The Long March

People who went through the Long March still remember the Grasslands with horror–the long plains of black and yellow grass, the rain, the poisonous mud which made their legs swell with red blisters, the way the marshes would suddenly give place to slow-moving nearly stagnant rivers, the mudholes, the ambuscades. At night it was deathly cold. They made shelters of clumps of grasses knotted together, but the cold penetrated. Worst of all, they had lost most of their medical supplies, and those who were ill were simply left behind–impossible to carry them on litter in a place where everyone was fighting for survival. The only treatment for infected sores was boiling water. Columns became lost or detached from one another. To collect the columns together, Chu Tch found it necessary to go three times across the Grasslands, spending an entire month walking among treacherous pathways, for the radios were out of order. When Mao was asked what he remembered most of the Grasslands, he said: “Just this: that Chu Teh crossed it three times, and I found the greatest difficulty in crossing it once.”

During this stage, Mao took little part in the military decisions. For the first time, he was coming to grips with foreign relations. He met the tribespeople and attempted, not too successfully, to barter with them. Unfortunately, the Red Army had almost nothing to offer them in exchange for their cattle and wheat except rifles and these might be used against them. He found interpreters and did everything he could to bring them over to the Reds, but they were sullen against the invaders. He feared the tribespeople, and half envied them. Quite naturally, without any preparation, as though by instinct, the Mantzus waged war against the Red columns in continual skirmishes which showed a surprising knowledge of the technique of guerrilla warfare. He confessed that he learned much from them, and he was especially impressed with their art of concealment.

The strain of the Long March was beginning to tell. Mao was very lean, with dark hollows under his eyes, and often ill. His stomach suffered the most. He missed his cigarettes, and most of all he missed the red Hunan peppers. He wore a faded blue uniform, carried no weapons, and there were usually books in his pocket a copy of the monkey tale, Journey to the West, and the old dog-eared copy of All Men Are Brothers. The book Journey to the West described a pilgrimage by a learned monkey through China, Tibet, and India; and what was surprising was the accuracy of the author of a medieval fairytale when it came to describing the borderlands of China and Tibet. Meanwhile, he wrote poems. One of the longer poems was called “Grass.” It appears in the collection of poems called Wind Sand Poems, which Mao collected together in Yenan, though nothing about the poem except the title is known.

The Long March was, at last, coming to an end, though a year was to elapse before the columns under Chu Teh and Hsu Hsiang-ch’ien, which had been left behind, were to arrive in northern Shensi. They had still to face short, sharp engagements with the Mohammedans who straddled their path in Kansu, but they were approaching territory where the Kuomintang forces were too far from their bases to offer effective opposition. Moreover, northern Shensi was part of the area which the “Christian General” Feng Yu-hsiang owned as a kind of private reserve, and he was not unsympathetic to many of the Communist demands. He was not a Communist; he had executed Communists in the past. But he possessed considerable knowledge of the peasantry, and he believed in the urgent necessity of agrarian reforms.

The columns under Mao had succeeded in forcing a passage through China. He had employed the characteristic “wide curve” he used in the three annihilation campaigns. Success had been achieved at a frightful cost. A hundred thousand set out from Kiangsi. Fewer than 20,000 remained, and many of these were recruits who joined the Red Army on the march. Many of the leaders were killed; those who survived bore traces of their sufferings for years afterward. In spite of the huge losses, Mao believed firmly that the expedition had proved the superiority of guerrilla tactics: the Red Army had shown the utmost strategical mobility. Above all, a legend had been created. Mao was perfectly conscious of the power of legends. In later years, when he came to examine the causes of the Long March, he came to the bitter conclusion that it was all entirely unnecessary. The Fifth Annihilation Campaign was itself ill-directed, and the Communists in Kiangsi should not have panicked so easily. There were at least two untried maneuvers that would have enabled them to escape the Kuomintang net and establish themselves in the region of Shanghai. He refused to regret the journey, just as he refused to regret his own inability to force the issue. “A revolution, he wrote, “does not march in a straight line. It wanders where it can, retreats before superior forces, advances wherever it has room to advance and is possessed of enormous patience.” When the Red Army reached Shensi, the surviving guerrillas could tell themselves that revolutionary patience had won for them all their battles.

Annotated Bibliography

Jocelyn Ed, Mcewen The long march, Constable, 2006

The new book on the Long March was published in 2006, which quotes eyewitnesses of the battle who confirm that it took place, although all accounts differ on the details. (Andrew McEwen & Ed Jocelyn, The Long March.

According to this book, the “original” Long March was an epic movement of Mao’s communist troops escaping from the Kuomintang in southern China to a “soviet” enclave in the north via the fringes of Tibetan highlands. It is possibly the best-known “heroic” event in the history of Chinese communism, having become almost “mythical” in its status/importance by today.

The authors are two journalists who have decided to try and compare the myth with reality by retracing the Long March. Despite bureaucratic hurdles and the dearth of resources, they succeed to do so, meeting surviving eye-witnesses, and possibly even Mao’s “long-lost daughter” along the way. They blend the story of their own march with the existing reports of the historic one all along, for one proving that the Long March did indeed happen in the first place.

This is fascinating enough for the history buff, but even if you aren’t one, the book still holds plenty of interest.

