Journalist King (Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival, 2004, etc.) follows the 30 remarkable women who endured the Red Army’s legendary Long March.
The word “unbound” in the title reflects the radical communist message espoused by early leaders like Mao Zedong that women long suppressed in Chinese society—their feet broken and bound, married off as children, reduced to lives as chattel and servants—had important roles as soldiers and reformers in the new revolutionary movement. The Communists effectively infiltrated the peasant villages with their message, and girls leaped at the chance to flee their blunted status. When Mao masterminded the movement of the hugely unwieldy 86,000-man guerrilla army from its encirclement by the Nationalists in Jiangxi in October 1934, 30 of the strongest women—some teenagers—were selected to accompany the men. Their job was largely to care for the convalescents in the mobile hospital unit. King traces their yearlong trek from Ruijin, across southwestern China, then northward, within the First Army, which was headed by Mao and later splintered into other units such as the Fourth Army, headed by the renegade Zhang Guotao. Eventually the armies converged in Sichuan in June 1935. After nearly 4,000 miles, decimated by disease, lack of adequate food, exposure and attrition, many of the group perished. Some of the women had to give birth along the way, then abandon their children to peasant families. The terrain was unbelievably harsh, and they faced Nationalist and Tibetan skirmishes along the way. King pursues the sad irony of these women’s fates through the Cultural Revolution, when many of the early heroines—whom he depicts in photos and mini-biographies—were persecuted and destroyed.
A terrific feminist story and a significant document of this incredible human feat.