Author: Dean King
Publisher:  Little, Brown and Company
ISBN: 978-0-316-16708-6

Click Here To Purchase Unbound: A True Story of War, Love, and Survival

It is an intriguing idea to devote an entire book to celebrate the women who had taken part in the legendary Long March of the Chinese Communist Party members. In fact, it is an extremely effective idea: it allows the author to write much about the Long March without being blamed for belaboring on a worn out subject as it lets him, at the same time, bring in a harrowing tale of woes befalling a group of thirty women whose fate it was to be unbound, “both metaphorically and in some cases literally.” (p. xxiv)  

In effect, there is much the author can contribute to this topic. In his own words, besides meeting with people who have been closely involved in the trek, during five years: “..I have driven and walked the Long March route in many provinces, talked to Long March survivors and historians across China, and examined histories and accounts of the journey, some of which have emerged in the more open periods of the post-Mao era and others of wich had never been translated into English before.” (p. xxv)

The circumstances leading to this Long March harked back to the Revolution of 1911that ushered in the Republic of China while it, at the same time, fragmented the Chinese territory into as many warlords fiefdoms as there were provinces. It reduced the Chinese political and ideoplogical arena into two opposing factions: the Guo Min Tang, usually translated into Nationalist Party, and the Communist Party. From 1923, the two protagonists entered into a coalition whereby they jointly trained a National Revolutionary Army (NRA), with the ultimate aim of using it to unify China. From Canton, in 1926, the Commander of the NRA launched the Northern Expedition against the warlords in view of the reuninification.

The Expedition was exceedingly successful: in less than a year the NRA reached Shanghai and the reunification feat was well on its way. The commander of the NRA who was a Guo Min Dang member had a second thought: if success has been this easy, why the coalition with the Communists?

A thorough purge of Communist members from the NRA was effected in Shanghai in 1927. At least 12000 persons were executed and those who escaped the massacre regrouped in the rural south of China, mainly in Jiangxi province, where they slowly rebuilt the party. From that time on, every now and then the NRA which had been rebaptized the Nationmalist Army under the GMD Commander tried to exterminate the Communists in their southern hideout at the same time as it continued –with apparently much less enthusiasm-- its reunification efforts against the warlords. In 1931, the situation became more complicated with the Japanese incursion into Manchuria and the creation of an autonomous kingdom called the Manchukuo under Japanese control. Still, instead of fighting against the invaders, the Nationalist Army kept trying to eradicate the Communists.

In 1934, it put a virtually unbreakable siege around the Communist bases. Here began the saga of the Communist army and communities which covered on foot a distance of four thousand miles in a single year. It has not been a walk for pleasure. If not harried by Nationalist troops and their American-made bombers,  they were hounded by local warlords fighters, many of them so mobile on horseback.  They “would cross southern China from est to west and then head north up the daunting Tibetan plateau.  In the remote forests of the south, on the ice-capped peaks of the west, and across the bitter swamps of the northwest, they marched at ablistering pace and fought when they had to. Bullets, fever, exposure, and starvation decimated their ranks, but they still carried on.” (p.xxiv)

I would not be surprised if this book will also be honored with some distinction as with some of the author’s previous publications, because this work is outstandingly well executed. The narration is clear and precise although dealing with a situation which could not be more complicated and more confusing. In effect, there was not one single marching army, but five different ones, coming out of all different places and, fortunately, converging toward the same target. With the help of detailed and neatly drawn maps, the readers easily follow each one army in its own trajectory.

The pictures give out not only views of the landscapes or features of the personalities but more of the mood of the times and of the places. The interviews with the survivors and the memoirs left by some marchers allowed the author to make his text so lively, penetrating and full with special and highy personal details.

 It is really fascinating to find prominent personalities, such as Mao Zedong, Liu Shaoqi, Zhu De, Zhou Enlai among others, who will be playing such crucial role in the government of  the People’s Republic of China in their unusual and trying environment, overburdened by heavy responsibilities, encountering overwhelming difficulties, on the verge of disasters, making decisions which sometimes were to be found way off the mark! Fortunately, the author did not leave out anecdotes concerning the amorous affairs of the marchers and their convoluted matrimonial arrangments.

Much has been written about the Long March although books especially dedicated to it alone do not exceed a handful. But none is as comprehensive, detailed and focused as this one. The author is to be commanded for concentrating his attention on what occurred principally to the chosen thirty women. He, nevertheless, did not leave out completely the other actors of this prodigious feat.  On the contrary. The emphasis was on the women, but other people found their place in the march and the part they played interacted harmoniously with the activities of the women.

We should also congratulate the author for making his book readily, maybe I should write readingly, available to the public at large by not using  jargon or by overburdening it with academic paraphernalia.

 Click Here To Purchase Unbound: A True Story of War, Love, and Survival