Even if you strip away the mythology and propaganda since built around it, the Long March of the Chinese Red Army to escape the Nationalist Army in 1934 and 1935 is an epic feat. In fact, even the historical significance — the survival of the Red Army and Mao Zedong's ascendancy to leadership in the Communist Party — does little more than suggest just how arduous the struggle was.
Largely buried in tales of the event is that of the 86,000 members of the Red First Army who embarked on the journey in October 1934, 30 were women. In fact, although less than 10,000 of those 86,000 survived the Long March, nearly all the women did. It is their role in the Long March on which Dean King focuses in Unbound: A True Story of War, Love, and Survival.
The basic story of the Long March is straightforward. In October 1934, the Red First Army's enclave in southeastern China was surrounded by the Nationalist Army. Enacting a plan "justifiable only by utter desperation," the First Army left the enclave, hoping to meet up with other Army groups and establish a new stronghold. Harassed by Nationalist forces and tribal warlords, the First Army ended up ultimately traversing 11 provinces over 12 months, including mountain ranges and uncharted bog land with areas akin to quicksand, before establishing a new base in northern China. King delves into the basic story to explore not only the roles these women played in the Long March but how they personified changes in Chinese culture and tradition.
In this regard, Unbound is quite intentionally titled. As King notes at the beginning of the book, the title has both a literal and metaphorical meaning. Women had been welcomed and active in the Communist Party, particularly in recruiting and propaganda roles. They saw the Party and what it promised as an alternative to servitude and destitution, a society where so-called child brides were little more than servants of the family to which they were sold or given. It was a society in which not only were women bound to the house and field, as a child their feet might well be bound in an effort to achieve the aesthetic ideal of a three-inch long foot.