CLIO TALKS BACK: Why Did Chinese Women join the Red Army?

University of Illinois Press
Book Cover: Choosing Revolution
Clio is fascinated by women who have joined revolutionary movements. Some, of course, sign up because they believe strongly in the principles of the movements. Others joined, as Helen Praeger Young’s interviews with twenty-two Chinese women who went over to the Red Army and participated in the 6000-mile Long March (1934-1936), because they had little to lose, because they were hungry and the army would feed them, because they wished to escape from servitude and abuse, because they sought literacy and further education. These women recognized, not only in retrospect, that the condition of women in Chinese society – even after the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty in 1911 – left much to be desired. The situation was especially grim for girls and women in the countryside.

Some might have heard that in the 1920s the Communist International had embarked on a campaign to recruit women. In November 1931 the First Congress of the Chinese Soviet Republic had drafted a Provisional Constitution that specifically addressed women’s emancipation as a goal:

“It is the purpose of the Soviet government of China to guarantee the thorough emancipation of women; it recognizes freedom of marriage and will put into operation various measures for the protection of women, to enable women gradually to attain the material basis required for their emancipation from the bondage of domestic work, and to give them the possibility of participating in the social, economic, political and cultural life of the entire society.”

But as China expert Helen Young discovered, others, hearing that the Red Army, headed by Mao Zedong, had reached their region, clamored aboard for more personal reasons. One woman recounted her family situation thus: “My own mother had twelve children: four dead, eight living. The three of us girls were sold, leaving five. Four of my brothers were sold abroad in Southeast Asia. Finally, there was only one younger brother left. In the old society, we called it ‘selling baby pigs.’ There was no alternative. You bore one child, gave it away, and bore another.” Another responded: “Why did I join the army? To go find food to eat. There was no food at home.” A third also indicated that “There was no food at home. When you join the army, you have food to eat and clothes to wear.” In sum, these women – who were very young at the time – really had nothing to lose. They were more adventurous than those that stayed behind.

Young summarizes the situation this way: “The urgency that impelled the women to join the revolution rose directly from their being women. They expected even greater changes in the way they would live their lives than the men did. . . . As part of the communist revolution, they were no longer just the property of the men in their families; they demonstrated their independence by cutting their hair and thus cutting the symbol of marital status. The army paid off the families they ran away from, sheltered them from abusive families, gave them jobs that took them outside the prescribed confines of their homes, and taught them to read and write. The appeal of belonging to the revolution was powerful to a woman who had been sold into child servitude, prevented from going to school, or physically abused, and offered her a way to avoid being married into a strange family, or living the half-life of an unmarried servant in her ‘in-law’ family. . . . The revolution drew them into an exciting new life, a safer and more interesting place in society, and granted them a sense of belonging and a patriotic purpose.”

Source: Helen Praeger Young, “Why We Joined the Revolution: Voices of Chinese Women Soldiers,” in Women and War in the Twentieth Century, ed. Nicole Dombrowski (New York: Garland, 1999), pp. 92-111.
See also: Helen Praeger Young, Choosing Revolution: Chinese Women Soldiers on the Long March (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001).