Apr/May 1999 Book Reviews

Women of the Long March

Lily Xiao Hong Lee and Sue Wiles
Allen and Unwin, 1999 308pp
ISBN: 1 86448 569 8

reviewed by Ann Skea

In the usual way of history, especially Chinese history, the people who are remembered are those who achieved power and prominence. Others, who shared part of their journey to the top, remain forgotten or (especially if they threaten the official history) are expunged from the accounts. This, up to now, has been the fate of most of the thirty young women who walked with the leaders of the Communist Red Army on the Long March.

Some of these women, like Kang Keqing ('The Red Amazon' or 'The Girl Commander') eventually held important positions in the People's Republic of China. Others, like Wang Quanyuan fought for years to be accepted back into the Communist Party. And some, like He Zizhen, second wife of Mao Zedong, went back to living in obscurity.

Lee and Wiles tell the remarkable stories of these three women, looking at three time periods of their lives: the Long March itself; a decade after its completion, up to the time when the revolution was almost over; and the period from 1949 to the present.

The authors are very familiar with Chinese history and politics, and well aware of the nuances of Chinese culture and custom which might influence the interpretation of the documents and commentaries which were available to them. They warn, for example, against taking the women's own comments at face value, because of the particular political climate in which they were made and because of the strong cultural reluctance to display emotion.

They are balanced, too, in their assessment of the remarkable emancipation of Chinese women this century, yet their continuing struggle for position in a powerful male-dominated hierarchy which has centuries of traditional cultural beliefs and values to support it.

The Long March began in Ruijin, in Jianxi Province, China, in the winter of 1935. Men and women of the Communist Red Army left Ruijin in October: the survivors (only 4,000 of the 60,000 who set out) reached Yan'an, Shanxi Province just over a year later. They walked some 13,000 kilometres (the distance from London across Europe and Russia, to the Bering Sea; or from the extreme south to the far north of Australia and back, twice), often at a punishing pace in order to avoiding capture by the Kuomintang (KMT), and they were frequently under air and ground attack. They crossed freezing rivers and mountains, the Great Snowy Mountain range on the Tibetan border and, finally, spent seven days crossing the treacherous, swampy Grass Lands, where "there was not even enough room to lie down on the sodden grass". Thirty women began this march with the 1st Front Army: nineteen completed it.

Of the three women whose lives Lee and Wiles follow, He Zizhen's story is perhaps the saddest. She came from a peasant family but after joining the Communist Youth League she rose to local importance in the Party. She was seventeen when she met and married Mao Zedong. Mao divorced his first wife, Yang Kaihui (by whom he had three sons), to marry her and she was pregnant when she began the Long March with him.

At least three other women were pregnant when the they left Ruijin, but their relationships with the Communist leaders made it too dangerous for them to be left behind. All of these women gave birth during the march, sometimes in horrific circumstances, and all were obliged to leave their newborn babies behind, hoping that strangers would find and care for them. For He Zizhen, this was the second child she had to leave and, of her other four children, three died and one was brought up in Mao's extended family. It is possible that these losses caused the mental disturbance she was later widely believed to suffer. But it is also possible that Mao's powerful third wife, Jiang Qing arranged for her extended exile in Russia and her incarceration in a sanatorium. He Zizhen spent her last years in relative obscurity in China and died in Shanghai in 1984.

Wang Quanyuan was also of peasant origin. She joined the Communist Youth League and left an arranged marriage when her husband tried to stop her doing Communist work. She worked her way up in the Youth League and was admitted to the Party when she was twenty-one. She was one of the few women chosen to join the Long March who were not wives of the leaders. Her capture by Moslem anti-communists towards the end of the march was disastrous for her, automatically discrediting her with the Party. It took her years of hard work and a lucky meeting with Kang Keqing before she was reinstated. She is believed to be still living in Beijing.

Kang Keqing, wife of Zhu De, was also peasant born. She, like many other young women, joined the Communists to avoid an arranged marriage. She taught herself to read and to shoot, and she was a very successful soldier, although she never achieved her ambition of becoming a Commander in the Red Army. Eventually, she held powerful positions in the Women's Council and the All-China Women's Federation. During the Cultural Revolution she was severely criticised, but she was a survivor, and a successful one at that. She died in Beijing in 1992.

At the end of this book is a brief bibliography of each of the thirty women on the Long March. All these women lived through remarkable changes in China and their experiences, although unique in regard to the Long March, reflect those of many Chinese people - men and women.

Lee and Wiles have done an excellent job of documenting these women's lives as objectively as possible, and they make recent Chinese history, culture and politics accessible to anyone interested in China.


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