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Unbound: A True Story of War, Love, and…

Unbound: A True Story of War, Love, and Survival

by Dean King

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Detachable reference bookmark. Three little words that mean a great deal in this non-fiction text about the Long March in China that started in 1934, and this bookmark, as simple as it sounds, provides the key to author Dean King’s research. He reveals the story of thirty amazing women in an easy to understand way, despite the mountains of facts and details he uncovers. The bookmark itself is a shortened “cheat sheet” in order to keep track of fifteen of the more notable women. Just by providing it, it shows that the text is going to be accessible and personal. More interestingly is that this book really has nothing to do with politics…it’s the story of the desire to escape and finding the power to do so.

First, what was the Long March? Mao’s Communist army in China was being threatened by Nationalist forces, and needed to make a quick departure to an area that had Communist allies, some 4,000 miles away from their base of operations. They undertook this migration, one of the most significant in history, in secrecy, putting 86,000 men on a journey in stages that led to the death of most of them. Besides moving the officials and main soldiers, the march also carried valuable documents, funds, printing devices, and a medical core. Thirty women with them carried most of the duties of the convalescent care. Most of the journey was taken at night, in smaller regiments, and it took three weeks before Nationalists realized they were on the move. At times, it seemed that many of the soldiers were disposable, as the treacherous night-time journeys were anything but safe.

Why these thirty women? These women had served the Communist Party as recruiters, and were considered strong soldiers themselves. They were attracted to Mao’s Red Party because it freed them from the traditional Chinese way of life, which for women was one full of despair and pain. For example, foot binding, that horrific yet traditional ritual, broke the bones of a girl child’s foot, folded the toes under to the heel, then bound them with ribbon. The goal being “lovely” three-inch feet, a sign of nobility and yet sheer mutilation. Women in their traditional Chinese roles were either drowned at birth, sold for money, or used as unpaid and brutalized servants. Therefore, Mao’s promises of equality, respect, and the end of peasant traditions appealed to these women, the youngest two being just 10 and 11 years old when they joined the Long March.

Some of the women had been raised in wealth and schooled outside of China. Others were the same peasants described above. Yet they joined as comrades, and the most astonishing fact of the whole book is that all thirty survived, despite the death of the vast majority of the men. Their close ties made them fight long and hard, not just for Mao’s goals, but for what they perceived as the benefit of Chinese women in the future. Additionally, they were not used as prostitutes for the Army, but rather as equal soldiers, carrying their own weight in assignments and in battle.

One American observer stated that “their strength lay not in a rigid military hierarchy-although they tended to revere their leaders-but in a democratic structure that made the troops feel responsible for their own and their comrades’ actions.” Many of the women suffered health problems and difficulties in maintaining their strong tradition of modesty in such conditions. Some women gave birth on the march and left their newborns with villagers to rear. Unimaginable, it seems, yet they were convinced they were contributing to a ‘greater good’.

When it was all over, Mao claimed that the Long March was almost 8,000 miles. He inflated the figures for a distinct purpose. He felt that the completion of the march proved the power of Communism. He attempted to set standards for his soldiers, and provided rules requiring civilized behavior of the marchers towards local peasants they may run across. But as the march continued, it became a reign of terror at times, where any Chinese that they found who had any form of wealth were immediately assumed to be guilty of Nationalistic tendencies, thus their possessions were confiscated. Any kind of disagreement or insubordination among marchers ended with death, and so Mao’s ideal wasn’t always realistic.

One especially clever woman in Mao’s Army was Cai Chang. She and others would question peasants to find out who the wealthy were among them, in order to collect supplies and foodstuffs. Most peasants learned to lie, so she found a craftier means. On some kind of elevated location, she’d overlook the village and look for newer homes. She’d look for especially well-kept cattle pens and signs of status. Then they’d go into the homes and if they found signs of wealth, they would pack these as provisions, feeling completely justified because of the assumed guilt of the householder.

Did any good come out of the Long March, given the future crises to come in China? One example is that “the Communists revolutionized the legal standing of women and children in the Marriage Law of 1950, which banned arranged marriage, child betrothal, concubinage, and infanticide….The law mandated …the protection of the interests of women, widows, and children. This was a key step in institutionalizing the change in the role of women in China from passive domestics…”

This is a heavily detailed book, and really my only complaint (a minor one really) is that it is so full of names, dates, and facts that at times it gets a bit overwhelming. So it’s not simply an easy beach read. Yet King writes in a personable way that draws out the unique characters that make each woman stand out with their personalities and traits. The bookmark helps!

