In 1934 some 200,000 communists were driven out of their bases in Jiangxi in the south of China by Chiang Kai-shek. Mao steered them like a ChinExodus
In 1934 some 200,000 communists were driven out of their bases in Jiangxi in the south of China by Chiang Kai-shek. Mao steered them like a Chinese Moses on a course from victory to victory. After two years of incredible endurance, courage, and hope against impossible odds – and a march of 8,000 miles – the Red Armies reached the barren Yellow Plateau of northwestern China. From there on they would need another decade to launch the new China. Enshrined for the nation in musical extravaganzas like The East Is Red and feature films of battles, the Long March and its idealism, optimism, and heroism remain the enduring emblem of China and the regime today.
In her book Sun Shuyun shows that this emblem does not really match reality. In 2004 she followed the traces of the Long March from the former Soviet of Ruijun all the way to Shaanxi and Gansu where the Fourth Army found its Waterloo against the superior Ma. In all areas she managed to find one or more of the remaining 500 survivors of the march, as well as local historians of the Long March. Both the survivors and the historians candidly deny the spin. E.g. the conquest of the Luding Bridge over the Dadu River was a much simpler affair than the famous propaganda movie suggested. It was not defended by a regiment, but only by a few men with guns that could only shoot a few yards. The local warlord was on bad terms with Chiang’s nationalists and did not mind the Red Army to move northward.
This does not mean that Ms. Sun is not very much impressed by the incredible suffering that the Red Army had to endure. The Long March she describes was a baffling Darwinian selection process of physical hardship, starvation, battles, and purges. Still, or consequently, many of the remaining soldiers were purged in the Cultural Revolution. Those alive in 2005 often received only a percentage of the promised pensions.
Between 1930 and 1934, Chiang's nationalists lost over 100,000 men fighting the communists in Jiangxi between Fujian and Guangdong. Force had to be used to convince the locals to join the fighting. Given the Chinese belief that a good man is not destined for the army, just like good iron is not for nails, most of the communist soldiers were young farmers. Able men were first recruited, but then they took the old, sick, opium addicts and the young. Disabled men became popular as husbands, because they would not be sent to the front. Personal happiness and physical desire did not count for the true believers: such feelings were submerged in the excitement for the revolution. This did not apply to everybody. Women would often not see their husbands for years and start sleeping around. The communists had freed women and allowed divorce. This often led to the unintended consequence of multiple marriages and divorces, just like unbound feet were often bound again later.
A lack of training accounted for 50% of the Red Army's casualties. Arms and ammunition were equally bad. Soldiers received five bullets for a battle. The Red Army had to supply itself with what it could conquer from the Nationalists. Up to nearly 50% of the soldiers deserted. Although the base in Ruijun was created by Mao, he was not really appreciated by the Party, and Stalin’s Comintern sent the German Otto Braun to lead the force. In Ruijin, Mao was already conducting purges that included the torture and the execution of thousands of men. Some 20,000 got killed even before this became a habit in Stalin's Soviet Union. Land hardly enough to feed a family of five could make you a landlord:
Purges seemed to have entered the Communists' bloodstream as an expression of their cardinal principle - class struggle.
The communists wanted to keep the people on their toes by constant campaigns:
”People lived in fear and that was what they wanted”
Braun’s strategy did not work, but warlords in the neighbouring provinces that were equally hostile to Chiang helped the Red Army escape. Mao had to leave his second child behind and would never see it again. The army moved at the pace of "an emperor's sedan chair". Its central column consisted of over 4,000 staff. Overall, 86,000 were on the move, usually at night to avoid enemy planes. Defections remained a constant problem during the Long March. The Xiang River Battle celebrated by Chinese propaganda as the March’s major battle has some 30,000 people unaccounted for; expectedly most of them deserted. Rich people were taken hostage for ransom, and killed in front of the troops if no ransom materialised. Wounded soldiers were left behind with a few silver dollars in the villages along the way. Medicine was lacking: enough cloth, simple injections like quinine or even salt to disinfect wounds could have saved many lives. Opium was the only thing always available. Theatre was used to impress poor peasants that rarely saw any entertainment besides the Lunar New Year fortnight.
In Zunyi in Guizhou, Mao managed to get to get into the Politburo again. The pleasure must have been greatly reduced by the need to leave his third new-born child behind in the care of an opium addicted woman when the army finally dashed into Sichuan. In Sichuan Braun was demoted. The Fourth Army based in the west of Sichuan travelled towards Mao's columns, but Mao split again soon. His troops travelled on through the Tibetan grasslands, the worst part of the march. The Tibetan "barbarians" had all fled and there was no food, the weather was terrible, and the swamps dangerous. Women stopped menstruating, in quite a few cases for good. When they tried to sack monasteries the monks would shoot back.
When they reached the Soviet in Shaanxi, they were only 4,000 people left. Here Ms. Sun meets a TV-crew shooting a documentary about the Long March, which knowingly omits many facts that go against the old propaganda. It was in Shaanxi that Mao rallied his troops with a speech where the Long March was named. The escape from the south was turned into a preparation to fight the Japanese. As a master of propaganda Mao invited Edgar Snow for a visit full of privileges that led to his famous Red Star over China, the book that altered the world's view of the communists.
Zhang Xueliang, a regional warlord keener on a united fight against the Japanese, supported the communists with Nationalist supplies. He also managed to capture Chiang Kai-shek against the wishes of Stalin, and negotiated an anti-Japanese coalition with the nationalist leader. The Long March was over for the core troops, but Ms. Sun dedicates another chapter to the plight of the Fourth Army. It was rechristened into the Western Army and sent to Gansu to fight the Muslim Ma, causing the death of another 20,000 men and women....more