During my first visit to China in the spring of 2006 my step-sister took me along to a cocktail party for a Spanish filmmaker in an astonishing old home in the western part of Beijing. The host, an American, was a great raconteur and told me the story of growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution, the son of a remarkable woman who left the U.S. after World War II to join the Communist cause under Mao. I took some shots of his house, lost in the shadows of the skyscrapers popping out of the ground around it. And was all agog when he took me on a tour through the tunnels and catacombs below.
This morning, while flipping through the New York Times, his mother’s obituary jumped out at me.
“Joan Hinton, a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, which developed the atom bomb, but spent most of her life as a committed Maoist working on dairy farms in China, died on Tuesday in Beijing. She was 88….
“In 1948, alarmed at the emerging cold war, she gave up physics and left the United States for China, then in the throes of a Communist revolution she wholeheartedly admired. “I did not want to spend my life figuring out how to kill people,” she told National Public Radio in 2002. “I wanted to figure out how to let people have a better life, not a worse life.”
“In China she met her future husband, Erwin Engst, a Cornell-trained dairy-cattle expert, who went on to work on dairy farms as a breeder while she designed and built machinery. During the Cultural Revolution, they were editors and translators in Beijing.
“Ms. Hinton applied her scientific talents to perfecting a continuous-flow automatic milk pasteurizer and other machines. For the past 40 years, she worked on a dairy farm and an agricultural station outside Beijing, tending a herd of about 200 cows.”
There’s a movie or book in her life. Grandfather invented the jungle gym. Mother founded the Putney School in Vermont. She qualified for the Olympic Team in skiing. Amazing. My condolences to her son Fred and her family.