Bold Plum: with the Guerrillas in China's War against Japan
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Barbara Foley
Review of Hsiao Li Lindsay, Bold Plum: With the Guerrillas in China’Äôs War against Japan. Morrisville, NC: Lulu Press, 2007. 359 pp.

Books reviewed in the pages of Science and Society cannot ordinarily be termed ’Äúpage-turners,’Äù but Hsiao Li Lindsay’Äôs autobiographical Bold Plum is the exception that proves the rule. Composed in English mostly in 1947’Äîwhen Lindsay’Äôs memories of the wartime years were crystal-clear, but the heating up of the Cold War precluded publication of a narrative portraying Chinese Communists in a positive light’ÄîBold Plum was published in two different Chinese translations in 1975 and 1991. The English-language version appears now for the first time.
A movie could be made about Lindsay’Äôs life, at least through 1945. Born in 1916 to a fairly wealthy family in Shanxi Province’ÄîLindsay’Äôs father, a supporter of the 1911 Revolution, was an officer in the Chinese army’ÄîLindsay was from her youth onward a rebel against tradition. At the age of eighteen she fled from Taiyuan to Beijing in order to escape arrest for her anti-government political activism; during the Japanese occupation, she found herself at Beijing’Äôs Yenching University. There she fell in love with her economics instructor, Michael Lindsay (she adored the ’Äúshape of his nose’Äù!), an anti-fascist Briton of aristocratic descent who was secretly involved in supplying the Chinese Communist guerrillas with medicines, as well as with crucial assistance to their short-wave radio communication network. Hsiao Li and Michael were married in mid-1941; after Pearl Harbor they were forced to flee the city, departing through the university’Äôs East Gate ten minutes before the Japanese entered in pursuit through the West Gate.
The Lindsays spent the next three years evading capture by the Japanese, first in the mountains around Beijing and then further west, as Michael Lindsay became more fully involved in helping the guerillas fix and maintain their radio equipment. Aided by local peasants and red soldiers, the Lindsays’Äîat times in the company of other anti-fascist international refugees’Äîcrossed icy rivers barefoot and in rope-guided baskets; unable to travel by day, they often walked thirty or even forty miles a night over narrow mountain tracks. They witnessed the burning and bombing of pro-Communist villages, as well as the torture and murder of red partisans; a few times the Lindsays’Äô guides lost their lives as they stayed behind to fend off Japanese troops. While often staying in base areas for several weeks’Äîonce at a hospital set up by the Canadian doctor Norman Bethune’Äîthe Lindsays were continually on the move. Hsiao Li became pregnant; the most dramatic section of Bold Plum describes her several days’Äô hike up a perilously steep mountain track less than a month before her delivery.
With their baby Erica, the Lindsays finally made the 500-mile hike to Yenan (Yan’Äôan); there they lived in one of the famous caves and their second child, James, was born. Hsaio-Li taught English; Michael, who was commissioned Wireless Communications Advisor to the Eighteenth Group Army, played a major role in helping the Chinese Communist headquarters establish radio communication with the front-line troops and guerrillas and, when possible, with the British and the Americans. Michael subsequently founded the Xinhua News Agency. Zhu Te, Zhou En-Lai, Lin Biao, and Mao Zedong make appearances in this portion of the text; Hsiao-Li even dances with the Chairman and uses the occasion to pass along a criticism of the liaison officers working with the U.S. representatives. The memoir ends with the Lindsays’Äô departure from Yenan; a brief postscript and timeline map their less eventful later years in Great Britain, Australia, and the United States. Michael Lindsay’Äîwho inherited the title Lord Lindsay of Birker in 1952’Äîtaught Economics, International Relations, and Far Eastern Studies at a variety of universities. Hsaio Li’Äîwho had to work her way around racist immigration policies of both Australia and the United States’Äîwas primarily a homemaker (and also the first Asian to become a British peeress). He died in 1994 at the age of 84; in 2006, at the age of 90, she returned to live in China.
Narrated in the straightforward and public mode of the memoir’Äîexcept for its mentions of the Lindsays’Äô initial romance, it is not a ruminative or deeply personal text’ÄîBold Plum affords rich insights into the historical moment and political movement to which its author was an alert witness. The book’Äôs account of the strong peasant support for the red guerrillas certainly gives the lie to recent revisionary accounts of the Chinese revolution asserting that the Communists played no significant role in the resistance to the Japanese invasion. In addition, the memoir illuminates the much-debated matter of the pros and cons of the wartime alliance between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Kuomintang (KMT). The KMT, Lindsay reports, prevented medical supplies from being transported to Yenan, frequently sabotaged radio contact between the guerrillas and the Americans, and, even after peace was declared, encouraged the Japanese army to continue fighting the Communists in the areas not under KMT control. When Mao returned from a meeting with the KMT leadership in Chonqing in October of 1945 and urged continuing cooperation, she reveals that there occurred a Party meeting at which a ’Äúmotion of censure on Mao’Äôs fitness to lead’Äù was defeated by only a narrow margin. Through her account of the false promises delivered by U.S. Army General Patrick Hurley during his 1945 visit to Yenan, Lindsay also exposes the growing alliance between the US and the KMT in the final phase of the war. Although in retrospective comments clearly written after 1949 she expresses frustration at the US’Äôs failure to work with the Communist government after the revolution, her own account amply testifies to the growing anti-Communist bias of the US high command even before the war ended.
Bold Plum is by no means uncritical of the CCP, especially at its headquarters in Yenan. In mid-1945 Michael Lindsay produced a forty-page report titled ’ÄúWhat Is Wrong with Yenan?’Äù in which he detailed a series of inefficiencies and charged that the CCP’Äôs centralist structure prohibited open criticism of errors and mismanagement. Hsiao Li’Äôs account also reveals the inequality in the medical resources available to Party officials at the Central Hospital and those available to inhabitants of the Yenan community at the more crowded International Hospital. While cultural life at Yenan was lively’Äîoperas, concerts, and dances were weekly occurrences’Äînot all these events were available to everyone. Even though the Chinese treated the American military personnel of all ranks in exactly the same way’Äîgarnering much favor among the U.S. rank and file, unaccustomed to such egalitarian treatment’ÄîYenan was not, for its Chinese inhabitants, an entirely communist society.
Mainly, however, Bold Plum offers a stirring eyewitness account of the mass-based Communist-led movement that grew up during the war against Japan. Describing peasants who ’Äúasked about the world situation and talked about Hitler,’Äù Lindsay notes that the Eighth Route Army encouraged the inhabitants of remote villages to see their own lives in world-historical context: not just the abolition of feudal landlord-peasant relations, but education in historical materialism’Äîindeed, in the epistemology of totality’Äîwas evidently the goal of Communist activity. Lindsay particularly stresses the impact of the red movement on women: wives and grandmothers with their hair done up in great knots on the backs of their heads, looking like figures in a painting from the Ming Dynasty, enter the twentieth century; concubines and enslaved wives are, in the Communist-dominated zones, creatures of the past. Lindsay’Äôs own transformation from privileged daughter and student to revolutionary wife, mother, and teacher’Äîwith an iron-muscled body formed through her own long march’Äîtestifies to the extraordinary impact of the red-led movement to liberate the largest country in the world.
With its vigorous, lively prose and deeply human portrayal of people undergoing change, Bold Plum is an excellent text for introducing young readers to a key phase of revolutionary history. It is also invigorating reading for anyone interested in’Äîand committed to’Äîthe red line of history