Originally I wanted to read this because of an interview with King, where he describes undertaking the research as the father of young women, and trying to imagine the parallels for women then and today. A link to this interview is provided below. ( )
  BlackSheepDances | Aug 10, 2010 |
Titling a book may well be an art form in and of itself. Undoubtedly, the goal is to not simply to attract a reader but to convey something about the book itself. I have no idea how much study or analysis went into naming Dean King's Unbound: A True Story of War, Love, and Survival. It may, however, be one of the most intentionally titled books in some time.

Unbound focuses on the women who participated in the so-called "Long March" of the Chinese Red Army to escape the Nationalist Army in 1934 and 1935, one of history's epic feats. Of the 86,000 members of the Red First Army who embarked on a journey on foot of some 4,000 extremely arduous miles, 30 were women. Although less than 10,000 of those who began it survived the Long March, nearly all the women did.

The essential outline of the Long March is that in October 1934 the Red First Army's enclave in southeastern China was surrounded by the Nationalist Army. Enacting a plan "justifiable only by utter desperation," the First Army left the enclave, hoping to meet up with other Army groups and establish a new stronghold. Harassed by Nationalist forces and tribal warlords, the First Army ended up ultimately traversing 11 provinces over 12 months, including mountain ranges and uncharted bog land with areas akin to quicksand, before establishing a new base in northern China. King shows that simply acknowledging the women's participation in an event that assured the survival of the Red Army and helped bring about Mao Zedong's ascendancy to leadership in the Communist Party title merely scratches the surface. He goes beyond that to explore how it helped mark a remarkable change in Chinese culture and tradition.

As King notes at the beginning of the book, the title Unbound has both a literal and metaphorical meaning. Women had been welcomed to and active in the Communist Party, particularly in recruiting and propaganda roles. They saw the Party and what it promised as an alternative to servitude and destitution, a society where so-called child brides were little more than servants of the family to which they were sold or given. It was a society in which not only were women bound to the house and field, as a child their feet might well be bound in an effort to achieve the aesthetic ideal of a three-inch long foot.

Of necessity, much of the book covers ground more contemporaneously, although briefly, explored by Edgar Snow's classic 1937 book Red Star over China or more thoroughly examined in Harrison Salisbury's 1985 The Long March. Yet the full story of the sometimes ill-advised movements of the First Red Army and other units is necessary to not only place the women's efforts in context but to understand just how much they endured in seeking to break free from the strictures of traditional society. King follows the women as they help shepherd porters, stretcher teams and wounded across raging rivers, through mountains so high many would die from altitude sickness and in the face of battles and air strikes. They also continued recruitment efforts among local peasants and tribes along the march.

This does not mean the women were considered fully equal. It was not uncommon for some to be relegated to traditional female tasks and roles, such as cooking or laundry duties. Still, the 90,000-member Fourth Army included a regiment of 2,000 women and, of the women accompanying Mao and the First Army, two would go on to serve on the Party Central Committee, one would become a provincial party chief, and one would eventually be one of the so-called Eight Elders of China, a group consulted on major national decisions in post-Mao China. Others became prominent leaders in arts and industry organizations. Many also would ultimately fall victim to the the Cultural Revolution.

In researching the book, King trekked through what was perhaps the deadliest portion of the Long March, the Great Snowy Mountains, with an average elevation of 14,500 feet, in the Tibetan borderland and then into the uncharted high-altitude bogs. By this point in the Long March, some nine months in, only 20,000 of the original 86,000 members remained, as did 27 of the 30 women (the other three were alive but had been left behind for various reasons along the way). Although facing the same hardships and diseases as the men, the women suffered some additional personal tolls.

Several women, including Mao's third wife, were or became pregnant on the trip. There was, however, no way to care for infants, particularly given the type of terrain the Long March was covering. As a result, half a dozen children born along the route had to be left with peasant families or in abandoned villages with the remote hope someone would discover and care for them. For example, on the day she was born, Mao's daughter was left in the care of an elderly blind woman, the only person who had not fled the village in which she lived. There was also the inverse. The lack of consistent food and dietary essentials, as well as the physical difficulty of the journey, meant some women suffered amenorrhea, the cessation of menstrual periods. In fact, some of them would believe that the trek across the Snowy Mountains triggered premature menopause, rendering them infertile.

