Read an Excerpt
• DRAIN THE POND TO CATCH THE FISH
I’m sending you to the Army my man,
You must see the reason why
The Revolution is for us.
I’m sending you to do or die.
Here’s a towel I've embroidered
With all my love to say:
Revolution for ever!
The Party you must not betray!
The song pierced the silence of Shi Village, which nestled at the foot of a hill covered in thick bamboo groves. It was mid–October, 1935, in Jiangxi Province, southern China. The autumn harvest was already in and the land surrounding the village was yellow with the stubble of rice stalks, but some fields stood as if wasted, with grass sprouting in the dried–out paddy, already turning brown. A few water buffalo were plodding home, only stopping when they came to their favorite place, the village pond, where they drank, ducks and geese swam, children bathed, women washed their clothes, and men asked one another about their day. Nearby stood the giant camphor tree, whose overhanging branches gave ample shelter from the rain and intense heat of the South.
Today the water buffalo had the pond to themselves, and only the village ancestor shrine opposite showed signs of life, but not with pious prayers and hypnotic chants offered to the ancestors: only the revolutionary song calling on young men to join the Red Army. Through the imposing entrance topped by grey–tiled eaves, boys carrying spears rushed in and out, looking solemn, as if they had been entrusted with the most important task of their lives. Two young women were putting a table and some benches outside the gate. As the song died away, more women came out, clutching shoes they were making out of cloth, calling their children, while others gathered up firewood from outside the gate, and went home to cook.
“Nobody is too tired to sing! Keep up the good work!” called Wang Quanyuan, the young woman who had just emerged from a house nearby. She had on a grey cotton jacket, the kind every soldier wore, tied with a rope round her waist, but its simplicity made her beauty stand out even more. She asked one woman to bring more benches, and then stopped one of the boys who was running by, and whispered something in his ear; nodding eagerly, he took to his heels.
Wang noticed the slogans on the white wall of the shrine, written in black ink but slightly washed out by the summer rain. “Down with the Landlords and Evil Gentry!” “Long Live the Communists!” “Long Live the Soviet!” “I mustn’t forget to tell them to repaint the slogans,” she murmured to herself, remembering that until four years ago she had no idea what Soviet was. Someone had told her that it was a foreign shop, and others said he was the brother of a famous Communist labor organizer. A warlord definitely thought so: he had posted a notice throughout the villages, offering a reward for the capture, dead or alive, of Mr. Soviet. In the local dialect, Soviet was pronounced Su–wei–ai, which meant “we,” so perhaps the Soviet was our government, she once thought. Now she was actually working for the youth and women's departments of the Soviet, a government of workers and peasants that had been set up by Mao and his Red Army in southern Jiangxi in 1931. Small as it was, with barely three million people in half a dozen counties, hemmed in on all sides by Chiang Kaishek's Nationalist troops, the Jiangxi Soviet had all the functions of a state. Wang was told that the Communist Party was working to turn the whole of China into a Soviet. That would be the day, Wang smiled, but then became very solemn. “Everything hangs on tonight,” she muttered to herself.
As darkness fell, the bell hanging from the camphor tree rang out. Four giant bamboo torches lit up the pond and the gate of the shrine hall. Women, and a few men, old and young, gathered with several hundred people from nearby villages, summoned by Wang’s Red Pioneers. She had also sent for half a dozen militiamen from the county Party headquarters; when they finally arrived, Wang stood up and delivered her speech:
“Sisters and brothers, grandfathers and grandmothers, the Red Army is at its most critical time now, with many wounded every day. But in a war, there is always winning and losing. If we stop fighting just because we have lost a few battles, our Revolution will never succeed and we will always be exploited by the rich. You are strong. Do you want to be trampled on for the rest of your lives? If not, join the Red Army now!”
There was no reply.
Wang nodded to the militiamen who were standing close by, and continued: “Don’t be afraid. We will win. Use your brain. This village has hundreds of poor people, and only one or two landlords. Aren’t we more powerful than them? All we need to do is to unite, but there is a traitor who does not want this to happen. He seems to care about you, telling you to keep your men at home, but if we all stay at home, our enemy will come, taking our land and raping our women. Is that what you want?”
