in Western media as “pro-Chinese”.

In the year 1938, he joined the China Defense League, which was found by Soong Quinling, the widow of Sun YatSen to publicize the Chinese struggle against aggression and to donate money for the cause.

Soong Ching Ling with the Central Committee of China Defense League in Hong Kong in 1938. Israel Epstein was on the left. 

In the year 1944, he was assigned by the New York Times to the “Sino-Foreign Reporters’ Group to the Northwest” , which traveled from Chongqing to Yan’an and the Eighth Route Army areas.

In his view during his visit in Yan’an, Mao Tse Tung was the most outstanding leader in the anti-Japanese struggles behind the enemy lines.

Epstein (second from right in the front row) was among the foreign journalists in Yan'an, Shaanxi province, received by  Mao Tse Tung (right in the back row)  in 1944. 


Epstein (second right) with Dr. George Hatem (Ma Haide) (first right) visiting the Yan'an International Peace Hospital in 1944.

“In personal behavior, in Yan’an, Mao was approachable and simple. He would stroll down the dusty streets, apparently unguarded, talking with the people.”

“One of the most impressive aspects was his ability to express complex strategic ideas in simple, unforgettable words which could engrave their meaning and logic even on the illiterate.”

Here is a simple parable by Mao that Epstein remembered for long:

Israel Epstein (1915 - 2005)

  Born in Warsaw on April 20 1915.
  Came to China with his parents in 1917 at the age of two. They settled in Tianjin in 1920
  Began to work in journalism at age 15 when he wrote for the Peking and Tientsin Times, an English-language newspaper based in Tianjin.
  Inspired by Red Star Over China (1937), a book by the American journalist Edgar Snow, before it was published.
  In 1937, Epstein remained in China to cover China’s anti-Japanese war for western news agencies with his families leaving the country for the US.
  In 1938, he joined the China Defense League, an organization   founded by Soong Quinling and  aimed to publicize the country's cause abroad.
  In 1944, he visited Shanbei, and had long conversations with Mao Tse Tung.
  He took Chinese nationality in 1957, joined the Communist Party in 1964.
  In the Cultural Revolution, Epstein and his wife were accused of plotting against Zhou Enlai and imprisoned in 1968. They were released in 1973 with an apology from Zhou.
  Epstein died on May 26, 2005 in Beijing and buried in at the city’s Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery.

Imagine, he said, that you are waiting for a vehicle to take you someplace. A robber comes along and makes a grab for your bags and bundles. Should you try to hang on to each bag? Better not. Let him pick up all he can and even help him get it all on his back and into both hands. Then, as he staggers away, hit him on the head and capture both him and the baggage.

This, in essence, was the victorious tactic used to smash the Guomindang armies.

According to Epstein, in his separate conversation with Mao, he passed on to Mao the greetings of Soong, and send back a list of the medical and other relief supplies need in Shanbei.

In 1944, Epstein first visited Britain and afterwards went to live in the United States with his second wife Elsie Fairfax-Cholmeley for five years. In 1947, he published the book “The Unfinished Revolution in China” in the US, in which he presented a picture of Mao from his perspectives.

In 1951, he came to China at Soong’s invitation to work in China writing and leading a English-language magazine to show China to the world for the communist party. He worked on the magazine until the 1980s.

During the Cultural Revolution(1966-1976), he was imprisoned in 1968 in Qincheng Prison(秦城监狱), located in Beijing’s northern Changping District, where the majority of inmates are political prisoners. Epstein was on charges of plotting against Zhou Enlai, then-Prime Minister. They were released in 1973 with an apology from Zhou.

"In the time and spaces that history could set for me, I do not think there is anything more meaningful than I have witnessed and participated in the Chinese people's revolutionary cause."

Epstein said it in 2004, at the age of 89. In that year, he finished his memoirs- "Witness China"(见证中国).

Epstein remained loyal to his ideals of Communism until his death, though he can have felt disappointed with the serious corruption in the communist party and the various phenomenon of "Chinese characteristics" in the recent decades.

Epstein died on May 26, 2005 in Beijing. His funeral was held at the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery(八宝山革命公墓), a resting place for the highest-ranking revolutionary heroes, high government officials and other important persons.

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