Unbound: A True Story of War, Love, and Survival

[20 April 2010]

By Dean King

Excerpted from Chapter 1: “A Flowering” (footnotes excluded) (courtesy Little, Brown & Company, March 2010).

In the globally and even cosmically tumultuous year of 1910, little could have seemed less significant than the birth of a peasant girl in the far reaches of southeastern China. That year, the Great Fire wiped out a vast swath of northwestern U.S. woodlands, the flooding Seine swamped the Paris Métro, and the earth passed through the tail of Halley’s comet. Mexico erupted in revolution, Japan annexed Korea, and Egypt’s first native prime minister was assassinated. So disturbing was the changing world that the Vatican demanded that its new priests renounce Modernism.

But the most stunning and epochal convulsion of all was unfolding in China, the world’s oldest continuous civilization, where the Qing dynasty had entered its death throes. Two thousand years of dynastic rule in Asia’s largest and most populous nation were crashing onto the shores of the twentieth century, launching what was to be four decades of upheaval and civil war and, on the tide of world wars, reshaping the global order.

Only months prior to the fall of the last Chinese dynasty, the peasant girl was born in the obscure village of Yeping to the Wei family. In traditional China, the birth of a boy was called jieguo, “the bearing of fruit,” and was considered a boon to the family. The birth of a girl was called kaihua, “a flowering” — though visually pleasing, ultimately unrewarding because only her eventual in-laws would prosper from her labor and offspring.

The little girl had entered a world of rigid gender and birthorder politics, a realm of oppressive spirits, ancestral ghosts, and Daoist, Confucian, Buddhist, and cultural traditions that would weigh on her like the blanket of bamboo smoke that hovered over a village house. She could quite possibly live her life within a one mile radius. Befitting her status as a daughter in traditional China, the little Wei girl in Yeping was given no name. But she was lucky in two regards: First, some peasants too poor to feed their families drowned newborn daughters in their night soil buckets. Though destitute, this girl’s parents had let her live. Second, her family could not afford to bind her feet to produce the “three-inch lilies” that would make her an attractive bride but would also require crushing the bones at the end of her feet, bending her toes under to her heels, and securing them with strips of cloth. She did not have the luxury of being permanently deformed and housebound. She was needed in the fields.

Yeping would eventually find itself at the hub of Chinese Communism, but for now the sleepy village in southern Jiangxi province was a mountainous backwater so remote that no roads reached it from the north. Camphor trees here had growth rings of more than five hundred years, and change came slowly to the village. The isolated inhabitants — about forty families in all — spoke with a thick southern accent, frequently interjecting “ha,” “sa,” and “bo” to emphasize their points, while also using expressions dating back to ancient Chinese.

The local dialect differed greatly not only from the predominant Mandarin but also from that of villages only a few miles away. In rural Jiangxi, an archipelago of remote homesteads and villages each steeped in the past and its own superstitions, the women worshipped the white-robed female bodhisattva Guan Yin, who brought them sons and saved them from both deadly fires and drowning. In each village, humble roadside stone shrines to the villagers’ own bearded earth deity brought protection from drought and famine. Villagers, mostly tenant farmers, lived in mud-brick huts with dirt and pebble floors that turned liquid during spring’s subtropical rainfalls. Most of these huts had only two rooms: a kitchen and a bedroom, where the whole family slept.

Abundant rice — two or even three crops per year — was a blessing of the region and so central to life that in both Mandarin (the principal Chinese dialect) and Cantonese (the language of Guangdong), the term meaning “to eat,” chi fan, literally means “to eat cooked rice.” But the Wei family tasted little of its harvest. All of their rice crop went to the landlord. Instead, they ate the same small fibrous sweet potatoes that they fed to their pigs. The family cooked in large metal woks on a wood-burning mudbrick stove. They ate yam congee or pumpkin soup for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, at a wooden table with a drawer for bowls and chopsticks and benches on either side. Stacks of pumpkins occupied one corner of the kitchen, where ducks and chickens roamed, fouling the floor and necessitating constant sweeping.

Outside, the yard was thick with animal and human odors. Near the outhouse — a collection of boards around a hole with brick foot pads on either side — sat the pigsty with a breeding pair, whose sucklings were sold to the local butcher. The waste of both humans and beasts was collected in pits only a little farther away, to be held for use as fertilizer for the crops.

