Long March survivors in 1934 after their arrival in Shaanxi. Of the 86,000 who started the march, as few as 4,000 completed it. (© Getty Images)
The Long March is propaganda,” declared Mao Zedong in a speech in December 1935. “It has announced to some 200 million people in 11 provinces that the road of the Red Army is their only road to liberation.”
We almost always use the word ‘propaganda’ pejoratively, often as shorthand for official lies. For Mao, it meant something much closer to ‘evangelisation’, in the sense that the term is used of the early Christian church. Propaganda was the means by which the good news of his new creed was to be spread across China’s vast territories, and his 1935 speech was a claim of success, not a confession of deceit.
It was the first time Mao used the phrase ‘Long March’ and the term has since become familiar all over the world. But the complex historical background to the episode it describes is little understood outside China.
Chinese politics in the mid-1930s were chaotic and uncertain. Chiang Kai-shek, the ‘Generalissimo’ as he was known in the west, was China’s nominal ruler, governing the country through the Guomindang, or Nationalist Party. But much of the country was controlled by local warlords and Chiang faced two powerful threats to his authority: the Japanese invasion and occupation of Manchuria, in northern China, which began in 1931; and the communist rebellion centred in the south-eastern province of Jiangxi.
Mao Zedong arrived in Jiangxi in 1929, where he and the Communist Party leadership set about establishing a prototype communist state – the Jiangxi Soviet Republic of China, as they called it. The reality was rather more modest than that ambitious title suggests.
While recording my BBC Radio 4 series on the Long March, I visited the Communist Party offices in the Jiangxi city of Yudu. During the ‘Soviet’ period of the early 1930s, the local government was run from a requisitioned salt-merchant’s house, with entire government departments housed in bedrooms the size of those in an average British family home today.
Chiang Kai-shek’s forces squeezed the communists in a series of ‘encirclements’ and, by the autumn of 1934, it had become clear that the Jiangxi Soviet could not hold out for much longer. Harrison Salisbury, an American journalist and historian who wrote an account of the Long March (with official Chinese Communist Party backing) in the mid-1980s, quotes an estimate that the communists lost 60,000 men in the last of the defensive campaigns against the Guomindang. Their only option was to run away.
That October, 86,000 Red Army troops crossed the Yudu river on pontoon bridges built from doors, bed boards and even – so they tell you in the city of Yudu today – the odd coffin lid. They marched in straw sandals, hundreds of thousands of which had been woven in the weeks leading up to their departure. The leaders hoped to link up with other Red Army units operating in south-central China, with a view to establishing a new Soviet Republic on the Jiangxi model.
They took everything with them – from a printing press to an x-ray machine – while the ordinary soldiers, many of them local recruits who had never left home, had no idea where they were heading.
The first serious battle they fought was a catastrophic defeat. Chiang’s forces caught up with them at the Xiang river in Guangxi Province and ambushed them as they crossed. Estimates of the number of troops they lost range between 15,000 and 40,000.
But Mao was an alchemist, with an astonishing ability to turn the base metal of defeat into political gold. When the Long March began, the Communist Party leadership was divided between a pro-Moscow faction (including a German military adviser called Otto Braun, sent by Stalin) and Chinese nationalists like Mao who wanted to build a home-grown revolution. Mao used the Xiang debacle as a stick with which to beat the Moscow loyalists and, at a series of meetings, he cemented his own leadership position and sidelined Braun and his allies.
Political propaganda was always central to the military campaign. The Red Army had no outside resources to draw upon and its survival depended on the support of the local population in the areas it marched through. Wherever they went, the communists enforced the policy of ‘land reform’ – a summary form of asset redistribution that often involved the execution of existing landlords.
Military victories were few and far between – and when they came, the propaganda teams exploited them to the full. The most famous, the battle of Luding Bridge, has gone down in official history as a brilliant commando operation, but many modern historians have questioned whether it was quite as dramatic or decisive as the communists’ version claims.
In May 1935, the Red Army was in danger of being trapped on the banks of the Dadu river in Sichuan. The troops were spooked by a powerful folk-memory: in the mid-19th century, one of the last surviving armies of the Taiping rebellion against the Qing Dynasty had been forced to surrender at the same spot. Its leader, the inspirational Prince Shi Dakai, was subsequently executed by ‘the slicing method’, or ‘death by a thousand cuts’.
In a requisitioned Catholic priest’s house in the mountain town of Moxi, Mao decided on a daring plan to ensure that he and the Red Army did not come to grief in a similar way. It involved the taking and holding of an 18th-century chain suspension bridge across the Dadu in the remote town of Luding. Speed was of the essence; the Red Army detachment charged with taking the bridge made a forced march of 75 miles in 24 hours over unforgiving mountain roads.
