Coming of age in the new China, I heard and read abundant stories about the 25,000 li Long March. Films, plays, and operas during the first two decades of the People’s Republic showed the heroic deeds performed by the Red Army soldiers as well as the bravery and tenacity they displayed in their fight against the Nationalist enemy, local despots and bandits, and in overcoming the unimaginable hardships on the march, especially when they crossed the grasslands and climbed over the snow mountains. Those are great stories, touching, inspiring, and educating. Yet, they sometimes seem so far away and unattainable.
Helen Young’s Choosing Revolution, nevertheless, presents to us a vivid and true to life description of the ongoing daily happenings during the Long March. Hers is the first book, as far as I know, to focus on the women soldiers that participated in this 6,000-mile long journey. As Young says in the Introduction, “the twenty-two women featured in this book represent a good spectrum of the female participants on the Long March.” These women’s narratives, each with her own experiences and each with her own personal perspective, reveal a richer, fuller, and more intimate picture of this segment of Chinese Communist history. The female Red Army soldiers tell about the tasks they undertook during the march alongside their male comrades, which included decoding telegrams, doing propaganda work on the goals and policies of the Communist Party, recruiting new soldiers, locating grain, shouldering packs and stretchers while trying to hire help (mostly for transport work), and caring for the sick and wounded. The women soldiers also describe things that occur in people’s lives wherever they are, such as how they got pregnant, delivered their babies, and what they had to do to dispose of their newborns.
Most of these women came from poor peasant families. When their natal or husband’s families deserted or abused them, joining the revolution and becoming a soldier in the Red Army was probably the only way for most of the women to survive, under the military and political circumstances of the time. As told by one of the women, she begged the Red Army to take her in. If the Army refused her, she would either have starved to death with nowhere to go when running away from her in-laws or been beaten to death if she stayed with the in-laws. The Communist Party and the Red Army not only fed and clothed these women, but also offered them treatment relatively equal to men. Living, working, and “growing up” in the Red Army environment, revolutionary ideas and ideals were instilled in their minds. We see how so many of them—tempered by hardships and adversities, both physical and mental, encountered during the march—turned from weak, helpless, and ignorant girls into strong, tough, and independent revolutionaries with a sustained goal in life. The youngest of the female Red Army soldiers, “Little Devil,” as she was called, tells us in her simple words, “When I saw that soldier with the bandage covering his head not long after I joined the Army, I was so frightened that I ran away from him. Now, sometimes, my own comrades were killed right beside me. I had to deal with the wounded and the dead every day, so I stopped being afraid.” Then she goes on to say, “I knew the reason we marched every day was because we were heading for a good place, but where that good place was, I didn’t know. I just walked with the Red Army, simple-mindedly. We were revolutionaries. To be a revolutionary is to go and look for a good place.” When she talked about how they crossed the grasslands and climbed over the snow mountains, she says, “I never had the feeling that we wouldn’t make it and I wasn’t scared. I knew the Red Army was going north to resist the Japanese.” Her feelings and state of mind reflected those of many.
We sense that embedded in the day-to-day life of the Communist-led Red Army, as well as in the behavior, interaction, and interrelations of the Long March participants is a “Long March culture.” (Perhaps we could call it a “Communist culture” in a broader sense as it extended beyond 1949.) This culture gradually took root in the women and shaped their way of thinking and conduct. It would be interesting to explore, understand, and analyze that culture, which is mainly reflected in the following relationships:
1. The relationship between the women and the Party/the Red Army: Participants in the Long March, male or female, lived and worked in the Red Army with all their daily necessities provided by the Party, or the “organization” as it was called in the revolutionary ranks. Most of them, especially the women, left their families seeking a new place, a new home. In the Army, life was still hard, the workload was heavy, and war was going on around them, the common goal they held bound them together and made them feel that they had come to a big revolutionary family. This tie between the “organization” and its members constitutes a different concept of family.
2. The relationships among the soldiers: On the one hand, there was the warmth and equality of comradeship among the soldiers, promoting mutual help and the spirit of sharing “weal or woe,” yet on the other hand, little is mentioned in the women’s narratives of any closer friends or more intimate relations (except that in some cases, an older “sister” or “aunt” gives some special care to a younger comrade, or a leading officer offers some personal guidance and concern for one of the subordinates). People on the march are all comrades-in-arms. It is comradeship or “friendship” in the revolutionary sense.
3. The relationship between the individual and the collective: Even though each of the interviewees tells her own individual tale, which is certainly different from that of any of the others, it gives the sense that each one is just an integral part of a whole, existing in the same larger context and against the same background. Each one makes up the total collective. Very often the collective looms up while the individual becomes somewhat invisible even when a narrator is talking about her experience. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish every single element that forms the collective entity. The self is merged into the communal. Self identity is important only when it contributes to the unity and good of the revolutionary identity. Along this line, personal needs and feelings naturally give way to those of a higher and nobler aspiration. It is, therefore, not surprising that the women in Young’s book talk very little of their personal feelings or things that happened in their own life such as divorce. They are used to suppressing or controlling their feelings and emotions, or perhaps we may say that in the course of time such suppression or control has been internalized.
For many of the girls and women, after joining the Party/the Red Army, they were reinstated as human beings, but women’s status within the Communist party and army hierarchy, which were still “male-dominated institutions,” as Young points out, remained subordinate, thus the invisibility of women soldiers on the Long March until Young’s book.
4. Relationships between mothers and children, and between husbands and wives: These relationships were treated according to the principle that priority should always go to the revolutionary cause, and they were evaluated by how they affected the performance of political and military tasks. Children had to be left behind before some women joined the Red Army, and newborns on the expedition had to be deserted. Union between husband and wife was often for the sake of revolutionary work and convenience. Again, this reflects a different concept of and attitude toward a person’s “small” family and family relations.
To these women who completed the 25,000 li Long March, their revolutionary tasks did not end. For some of them, the same tasks started before the Long March and for most of them, the same tasks continued after the Long March no matter where they were. They learned the term “25,000 li Long March” only some time after their long journey was over. Their revolutionary career is a long march in itself. As long as they live, no matter what adversities they come up against, their long march goes on.
Helen Young’s Choosing Revolution presents the extraordinary stories of ordinary women telling their ordinary lives. It depicts unimaginable and inconceivable situations and events, yet these situations and events actually took place. It celebrates the mundane yet heroic deeds the women performed day after day. This part of the Long March history, created by women participants, could not have been recorded without the author’s compassion for these women and her passion to write about their experiences. it would not have become known without her meticulous, ardent, and arduous efforts—getting the approval to write, reading and researching relevant materials, interviewing the women, and having their words deciphered, transcribed, and translated—to accomplish finally this marvelous work.