Around Yeping, crops grew year-round, but for the peasant farmers fall was the busiest time. After bringing in the rice, they harvested yams, which they peeled, cubed, and dried on rooftops or in communal courtyards. Pumpkins, some of which had been culled in summer while green and tasting like zucchini, also were harvested now, orange and sweet. After long workdays, villagers sat in bamboo chairs around the courtyard, where laundry dried on poles and naked children and rawboned dogs (a selection of the latter to end up on a spit come winter) produced a din among the prodigious flies. Children from the same clan ran in a pack, calling one another “brother” and “sister.”

Although the baby girl born to the Wei family in 1910 had her share of good luck, it only went so far. Six months after her birth, her mother died. Hundreds of miles to the north, in the great capital city of Beijing, as the Qing dynasty teetered, old and new powers clashed over the fate of the nation. At their height, the Qing, from Manchuria, had reshaped China, suppressing warlords, pushing into Tibet, and taking Taiwan from the Dutch. But their rule had been in a steady decline as China was rocked by the Opium Wars (1839–1842 and 1856–1860) and the loss of Hong Kong to Britain, by the bloody civil war known as the Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864), and by the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), which had cost it Taiwan. With the abdication of the last
emperor, a mere child, in 1912, the dynasty finally collapsed.

Sun Yatsen, a reformer and unifier later considered the father of modern China, emerged as the provisional president of the newly founded Republic of China. A visionary, Sun asserted that the country belonged to all its historic peoples, including the Hui (Chinese Sunni Muslims of Turkic descent), Man (Manchus), Meng (Mongols), and Zang (Tibetans), not just the predominant Han. His enlightened reign was all too brief, however. In 1912, a former Qing military commander pushed Sun aside, taking the presidency and declaring himself emperor, dealing democracy a mortal blow. When he died in 1916, China again plunged into chaos.

That same year , the girl in Yeping, now six, was sold by her father as a tongyangxi, or child bride, to a family in another village. This was not an uncommon practice. The husband-to-be might be much older or younger, perhaps an infant himself, in which case she was expected to raise him while serving in his parents’ household. Often the acquiring family had no son at all for the girl to marry, in which case she simply became a servant.

As the girl had grown older, though not that much larger, the villagers had begun to call her “Shorty.” When Shorty was told that she should prepare to depart for her new home, she surreptitiously collected stones and hid them in the bedroom. When two men came to get her the next day, she attacked them with her stockpile. After she had hurled all her rocks at them, she grabbed a sickle and swung it at them. One of them tugged the weapon out of her small hands and hoisted her over his shoulder like a sack of rice. But Shorty was not finished. Furiously pounding the man’s backside, she clenched one of his ears in her teeth. The man dropped her, and the two men bolted without the girl they called a “pint-sized demon.”

Shorty’s respite was brief. Her family summoned an older cousin to come for her. In rural China, where children might just as easily eat or sleep in the homes of their aunts and uncles as in their own, cousins were like siblings, and she was fond of this one. He successfully coaxed her into letting him take her to her new home, and as unceremoniously as that, Shorty’s childhood was over.

Henceforth, she spent her days fetching water, chopping wood, doing laundry, and cooking. The tongyangxi was expected to make pig fodder and to collect the night soil and pig waste for the fertilizer pit. When Shorty made mistakes, her in-laws chastised or beat her and sometimes refused to feed her. Like millions of peasant girls across China, she did little but work. She was paid in welts and bruises across her small body and in near-ceaseless scorn.

A Radical Liberalization of Women

Following World War I, when the Treaty of Versailles transferred China’s Shandong Peninsula to its enemy Japan, the Chinese, who had contributed workers to assist the Allies in France, erupted in anger. On May 4, 1919, students demonstrated in Tiananmen Square and then began a strike, which spread around the country and took root particularly in Shanghai. Journalists, merchants, and workers also mobilized. Among the more radical voices to emerge from the turmoil of the so-called May Fourth Movement was that of a twenty-five-year-old Hunan student.

In his start-up weekly Xiang River Review,he proclaimed: “Today we must change our old attitudes… Question the unquestionable. Dare to do the unthinkable.” He favored the establishment of a democracy, but above all he could not tolerate a new government that preserved the old system, which virtually enslaved the common people. There could be, the student believed, no compromise with the forces that had for so long repressed China’s potential. “We are awakened!” he boldly declared. “The world is ours, the state is ours, society is ours!”  His name was Mao Zedong.

Image (partial) attribution (unknown)

Image (partial) attribution (unknown)

She had little to lose, and although she stood less than four and a half feet tall, the feisty girl with thick eyebrows and wide cheeks was unintimidated. She stepped forward and volunteered to be a soldier.

