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.
Life as a woman in China was a constant imprisonment or worse. Revolution meant jailbreak.