Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 20, 2009

Women of the Long March, by Lily Xiao Hong Lee & Sue Wiles, read by Stephanie Daniel #BookReview

women-of-the-long-marchI’m having a flirtation with non fiction audio books, and Women of the Long March was a new audio book at the library.  I knew very little about Mao Zedong’s Long March through China, and what I knew was dry history, nothing more.  This book brings the story to life, by revealing the hardships of three of the 30 women who joined the men on this march, and it’s quite rivetting.

china-the-long-marchAt home we have a copy of China the Long March by Anthony Lawrence, published in 1986 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the march. It’s a beautfiul book with glorious photos of the terrain the Communists covered but it’s long out of print (and selling for $100 or more, second-hand on Biblioz).  I had browsed through it a couple of times but never really engaged with it beyond understanding that the Communists, led by Mao Zedong, had tramped through huge swathes of China gathering support from the peasants while he was pursued by the Nationalists (Kuomintang), led by Chiang Kai-Shek.  These two opposing forces then collaborated to oust the Japanese invaders from 1937-1945 and then hostilities resumed, resulting in Chiang Kai-Shek’s exile in Taiwan and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China on the mainland  in 1949 under the Communists.  

Although he had been educated in Soviet Russia, Chiang had purged the Communists from the Kuomintang with the aim of unifying and modernising China, and he had defeated them in 1926.  The Communists then withdrew to rural collectives in the remote North West to muster support and engage in guerilla warfare – while Chiang made financial, educational and transport reforms in the areas under his control.  In 1934 he restored Confucian values (loyalty to family and country) as a way of confronting Communist values, (loyalty to family and the party) but since the peasants of rural China still lived in hopeless gruelling poverty because landlords and taxes exploited them mercilessly, they were more attracted by Mao’s philosophy of land reforms.  Mao and his followers gained substantial support on the Long March because in areas they controlled they established ‘soviets’, and redistributed land and harvests according to collectivist principles. 

long-march-mapThere were actually several Long Marches led by competing interests, which you can see from the Wikipedia map at left.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long_march ).  Women of the Long March covers the experience of three women in the First Front Army, on their march which began in 1935 and ended almost a year later after when they had covered a distance of about 13000 km, or the distance from north to south Australia and back again.  They travelled through a bitter winter, tramped through freezing swamps and clambered up rocky terrain in straw shoes.  They had very little warm clothing, not enough to eat and they were often under attack.  The hardships the women encountered were extreme because they not only suffered the privations that the men did, they also had to deal with pregnancy (there was no birth control); they had to abandon successive newborn children because their cries would have endangered the marchers; and some of them did it on feet that had been bound and therefore permanently deformed in infancy.  For some there was no choice about participating because they represented a risk to the leadership if caught by the enemy.  If captured, women on the Long March were tortured to try to get strategic information and then killed.  Women such as Wang Quanyuan who were taken by Muslim anti-Communists in the North were raped and assigned as concubines, and if they escaped and made it back to safety they were rejected as collaborators.  30 women began the Long March and only 19 returned.

The authors have obviously researched this book thoroughly and they are ever-conscious that the historical record is compromised by Chinese propaganda on the one hand and the unreliability of the few Western journalists allowed into China on the other.  (A classic example of this is a reported argument between Mao and his wife He Zizhen in which he accused her of acting like a character in a Hollywood movie – as if Mao had the opportunity or desire to see such films at all! )  Her life was tragic: she had six children and those she did not have to abandon died.  She was horribly wounded by shrapnel in one encounter, and was exiled in Russia for many years, including some time spent in a mental institution.  Whether this was because she was really unbalanced or because Mao’s third wife manipulated it, is impossible to know.

It’s also interesting to learn about the propaganda methods used.  To ‘educate’ illiterate peasants there were many slogans, and easy-to-remember lists of ‘principles’ like the 8 Points of Attention which were a sort of code of conduct for the soldiers, exhorting them to respect the peasants and not to steal from them.  There is an apocryphal anecdote about one of the starving women finding a single pear, and how, when she reluctantly took it because it meant the difference between survival or death, then left the (probably illiterate) peasant a note about what she had done. 

Even though today we view events in China through the prism of the Cultural Revolution and other atrocities, there is no denying the sincerity of these idealistic and brave women.  They seem to have genuinely believed in the philosophy they fought for, and also thought that the male Communists believed in gender equity.  These dreams of gender equity were generally betrayed.  Even when they had good claims for leadership roles in the new government they were mostly denied them because their husbands feared accusations of nepotism.  Indeed, when the battles were over, they soon discovered that their common-law communist husbands tired of them just as quickly as capitalist men do, and one of them, Kang Keqing, was criticised during the Cultural Revolution and was lucky to survive.   Some suffered long periods of isolation and were abandoned by colleagues who were afraid to support them, and one of them only managed to have her status as a veteran of the Long March restored when Kang Keqing came to the area where she had been exiled and helped her out.

Listening to Women of the Long March as an audio book is probably not the best way to experience it.  I became confused by the names and have had to do a Google search to find out how to spell the ones I’ve referred to here.  I also found that by the time I got home to journal it, I had forgotten significant details.  I admit to skipping CD 9, the appendix, because by then I’d had enough.  Still, the narrator, Stephanie Daniel, made what might have been a dull book, seem quite compelling.

It is a real pity that the history of these stoic women has been so compromised by the Chinese deification of Mao that the truth of some issues can never be known, but this book does illuminate their lives to some extent and is well worth the effort.

Authors: Lily Xiao Hong Lee & Sue Wiles
Title: Women of the Long March
Narrator: Stephanie Daniel
Publisher: Bolinda Publishing (Audio Books)
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library


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