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Unbound: A True Story of War, Love, and Survival Hardcover – March 24, 2010
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In 1934, following threats by the Chinese Nationalists to destroy their village in remote southeastern China, 30 women fled with Mao Tse-tung’s Red Army. They were not only fleeing certain destruction but the social restrictions of an ancient society that relegated women to menial lives of servitude, poverty, arranged marriage, and bound feet and life prospects. In what became known as the Long March, the army and the women trekked 4,000 miles in one year to forge resistance to Chiang Kai-shek’s repressive regime and to find new lives for themselves. Among them were a woman from a distinguished family that was friendly to Mao and another young woman, the daughter of a fisherman, who was given away to pay off debts. The women recall romantic attachments, political awakenings, and service in the army and later in Communist politics. King (Skeletons on the Zahara, 2004) spent five years retracing their trek and interviewing survivors and historians to offer a very human account of an event that has loomed large in Chinese history. Maps and photographs enhance the chronicling of this extraordinary story. --Vanessa Bush
"King spent five years traveling the length of the Long March, interviewing those women still alive to tell their tales. Theirs are stories of courage, remarkable not only because of the physical and psychological rigors of their journey, but also because of their determination... China has always been a mysterious and secretive empire, but Unbound peels back the curtain to reveal a story of strength and survival." (Bookpage John T. Slania)
"Fascinating....King, the best-selling author of Skeletons on the Zahara, has done brilliant work bringing the march to life with a plethora of vivid, well-researched details...Unbound is an authoritative account of the Long March, but its evocations of the marchers' experiences will linger long after the historical details slip from readers' memories." (The Richmond Times-Dispatch Doug Childers)
"Unbound recounts the amazing journey that 30 women and 86,000 men took in an effort to escape Chaing Kai-shek's advancing soldiers...Threading the narratives of the women's individual stories, women's place in China at the time, and the progress of the March with an overall picture of modern Chinese history, King gives readers a unique look at a turning point for [China]. (The Houston Press Olivia Flores Alvarez)
"Dean King's book is deeply researched, drawing from first-person accounts of survivors, Chinese historians and a range of historical scholarship, much of it never before translated into English...Never idealizing the story of the soldiers, Unbound renders, with thrilling precision, their fear and uncertainty." (The New Haven Advocate Nora Nahid Khan)
"A terrific feminist story and a significant document of this incredible human feat." (Kirkus Reviews)
"Unbound is a relentless, gripping story of superhuman endurance, of a refusal to accept defeat...King's book is an exhaustive and excellent study of these women and their hard road to equality and freedom...These women, whose blood and sweat helped build a modern nation, truly walked the walk." (Fredericksburg.com Howard Owen)
"King gets to the heart of one of history's greatest adventures. He captures the blood, guts and occasional glory of the Chinese Revolution. This is a remarkable tale, by turns thrilling, inspiring and heartbreaking."
(co-author of The Long March Ed Jocelyn)
"From his multi-faceted title, Unbound, to the final paragraph, Dean King has produced a highly readable, alive and touching story of a remarkable journey in China in the 1930s. Focusing on women who were on the Long March with the Red Army, the author brings alive the personalities and experiences of those who marched a distance similar to crossing the US from San Francisco to New York and back. The women carried the wounded from battles and skirmishes, fought, climbed, scrambled up and waded through the diverse terrain, sometimes pregnant and often under enemy fire. Unbound will appeal to every reader who likes history that is exciting, accessible and full of the stories of people who perform extraordinary acts of heroism and endurance. How wonderful that this bit of Chinese history is brought to us in such a riveting and personal way." (author of Choosing Revolution: Chinese Women on the Long March Helen Praeger Young)
"King's book differs from earlier works on this subject in that it does not try to include too many historical details but concentrates on telling the story. He has succeeded in given just enough background information to provide a genuine and moving account of the women who went on the Long March. His story-telling skill coupled with a vivid, flowing style makes the reading of this book an enjoyable experience." (co-author of Women of the Long March Lily Xiao Hong Lee)
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Dean King brings his usual direct, readable style to this book. I highly recommend Unbound to anyone who enjoys history that is both clear and entertaining.
King focuses on Chinese women during one of the country's victorious events before Japanese invasion would escalate by 1937. But before that would eventually occur, Chinese women were recruited into the ranks of Mao's Red Army and drudged through rugged mountainous terrain and defiant harsh climates with little or no basic conveniences and merely their bare feet. King sets the stage of the conflict by providing brief background of the origins of the so-called falling out between the Nationalists and Communists and the reasoning behind having women become a part of the Red Army that involved the potential for peasant women; they have long since been oppressed and abused, an essential part of village economic family life, and influential on peasant troops that were crucial elements that date back to the Shang dynasty with King Wu Ding and his wife Queen Mother Xin (9). But it is the understanding that the Communist condemned ancient practices and traditions, such as foot binding, arranged marriages, and rather condoned education and leadership that attracted these women to Mao's cause. These factors would be fitting because all the women had been a part of the Party or Youth League members with the youngest being 19 years old who sought freedom and liberation. For most of these women such as Li Xiaoxia who was not married, this was a calling. These women were daughters, wives, and mothers who had children and brought them along but would later abandon or leave them behind with family members be it grandparents or cousins in the village emphasizing a communal effect (87). Or even the extreme cases, such as Liao Siguang's story where she was seven months pregnant and went into labor two months into the March, and would be faced with this dilemma.
The book is an informative account of an event that many may not have been aware of or have known little about. As a whole, one may observe that it is not a narrative that deeply emphasizes or magnifies the loss and casualties but to acknowledge the main premise, women fighting for a cause and sharing their experiences and stories, which King does by putting a human face and voice to Chinese and women's history.
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.
Most recent customer reviews
Unbound is not for the faint hearted and if there is any love in this book it is for the cause and country.Read more