Jian Xianren and Jian Xianfo: 'Sister Flowers' in the Long March

January 24, 2017
By Mei XingwuEditor: Hewater Liu

A photo of Jian Xianren (R) and Jian Xianfo. [China National Museum of Women and Children]


There were over 2,000 women in the Red Army who were led by the Communist Party of China (CPC) to take part in the Long March (1934-1936). Amongst them, there were no more than 100 female veterans who both survived from the daring military maneuver and still worked for revolutionary affairs after the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in October 1949.

Those female veterans included Jian Xianren (1909-2004) and Jian Xianfo (1916-), a couple of sisters from a patriotic and merchant family in Cili County, central China's Hunan Province. Both of them were married to senior officials in the Red Army and carried their infants on their backs against all odds in the Long March. Former Chinese Premier Zhou En'lai (1898-1976) once gave them the nickname "Sister Flowers in the Long March" to praise their remarkable spirits in the Long March.

Two Sisters Finding Love in the Red Army

Jian Xianren became a member of the CPC in March 1926 and suffered a lot from violent suppression inflicted by the military forces of the Kuomintang or Chinese Nationalist Party under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) when she attended an uprising against the rule of the Kuomintang in the Spring Festival or traditional Chinese lunar New Year in 1928.

The Kuomintang officially ruled the whole nation from 1927 to 1949, and was forced to retreat to southeast China's Taiwan Province when the CPC won the Civil War (1946-1949) and established the People's Republic of China (PRC) in October 1949.

In early 1929, Jian Xianren joined the Red Army led by He Long (1896-1969), her future husband and one of the founding fathers of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) and the PRC. In fact, she was the first female soldier of the Red Army in western Hunan. He was very pleased to see Jian Xianren, since there were few people like her in the Red Army who could read and write back then. Therefore, she was asked to open a class and teach other soldiers in the Red Army academic knowledge.

He himself also asked Jian Xianren to teach him how to read and write Chinese characters. In response, she made a plan for him and taught him 15 Chinese characters each day at that time. After a while, He mastered lots of Chinese characters, which laid a cultural foundation for his future revolutionary career.

Jian Xianren and He got married in September 1929 when they developed closer ties in the joint fight against the Kuomintang's rule. "It is the revolution that helped us get married," she recalled many years later and added that their marriage was celebrated with gunshots then.

Jian Xianren gave birth to a girl in 1930 and named her "Red Red" or Honghong in Chinese in commemoration of both her and He's identity as members of the Red Army. However, she had to endure a separation with He and raise their child alone in Cili when he was assigned to fight against the Kuomintang forces with the branch of the Red Army in the Hong Lake region. Because of a tip-off from a traitor in the Red Army, she was forced to take her little daughter along with other soldiers to hide in the mountains to evade the local Kuomintang forces. The little girl caught a fever and quickly lost her life, since her mother couldn't find any medicine for her under besiege.

After the death of her infant daughter, Jian Xianren embarked on a journey to look for the Red Army and her husband. However, it took her four years to come the side of He, since he had to lead his soldiers in a fight against the Kuomintang forces in difference places.

After the take-over of Cili on December 26, 1934, He came to the home of Jian Chengyan, his father-in-law, and tried to learn more about the family. Jian Chengyan replied that Jian Xianfo had made up her mind to join the Red Army, just as her sister Jian Xianren had done.

Under the encouragement of Jian Xianren, Jian Xianfo quickly gave up her academic studies in Changsha Women's Normal College and requested to join the Red Army led by He and Ren Bishi (1904-1950). She was only 19 years old that year and given a post in the Red Army's Publicity Department in consideration of her academic competence. Since then, she was always busy with her publicity work, which aimed to help more people learn the policies of the Red Army and attract young farmers to join, when the Red Army arrived at a new place. For instance, a recruitment gathering she organized successfully attracted over 20 farmers into the Red Army. As a matter of fact, it was the most successful recruitment event ever held by the Red Army up until that point.

Meanwhile, Xiao Ke (1907-2008), a young colonel in the Red Army led by He, was attracted by Jian Xianfo's beauty and her outstanding performance at work. In fact, Xiao also gave her a good impression because of his personality. Therefore, they finally got married in June 1935 in Dayong (Zhangjiajie), a county in southwestern Hunan.

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