“Of course not!” shouted the militiamen.
“Then let’s bring the traitor out.” Wang waved her hand. Two militiamen appeared from behind the shrine gate, each holding the arm of a man, followed by a third with a pistol in his hand. Silence fell and the villagers looked at each other speechless. The accused was none other than the Party secretary of their district, Mr. Liu. Suddenly, a Red Pioneer raised his arm, shouting, “Down with the traitor! Kill the traitor!”
“Tell me, what do you want done with him?” Wang asked several times.
“Kill him,” yelled a militiaman.
“Kill him now!” a chorus of voices followed.
Two shots at point–blank range and Liu fell to the ground. Wang announced grimly: “This will be the fate of anyone who dares to sabotage the Revolution.”
It was hard to believe, when I met Woman Wang, that she had ever done such things, or suffered more than I could bear to think about. She had started as the quintessential supporter of the Revolution. Poverty had made her family sell her into a marriage which she did not want; joining the Communists represented hope. Chosen as one of only 30 women to go with the 1st Army among 86,000 men, she survived and rose to head the Red Army’s only women’s regiment. A year later, she was captured, raped, and given to a Nationalist officer as a concubine—a “crime” for which she was denounced by the Party, remaining under a cloud for the next fifty years. Still, she remained loyal to the Party, which she regarded as dearer to her than her parents. I remember thinking to myself after reading her biography: if there was ever a true Communist faithful, it must be Wang.
What better way to start my journey than by talking to her? I set out in October 2004, exactly seventy years after the Chinese Communist Party and the 1st Army abandoned their base in Jiangxi and began their escape from the Nationalists—the Long March as it became known. From Beijing I took the train, eighteen hours due south, and then after two hours more by bus through green-clad mountains and hills I found myself in Taihe in southern Jiangxi. It was a big town, with a grand new avenue, beautifully surfaced and complete with modern lighting—not many buildings yet, but looking for twenty–first–century growth. I wondered if I would have trouble finding Wang—after all, Taihe had a population of half a million people and all I had was her biography, which I had been rereading on the train. I took a rickshaw from the long–distance bus stop and mentioned Wang’s name hesitantly; I was relieved when the driver told me to take it easy. “What a woman! How many went on the Long March from Jiangxi? Eighty thousand? I guess not many of them are left today. Three in this town, and forty in Jiangxi. If you come next year, they will probably all be gone.” He took me down the big avenue and then into the old quarter. Dusty, narrow, busy, and crowded, just like the photographs of provincial towns in the 1930s. I was dropped off next to a dumpling shop with a queue of hungry customers. Behind it was Wang's courtyard, shaded by a pomegranate tree with its dark red fruit just bursting open. Beneath it, there she sat, looking gentle, serene, and elegant, belying her 91 years, and without a trace of the toughness of the Red Army commander.
She was not surprised to see me, a complete stranger, walking in off the street and wanting to find out about her past. My copy of her biography was a good enough introduction. She asked me to sit down and called, “Another visitor from Beijing!” A middle–aged woman came out. From what I had read, I assumed she was her adopted daughter—Wang was unable to conceive after the Long March. “You shouldn’t ask too many questions, she gets too excited. Last week we had a journalist from Beijing, and she talked so much, it made her ill. Anyway, it is all in there,” she said, referring to the book on my lap. Wang cut her short. “They think talking is a waste of breath, but they don’t understand. So many men and women died for the good life we live today and I want people to remember that.” She sent her daughter back inside for another biography, written by a local Party historian. “You might not have come across it.”
The daughter came out with the book and a tray of sliced watermelon. “Eat now, read later. I will answer all your questions. It will take you a few days—you see, unfortunately, I have had such a long life.” She took a mouthful of the melon, and smiled, as if it was the rarest fruit in the world and she was tasting it for the first time. Clearly she was keen to talk. She was quick and warm, and over the next three days she opened up like the pomegranates—I heard of the idealism, the hope, the suffering, the sacrifice, the harshness, and the courage of her life, like those of so many others. But Wang also painted in some of the shadows of her history, things that were almost against her nature to reveal, and most certainly at odds with the glorious stories of the Long March that I had grown up with.
