The ancient Chinese tradition of foot binding involved using cloth to tightly wrap a young girl’s feet so that they would fit into three-inch slippers, because a Chinese woman’s beauty and stature was measured by the tininess of her feet. The practice would crush the bones at the end of a girl’s feet so that her toes could be bent under her heels. But foot binding was permanently outlawed when Communists took control of China, a fact Dean King (Skeletons on the Zahara) mentions in Unbound because it is symbolic of how, in some small ways, Chinese women were liberated by the Communist revolution.
King’s book tells the story of the women who joined the Red Army—an action revolutionary in itself—and participated in a historic military maneuver that would eventually lead to the Communist takeover of China in 1949. The maneuver, known as the “Long March,” began in October 1934 when the Red Army, surrounded by Chinese Nationalist soldiers, staged a daring retreat that would cover more than 4,000 miles and last over a year. Communist leader Mao Zedong and Nationalist General Chiang Kai-shek are the men most often associated with the Long March. But King chooses to focus on the 30 women who took part in the journey. Among this diverse group was Ma Yixang, 11, a peasant girl sold by her family; Wang Xinlan, 10, who came from wealth; Jin “Ah Jin” Weiying, 30, a college-educated teacher who became active in the Chinese labor movement; and Zhou “Young Orchid” Shaolan, 17, a nurse who refused to be left behind when the army tried to send her home.
King spent five years traveling the length of the Long March, interviewing those women still alive to tell their tales. Theirs are stories of courage, remarkable not only because of the physical and psychological rigors of their journey, but also because of their determination and leadership in a country not known for granting equal rights to women. China has always been a mysterious and secretive empire, but Unbound peels back the curtain to reveal a story of strength and survival.
John T. Slania teaches journalism at Loyola University in Chicago.