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A moving, even-handed account of three Chinese women who were part of the Communist vanguard in the 1930s.

The 85,000 soldiers who marched out of southern China on the Long March of 1934–35 were accompanied by 30 women. Lee (Chinese Literature/Univ. of Sydney) and Wiles (Translation/Univ. of Western Sydney) tell the story of three of these: He Zizhen (Mao’s second wife), Kan Keqing (the “Girl Commander”), and Wang Quanyuan (a peasant who left the husband she barely knew to take up the Communist cause). The march was especially difficult for pregnant women. He Zizhen (whom Mao had grown tired of and more or less abandoned) gave birth on the Long March and was made to leave her baby with an “opium-drenched hag living in inconceivable poverty” who was paid a few silver dollars and several bowls of opium to take the child—but at least He Zizhen’s labor was relatively uneventful. Zeng Yu, another woman on the march, went into labor in December and was carried on a stretcher until her porters bolted under fire, leaving her to face her fate alone. She then traveled by horseback until her water broke, at which point she resumed walking. Finally she collapsed and was carried by two other women (while a third cradled the protruding head of her baby, who, after being born later that night, was abandoned to a sure death). Lee and Wiles provide a rather grim portrait of life for women in Communist China in the years after the Long March, and they dryly note that immediately after the passage of the Marriage Law of 1950 (which guaranteed women equality in marriage, divorce, and property ownership), thousands of women filed for divorce. But Communist China was never a feminist utopia—if women were guaranteed legal equality, many men still harbored older attitudes about the role of the sexes.

This intimate look at women in Red China should not be missed.

Pub Date: June 1st, 2000
ISBN: 1-86448-569-8
Page count: 328pp
Publisher: Allen & Unwin/Trafalgar
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 2000