Wang was born in 1913 in Lufu Village, not far from where she lives now. Her family barely had enough rice for six months after the landlord took his exorbitant rent. From the age of 5, she roamed the mountains with her sister to collect wild plants to eat. By the time she was 11, her parents found her a husband, who offered to pay off the family debt of 200 kilos of rice. She was in the dark about the arrangement until the wedding day, when her mother dressed her in a bright red outfit, and put her on a palanquin sent by the groom. He was sixteen years older than Wang, slightly retarded, and with so many smallpox scars he was nicknamed Big Smallpox. The villagers said a flower had been planted on a cowpie. When Wang saw him, she fainted, but her mother said the rice was in the pot, and nothing could be done about it.
Her parents’ only request was that he would not consummate the marriage until Wang was 18. Meanwhile, she would work like a slave in his household. But he could not wait for seven years: he slept around and the wife of a blind fortune–teller bore him a son. Gossip spread around the village and Wang was so humiliated that she returned to her parents’ house, hoping they would pity her and annul the marriage. No, you must go back, her mother told her. “When you marry a chicken, live with a chicken; when you marry a dog, live with a dog.” It was fate.
When the Red Army marched into her village in the spring of 1930, she learned it was not fate. “Why do the landlords have so much land, while you have none?” a Red Army officer asked her and her family. “Why do they eat fat pork every day, while you don’t see one drop of oil for a whole year? Why do they wear silk while you are in rags? It isn’t fair! For every one of them, there are ten of us. If we unite, we are bound to win. What do you say? Join us! Join the Revolution!” She signed up on the spot, and her family received land, salt, rice, ham, and tools, all confiscated from the landlords.
She told everyone about the benefits of the Communist Revolution, citing herself and her family as examples. And she did so by using the most popular method in rural Jiangxi—folk songs. She set new words to the old tunes, not the usual love ballads but full of zeal for the Revolution. She was so good, she was given the nickname “Golden Throat.” This was one of her favorites:
If we save the mountain, we’ll have wood.
If we save the river, we’ll have fish to fry.
If we save the Revolution, we’ll have our own land.
If we save the Soviet, red flags will fly.
In December 1933, Wang had some unexpected news. Her devotion and success in work with women and young people brought her to Ruijin, the Red capital, as the people’s representative for the Second National Congress of the Soviet.
“Have you visited Ruijin?” Wang asked me expectantly. I said I was going to after seeing her.
“You should have gone there first. It was the capital! An old lady like me can wait. You know, we had a saying at the time: up north it is Beijing; down south it is Ruijin.”
She did concede later, although very reluctantly, that Ruijin could not compare with Beijing. It was a typical southern town with good feng shui. The curving Mian River embraced it, and an undulating mountain range shielded it from the west, with a white pagoda overlooking it from the hill to the east. No bigger than an average county town, its four gates and four roads leading in from them crossed at the center, and 7,000 people lived within its walls. Because Chiang had imposed an economic blockade with his Fifth Campaign, many shops had their shutters down. Local products such as bamboo, paper, nuts, and dried vegetables from the mountains could not be shipped out; salt, oil, gasoline, cloth, and other daily necessities could not come in. Those who broke the embargo were liable to punishment or even execution. The Nationalists reinforced the blockade with a Special Movement Corps, whose members had every incentive to catch the offenders—they were rewarded with 50 percent of whatever they confiscated.
Wherever there were profits, there were smugglers: salt, medicine, gunpowder, and other much-needed items were transported, hidden in coffins, at the bottom of manure baskets, and inside bamboo poles. They even managed to bring in an X–ray machine in a coffin, with three dozen men and women pretending to be grieving relatives, crying their eyes out. The warlord of Guangdong also defied the blockade by secretly buying tungsten that was found in abundance within the Soviet. But it was like throwing a cup of water onto flaming firewood. Ruijin was feeling the pinch. Salt was the scarcest commodity; Wang did not taste salt for months, and out of sheer desperation she and her friends scraped the white deposits from the walls of toilets, and even from graveyards, and boiled them down.