Hsiao Li Lindsay. Bold Plum: With the Guerrillas in China’s War Against Japan. Morrisville, North Carolina: Lulu Press, 2007. 360pp. ISBN: 978-1-4303-0292-6 (paperback).

Memoirists often write about events years later, reflecting the refinement of language, selection of details and development of concepts that retelling stories usually produce, and sometimes distort.  Bold Plum: With the Guerrillas in China’s War Against Japan by Hsiao Li Lindsay, however, is a fresh, dynamic memoir written in 1947, just two years after she left China.  The book was first published in a Chinese translation; Bold Plum is the first publication of her book in English, with minimal editing by her son and daughter-in-law, James Lindsay and Pamela Collett.  It retains the freshness of a recent memoir and the uncomplicated syntax of a second-language writer.

The result is an amazing story of a girl growing up in the fast-changing prewar years in China.  Hsiao Li was caught in the political struggles between Nationalists and Communists, and military struggles of Japanese soldiers against Chinese peasants and Communists guerrillas.  After her first child was born, she and her British husband lived with the Chinese Communists in their headquarters in Yan’an until World War II ended.  Hers is very much a female story of evading Japanese troops under forced marches in the mountains during pregnancy, childbirth and nursing her daughter.  It is also a male story of political and military strategy, maneuvers and fighting, since she often acted as translator for her husband in his meetings with the Communist leadership.

Hsiao Li’s childhood was not normal.  Her landlord family in Shanxi province was losing its wealth; her father encouraged her to go to school, against the tradition of educating sons, not daughters. Hsiao Li became an activist in middle school, was falsely blacklisted as a communist sympathizer and fled to Beijing to continue her schooling. From the viewpoint of a schoolgirl, she describes the Beijingers’ hopes that the League of Nations would stop Japanese aggression in northeast China.  In the tensions of the Japanese occupation of Beijing, she deplored the privations and the demeaning body searches at transportation checkpoints, but enjoyed her studies.  “After all,” she said, “the Japanese could not control what was in my mind.”  She entered Yenching University; fell in love with and married Michael Lindsay, a British professor. After Britain declared war on Japan December 1941, they fled to the Western Hills near Beijing and joined the Communist guerrillas.

Adding to the small but growing amount of material in English about women who traveled with the Red Army soldiers during the 1930s and 1940s, Bold Plum describes the inner workings of the guerrilla army as the soldiers moved from place to place, coordinating with other units when possible, interacting with and relying on peasants who were resisting Japanese occupation.  Michael’s skills with communications equipment made him both invaluable to the Red Army and systematically hunted by the Japanese.  Protected by the top leadership of the Communist Party, the Lindsay’swere given the best of what was available wherever they stopped to rest for a few hours or a day or two:  a place to sleep on the kang (a raised, heated brick bed built in homes in northern China) instead of the dirt floor, the best food available and access to army medical and dental care. 

Hsiao Li’s experience of dodging Japanese troops in remote areas offers an unusual insight into the lives of mountain peasants in north China.  After one arduous walk from sundown to dawn in a mountainous area, she described women in the village where they rested as “…dressed in very old fashioned clothes and with an unusual way of doing their hair in a big knot high on the back of their heads.  They looked just like the pictures of women in an old painting of the Ming Dynasty.” Because Hsiao Li and Michael were not Communists, the details of her growing understanding that the soldiers in the Red Army were not the bandits characterized by Nationalist propaganda enhance her story. She found the generals and top political leaders they came to know easy to talk with, dedicated and compassionate.

While they were traveling with the guerrillas, Hsiao Li discovered she was pregnant, delivered her daughter and cared for her while they constantly moved with the guerrilla troops, sometimes fleeing a village minutes before the Japanese arrived, hiding from Japanese reconnaissance planes, skirting land mines.  By the time their daughter was walking and talking, Michael and Hsiao Li decided to settle in Yan’an, where their daily routine became more stable.  They were both given work to do and became involved with both the small foreign community and the Chinese Communist leaders.  When the American Observer Group, American military and diplomats who called themselves the “Dixie Mission,” came to Yan’an, Hsiao Li described the American’s interactions with their hosts, offering insights into the thinking and actions of both.  She sometimes acted as an intermediary, once between John Service of the American Observer Group and Mao Zedong, explaining Service’s concerns while dancing with Mao in the date garden.

In Yan’an they learned that Michael’s father in England had been offered an appointment to the peerage.  When his father died many years later, Michael and Hsiao Li became Lord and Lady Lindsay of Birker, making her the first Asian peeress in the United Kingdom. 

Bold Plum is an engaging book appealing to a wide audience.  Thoughtful reading offers historians and students wonderful opportunities to broaden their knowledge of guerilla operations in occupied North China during World War II.  Those in Feminist Studies will discover details of women’s experience and empowerment within the cultural context of Chinese wartime life.  For people with an interest in China or those who simply enjoy memoirs, it gives an understanding of China before and during World War II, and allows readers to know this remarkable woman. 


(Helen P. Young, Visiting Scholar, Center for East Asian Studies, Stanford University)