Seventy-five years ago this May, the Chinese Red First Army crossed the Golden Sands River in western China and headed north. The Reds had set out six months earlier from their besieged stronghold in southeast China, where the Nationalist Army of Chiang Kaishek had surrounded them and relentlessly bombarded them from the sky.
Little did they know when they set out under cover of darkness on an October night in 1934 that they had embarked on an epic journey; in fact, one of the most arduous military marches ever. At first, they called their expedition the dabanjia, "house moving," because they intended to set up a new base nearby. They took everything with them, including printing presses, an x-ray machine, and chests of silver dollars. Six weeks later, pinned down by the Nationalists, they abandoned it all.
Three thousand miles down the road, in Sichuan Province, in May 1935, First Army commander Zhu De declared the journey the "unstoppable Long March." They still had another thousand miles to go.
The Long March is best known for the fact that during it Mao Zedong rose to power within the Communist Party. Much less known is the story of the 30 women who were part of the army of 86,000 men, the story told in my new book Unbound.
Together these men and women crossed southern China from east to west and western China from south to north. They forded dozens of large rivers and traversed hundreds of mountains large and small, going 4,000 miles on foot in one year — all while fighting battles, hunger, disease, and exposure along the way. For the women, there was a special set of problems to deal with. Several gave birth to babies on the Long March and had to leave them behind. Others suffered from menstrual problems and eventually sterility after traveling through the frigid Snowy Mountains. Nonetheless, they carried on.
Curiously enough, the history of the Long March has been longest and best told by Americans, starting with Saturday Evening Post correspondent Edgar Snow, who in 1936 visited Shaanxi Province, where the Long March finally concluded and the Communists established a new home base. Snow interviewed Mao and played tennis and cards with the Red leaders. He recounted the remarkable story of the Long March in a chapter and a half of his now-classic account, Red Star Over China.
His wife, Helen Foster Snow, soon followed him to Shaanxi and added details in her book, Inside Red China. These two books not only told America about the Chinese Communists, they also were translated into Chinese and became the standard Communist history of the day.
Inspired by Edgar Snow's book, New York Times correspondent Harrison Salisbury wrote the definitive account of the Long March in 1985. "No event in this century has so captured the world's imagination and so profoundly affected its future," he wrote.
Stanford scholar Helen Praeger Young interviewed the women in the late 1980s, setting down an extensive record of the women in her book Choosing Revolution. Telling the story of the Long March through the eyes of the women, Unbound builds on all of these accounts while benefiting from new research.
To help me tell the story, I took two research trips to China. In July of 2009, I trekked in the Snowy Mountains of northwest Sichuan Province, over a 14,700-foot pass on Dagushan ("shan" meaning mountain), the highest point reached on the Long March. I was led there by the British expat and author Ed Jocelyn, who with his friend and co-author Andy McEwen, ushered in a new era of accuracy in Long March historiography by retracing the entire Long March route in 2002-2003 on foot. Like the First Army, it took them a year.
On the day that my crew and I reached Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, to begin our research journey, Jocelyn, who is now an outfitter and has logged more Chinese miles than Marco Polo, called a press conference with largest newspaper in Sichuan. They ran our photograph and declared us the "Seven Friendly Foreigners." Jocelyn flashed the article like a brass badge at police checks on our three-day drive to the trailhead. Officials who were inclined to stop us and send us back let us pass right on through.
Prior to that, in 2006, I had traveled to Jiangxi Province, the site of the original soviet base, to interview Wang Quanyuan, then 93 and the last surviving woman of the Long March who could still tell her story. At the age of 11, Wang had been betrothed to a 27-year-old man. No surprise then that she set off with the Communists when they came through preaching peasant power and women's liberation, including the banning of arranged marriages.
For five hours over two days, Wang told me her emotional story. Wang died last year at the age of 96. As far as I know, I was the last person to interview her. When talking about how much she suffered, she said, "Ten days would not be enough for me to recount the story of my sufferings!"
The women's sufferings, however, were not for naught. Two would go on to serve on the Central Committee, one would become a provincial party chief, and one would be named one of the Eight Elders of China, a revered group consulted on major national decisions. Others would be prominent leaders in the arts, in industry, and in the fight for women's and children's rights in China.
I hope you find their story in Unbound as moving as I have.