Towards the end, they found themselves in a straight race with Guomindang reinforcements on the opposite bank of the river. Pung Min Yi, now a 94-year-old farmer who lives just outside Luding, was looking after the family goats that day and witnessed the scene. He still vividly remembers the bullets pinging off the troops’ cooking pots as the Nationalists took shots from across the water.
When the Reds reached Luding, they found that the Nationalist defenders had removed most of the planks from the bridge to make it even more difficult to cross. Twenty-two commandoes clambered along the chains; as they swung wildly above the swirling mountain river, they were under constant fire from the bridge house on the opposite bank. The bridge is about 100 metres long, but almost all of them made it across. The defenders fled and the crossing was secured.
That account, based on a memoir by Yang Chengwu, a Red Army commissar who was there that day, has become a staple of the many celebrations of the Long March in song and drama, and was immortalised in the hugely popular film Ten Thousand Rivers and a Thousand Mountains. Whether Yang’s version of the story is entirely accurate is another matter – but no one doubts the dreadful physical suffering the Long Marchers endured.
Scrub and bog
The Snow Mountains of Sichuan, rising to 5,500 metres, exacted a terrible toll on troops marching in light clothes with straw sandals. Then came the grasslands, an unforgiving and treacherous plateau of scrub and bog that took nearly a week to cross. Zhong Ming, one of the few Long March veterans still living, told me he watched men die as they were sucked into the mud, too exhausted to resist. It’s said that some soldiers were driven by hunger to sift through the faeces of those who had gone before in search of undigested grain to eat.
Chairman Mao declared the Long March over when he reached the province of Shaanxi, which was to serve as the Communist Party’s base for most of the time until its eventual victory in 1949. His Red Army had shrunk to no more than a few thousand troops; some estimates put the figure as low as 4,000. But simply by surviving they had secured a kind of victory.
It is often said that history is written by the winners. The Long March narrative that is taught in Chinese schools today closely reflects the way Mao believed it should be understood. It would be wrong to call it a lie; the march did happen and it was an astonishing achievement. It’s rather that the story has been shaped to provide a lesson in Maoist values – physical toughness, self-sufficiency, endurance and a strong bond between the Communist Party and peasantry.
And, in a way, the Long March has never ended. In that 1935 speech, Mao called it “a machine for sowing… It has sown many seeds which will sprout, leaf, blossom and bear fruit, and will bear a harvest for the future.”
Mao’s own reputation was badly tarnished by the Cultural Revolution, but the legend of the Long March remains as powerful as ever. It is modern China’s founding myth.
Anbin Shi, a professor of cultural studies at Tsinghua University, compares it to the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. And, as he pointed out to me, you can understand the importance of the exodus without accepting every word of the biblical text.
Edward Stourton separates Long March fact from Long March fiction
1) The Long March wasn’t quite as long as Mao claimed
“By using our two legs, we swept across a distance of 25,000 li,” Mao declared. In the 1930s, the li was understood to equal half a kilometre, or 550 yards, so Mao was claiming a march of 12,500 kilometres or a little over 7,800 miles. Author Ed Jocelyn, who retraced the route 10 years ago, calculated that he had walked less than half that distance – 12,000 li, or 3,750 miles.
2) Mao’s “heroes” routinely beheaded captives
Mao said that the March “has proclaimed to the world that the Red Army is an army of heroes”. Two Protestant missionaries who were taken hostage by the Reds – Rudolph Bosshardt and Arnolis Hayman – painted them in very different colours. Hayman’s diary, unpublished until four years ago, records that “class enemies” were routinely taken hostage and tortured.
“The Reds did not seem to hold any of their prisoners for more than three days,” he wrote, “during which time the ransom was either paid by a messenger or the captive’s life is summarily ended.” Beheading was the preferred method of execution.
Many of Mao’s “heroes” were little more than child soldiers, some of them as young as 11. Large numbers deserted and faced execution if they were caught. In Shanxi, I interviewed a woman whose mother was effectively kidnapped by the Red Army as a child while she was playing in the street. She was 11 or 12 at the time and never found her home village again.
3) An insignificant event that became a “turning point”
The Communist Party meeting at the small town of Zunyi in January 1935 was described in a standard Chinese textbook as “the turning point of life and death in the Chinese Revolution”.
It was said to be the climax of Mao’s campaign to sideline the pro-Soviet faction and every Chinese student is taught its significance. But no minutes were kept and there was no mention of the Zunyi Resolution in party documents until after 1949. Even the official dates of the meeting were wrong.
“The truth,” explains a local historian, “is that the Zunyi Conference was perhaps not as important at the time as it was made out later.”
Edward Stourton is a broadcaster and former presenter of Today on BBC Radio 4. His books include Cruel Crossing: Escaping Hitler Across the Pyrenees (Doubleday, 2013)