Even if you strip away the mythology and propaganda since built around it, the Long March was extraordinary. Unbound is a worthy look at how a small core of extraordinary women on it were also engaged in an equally important and difficult struggle against cultural traditions.

(Originally posted at A Progressive on the Prairie.)
  PrairieProgressive | Jul 19, 2010 |
Awesome book ( )
  gwbranecky | Jul 18, 2010 |
When the Chinese Nationalists threatened to destroy the Communist forces in 1934, the Communists marched in several armies almos at 4000 miles. A force that began as 86,000 strong ended the march with under 10,000 left alive.

Unbound tells the story of 30 women, almost all of whom survived the entire march. Their stories personalize what was an incredible story of privation, death, and courage.

Americans have an allergy to almost anything about Communism. But this is a really worthwhile tale to read. Communists, like anyone else, are not all evil. So many became Communists because it promised equality to all. Certainly the life of a Chinese peasant was, as Thomas Hobbes said, "nasty, brutish, and short." The title of this book, indeed, is a reminder of one of the worst injustices against women, the crippling and painful binding of feet so that they were no more than 3 inches long. A few of the women marchers had bound feet. It is no wonder, then, that women were attracted to the promise of a more equal society. The women who survived became most of the women in China who had any real power after the Communist takeover. Some lost power or were killed in the Cultural Revolution of the 60s.

It is a tale of incredible hardship. There was starvation, the sheer physical exertion of walking so far. Some of the women were stretcher bearers for the wounded and sick. The march passed over very high mountains that brought on freezing and altitude sickness. Hardest of all is that a few of the women had babies and had to abandon them with a few coins and the hope that someone kind would find them and take care of them. And, of course, they were under constant threat and sometimes reality of attack by the Nationalists, who were the more brutal of the two sides.

The author traveled the entire march route, and by doing so, is able to tell the story with real feeling. Judge the visceral impact of the story by this: I was reading the book while having dinner at a restaurant. When my entree arrived, I had moments of sheer astonishment that such a bounty of food existed. Yet the author is also an academic and is detached enough to explain things that did not reflect well on the Communists as well as those that do. The book is a highly recommended work of history. ( )
  reannon | Jun 26, 2010 |
Showing 4 of 4
Dean King, who spent years researching this book and interviewed scores of Chinese historians and march survivors, presents a fascinating view not only of the Long March itself, but also of the role of women in the early years of the Communist movement. The author offers a very graphic picture of the day-to-day hardships and struggle to survive. We see thou-sands of marchers die either in battle or from illness and fatigue. We meet the various, often hostile, people the marchers encountered en route. King, more than any other writer, recaptures the drama and flavor of this momentous time in Chinese history. King concludes his work by describing the lives of the heroic women who survived and who ironically lost their status as heroes during the horrors of the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Unbound is a must-read for any student of modern Chinese history and ranks with Edgar Snow's Red Star Over China (1939) as one of the classic narratives of the early days of the CCP.
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This book is dedicated to my third daughter, Willa (she has waited patiently), and many other females who have inspired me: Jessica, Betsey, Helen, Mary, Hazel, Grace, Nora, Amy, Liza, Sarah, Betsey, Liz, Anna, Ellie, Meg, Daphne, Daisy, Ann, Isabella, Olivia, Varena, Bonnie, Rachel, Frances, Hannah, Charlotte, Sally, Alix, Coco, Chloe, Priscilla, Jody, Mrs. Carver, and Mrs. McGrath.
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In the globally and even cosmically tumultuous year of 1910, little could have seemed less significant than the birth of a peasant girl in the far reaches of southeastern China.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0316167088, Hardcover)

In October 1934, the Chinese Communist Army found itself facing annihilation, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of Nationalist soldiers. Rather than surrender, 86,000 Communists embarked on an epic flight to safety. Only thirty were women. Their trek would eventually cover 4,000 miles over 370 days. Under enemy fire they crossed highland awamps, climbed Tibetan peaks, scrambled over chain bridges, and trudged through the sands of the western deserts. Fewer than 10,000 of them would survive, but remarkably all of the women would live to tell the tale.

Unbound is an amazing story of love, friendship, and survival written by a new master of adventure narrative.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:18 -0400)

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Draws on survivor testimonies to document the 1934-1935 flight of 86,000 ill-fated Chinese Communist Army soldiers who fled for their lives from Nationalist adversaries, a four-thousand-mile journey marked by harsh elements and chain bridges.

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