Following a route through the rural backwaters of China no one else has done for decades, the march takes authors through extremely varied corners of this giant country, letting them provide fascinating insights into the mix of modernization and backwardness that is the China of today. From booming cities to minority villages steeped in dire poverty, from warm traditional welcome to hostile suspicion, they experience and expose it all, made all the more insightful by their excellent command of the Chinese language.

Sale Jonathan Mao Zedong’s long march, 1934

According to Sale unlike Mussolini’s mythical “March” on Rome, which was, in fact, a short train ride, the Communists really were in for the long haul when they stole out of their headquarters in Jiangxi, south-east China. The scenic route to Shanxi in the northwest of the country involved 6,000 footslogging miles; that’s 230 marathons. And unlike today’s athletes, they were chased by the Nationalist army, not television crews.

It is no wonder that of the 100,000 who left with Mao, just 8,000 reached the finishing line. Mao, though, saw it as a kind of sponsored walk and left behind, in every sense, his rivals in the party.

Like Chairman Blair, Mao’s successors are updating the original idea, in their case with the New Long March. This does not involve another long-distance pedestrian exploit but a plan to achieve world leadership in science and technology by 2000. Don’t laugh: it sounds a lot less harmful than Mao’s 1958 Great Leap Foward, which turned out to be more of a Giant Hop Backwards since it shifted resources away from agriculture and led to the Chairman’s Diet, ie, starvation.

Shuyun Sun The long march: the true history of communists. china’s founding myth HarperCollins 2006

Shuyun depicts the Long March in his own way and says, in 1934, the fledgling Communist Party and its 200,000 strong armies were forced out of their bases by Chiang Kaishek and his National troops.

Walking more than 10,000 miles over mountains, grassland and swamps, they suffered appalling casualties and ended up in the remote barren North. Just one–fifth survived; they went on to launch the new China in the heat of revolution. A legend was born. Justified by a remarkable feat, the Long March was also a triumph of propaganda, for Mao and for the revolution.

Seventy years later Sun Shuyun set out to retrace the Marchers’ steps. The rugged landscape has changed little. Her greatest difficulty was in wrestling with the scenes lodged in her mind since childhood, part of the upbringing of every Chinese. On each stage of her journey, she found hidden stories: the ruthless purges, the terrible toll of hunger and disease, the fate of women on the March, the huge number of desertions, the futile deaths.

The real story of the March, the most vivid pictures, come from the veterans whom Sun Shuyun has found. She follows their trail through all those harsh miles, discovers their faith and disillusion, their pain and their hopes, and also recounts how many suffered even after the March’s end in 1936. The Long March was an epic journey of endurance, even more, severe than history books say, and courage against impossible odds. It is a brave, exciting, and tragic story. Sun Shuyun tells it for the first time, as it really happened.

There is a warmth to Sun Shuyun’s account that makes it much more readable [than Jung Chang’s Mao biography]…her own personal voyage of discovery adds poignancy to her vividly descriptive book.’

The long and winding road by: the economist

The long and winding road; China’s Long March. (The Long March: The True Story Behind the Legendary Journey That Made Mao’s China The Economist (US) 2006.

In this work, the writer thinks that separating myth from reality in China is a challenge at the best of times. This is particularly true of the Long March, the famous journey that China’s beleaguered communists made in the 1930s to a new base several thousand miles in the north of the country. Only a few of those who participated are still alive today. The Communist Party tolerates only one view: that it was utterly heroic. The debate about what really happened is suppressed. Parts of the route through some of the country’s most inhospitable terrain are difficult for researchers to follow.

Historians of the Long March are challenged by the passage of time and a dearth of first-hand accounts other than by party leaders. It was not until 1984 that Harrison Salisbury, an American journalist, became the first foreigner to be given permission to retrace the Long March. Few other independent writers have done it since. The accounts of ordinary marchers interviewed in the two latest works, one by a Chinese-born film producer, Sun Shuyun, and the other by two British journalists, Andrew McEwen and Ed Jocelyn, provide no more than isolated glimpses subject to the distortions of fading memories.

In party propaganda, the most iconic episode of the march was the crossing of a narrow suspension bridge over the turbulent Dadu River in Sichuan Province. Red Army soldiers are said to have crawled over its chains and burning planks under enemy fire. With remarkably few casualties they supposedly defeated two battalions on the other side. Edgar Snow, with Mao’s help, wrote the first foreign account of the Long March, which was published in 1937, called this “the most critical single incident”.

Bering Henrik Red Emperor Journal Title: Policy Review. Issue: 135. Publication Year: 2006. Hoover Institution Press; Gale Group

The Long March was found in the index under “Mao on violence, the avoidance of.” Due to China’s distance, everybody was free to create a Great Helmsman of his or her own imagination.

The real Mao was of course straight out of some Nietzschean nightmare, a leader totally devoid of morals who saw himself among the great heroes of history–outside normal restraints, restrictions, responsibilities. “When great heroes give full play to their impulses, they are magnificently powerful and invincible. Their power is like a hurricane arising from a deep gorge, and like a sex maniac in heat and prowling for a lover,” he wrote in a notebook at the age of 24. “People like me only have a duty to ourselves. We have no duty to other people.”

The communist forces did suffer huge casualties on the Long March, but these were due partly to the ineptitude of their leaders and partly to the jockeying for power among them. Mao’s goal was to outmaneuver his main rival for communist leadership, Kuo Tao, which he did by sending Kuo’s army into the most hopeless terrain, thereby whittling his forces down.

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