Two heavyweight reformers emerged from the turmoil: the Nationalist (Guomindang) Party, a moderate democratic socialist organization cofounded by Sun Yatsen, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), founded by Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu in 1921. (Mao Zedong attended the Party’s 1st congress in Shanghai in July of that year.) Modeled after and advised by its counterpart in the Soviet Union, the Party rose meteorically. By 1927, 60,000 Party members had organized millions of peasant farmers and urban laborers under the Red banner. Broken into myriad secret cells scattered throughout the vast country, it had become the largest Communist party in the world.

For a time, the Nationalists and Communists were allied against the regional warlords. After Western governments refused to support the alliance, the Nationalists used Soviet funding to establish a military academy in Guangzhou (then Canton), the capital of Guangdong province. They set up a soldier named Chiang Kaishek as principal of the school, whose mission it was to prepare soldiers for a campaign to unite China.

In the spring of 1925, Sun Yatsen died, and the uneasy partnership between the Nationalists and Communists imploded. Right-leaning Chiang Kaishek took command of the National Revolutionary Army and in 1927 united with rightist militias to attack their former allies, killing 5,000 labor organizers and Communists in Shanghai and initiating what became known as the White Terror. In poor rural Jiangxi, peasant farmers suspected of being Communist sympathizers were gunned down in their fields. Others, including pregnant women, were rounded up during the day and executed en masse at night. Many were beaten and tortured in order to get them to betray the hiding places of their comrades. According to one Jiangxi woman, “Some were stripped naked and burned at the stake.”

On August 1, 1927, Communist soldiers in Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi province, rose up against their former Nationalist allies and held the city for five days in what is considered the first battle of the Chinese Civil War. The Communists, under Zhou Enlai, He Long, Liu Bocheng, Lin Biao, and Zhu De, captured thousands of small arms and a vast quantity of ammunition before being driven out. A month later, Mao Zedong led the Autumn Harvest Uprising in Hunan. The rebellion, like other Communist outbreaks, was viciously suppressed, and the Communists fled from the cities, where they were subject to immediate execution.

The Sixth Chinese Communist Party Congress in 1928 was held in the safety of Moscow. At the congress, the Party embraced the enormous potential of peasant women in a society that had long oppressed and abused them. Echoing sentiments espoused by Mao earlier, delegates declared that it was of the “greatest importance to absorb… peasant women into… the revolutionary movement.” These women, the group recognized, were a core element of village economies, held sway in family life, and had a crucial influence on the peasant troops. In past movements, the delegates stated, peasant women had proven to be brave fighters. In this regard, history provided a legendary role model in Queen Mother Xin. The Shang dynasty warrior, wife of King Wu Ding, had led an army of 13,000 men, enormous in its day (thirteen centuries before the Christian Era), in defeating four hostile states attacking the Shang’s northwestern frontier. As a sign of her heroism, Xin had been buried with dozens of bronze-bladed daggeraxes with turquoise-inlaid handles.

Even before the Moscow gathering, the Chinese Communists had initiated a number of revolutionary practices regarding women. They had denounced arranged marriages, and they had condemned the practice of foot-binding. They had created real educational and leadership opportunities. To withstand the losses they had sustained in the White Terror, the Communists launched a wave of recruiting and reorganization.

In the fall of 1930, Red Army troops arrived in Shorty Wei’s village. They had already begun to transform her rural county of 230,000 residents, which, until now, had changed little since its founding in the third century. The Red Army’s brand of transformation was swift and shocking: They swept into a village, executing landlords (though most fled ahead of them), seizing their land, destroying deeds and boundary markers, and banning religion. They then redistributed what they had taken, including temple property, among the peasants. They set up schools to teach the peasants how to read, established peasant-led Party rule, and recruited the young and able, men and women, to help carry the revolution to the next village. It was a progressive and merciless, sometimes ferocious, radical reconception.

Shorty, still unmarried and nameless, joined a group of field hands to listen to what the Communist recruiters had to say. The only female in the audience, she liked what she heard, and even more, she liked the idea of escaping her in-laws’ house. She had little to lose, and although she stood less than four and a half feet tall, the feisty girl with thick eyebrows and wide cheeks was unintimidated. She stepped forward and volunteered to be a soldier.

Dean King is the author of the national bestseller Skeletons on the Zahara. He has written for many publications, including Men’s Journal, Esquire, Outside, New York Magazine, and The New York Times. He lives in Richmond, Virginia.

© Little, Brown & Company, 2010

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