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The Long March: The True History of…

The Long March: The True History of Communist China's Founding Myth

by Sun Shuyun

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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. ( )
2 vote mercure | May 26, 2011 |
The Long March is by Sun Shuyun, a Chinese woman who grew up in China, won a scholarship to Oxford, and since then has lived between her two worlds. She decided to trace the route of the Long March, the founding campaign of Mao’s China, and to interview any survivors and witnesses she could find. The March happened in the 1930’s, so they were all really old by the time she met them (the book was published in 2005), and course there weren’t many, not only because they had died in the meantime, but because only something like 10,000 marchers survived, with more than 80% dying or disappearing en route.

The campaign was a turning point in Chinese history, a breakthrough on Mao’s way to eventual power. Her purpose in writing the book, I think, was to learn more about the human suffering, martyrdom and bravery, to supplement the official versions she, as every Chinese for decades, had learned about at school. I don’t know a lot about China, but I understand that this is the key “heroic myth” of communist China – a true story, with true heroism, but played up a little to be even more important, for the sake of national mythology – I’m sure you can think of similar events in your own country’s history.

Basically, the Communist armies (the heroes in their version) were being chased by the Nationalists, and were trapped in southern China, but escaped by marching hundreds of miles through snow, mountains, marshes and deserts. As they marched, they sang songs, wrote and distributed pamphlets (yes, they carried a printing press with them!), put on plays, recruited new volunteers, had babies (which they had to leave behind) and fought the occasional battle. Mainly, though, they starved and froze. Most wore only sandals, which soon wore out, and many had no coats – based in the hot south, they hadn’t needed them, and even though they were issued, they were often thrown away as too difficult to carry.

In itself, the March is an amazing story of courage, belief and endurance. But what Sun Shuyun found was even more interesting – lots of the stories had been embroidered or even totally fabricated, primarily to make Mao look good. For example, she was told that the 50,000 she had learned died in a famous battle had in fact mostly deserted, a high proportion of their replacements were press ganged rather than volunteering, another famous battle for a bridge had not happened at all, because the local warlord was persuaded to just let them pass, and other examples. Even more shockingly, after the March, most of the survivors never received the land, pensions, etc., they were promised, and many of those she interviewed were spending their old age in real poverty. They had also apparently been denounced during the Cultural Revolution (about which I know too little to comment), so had no social status either.

The politics are fascinating (I really don’t know what the author’s “angle” is – I just don’t know enough about China), but what really comes through is the sheer determination of these people to survive, and the real belief many of them had, and still have, that what they did was extraordinary and created a better life for their country. Sun Shuyun clearly admired and respected her subjects, and was always disappointed when she learned negative facts about them later on her journey, and she also includes some fantastic photos of them in the book.

It’s a short book, and an instructive yet entertaining one, whether you know a lot about 20th Century China or, like me, nothing at all. Recommended. ( )
  JanetinLondon | Mar 22, 2010 |
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Sun's research provides a new baseline for all future treatment of that major propaganda event. Sun is able to demonstrate that the Xiang River Battle, which the official history of the Long March identifies as the "longest and most heroic" battle of the entire campaign, was in fact a major defeat for the Communists, with casualties and desertions reducing the First Army from 86,000 to 30,000 people. Sun's objective reporting of what she learned about the sufferings of the marchers adds up to a more impressive story than the party's propaganda version.
added by mercure | editForeign Affairs, Lucian W. Pye (May 23, 2011)
Those who seek to know what really happened at Zunyi, or Luding Bridge, or any of the other key moments along the epic journey must search elsewhere. To those who want to relive the adventures of this grand epic, then this is a readable and accessible account.
Sun Shuyun has done an impressive job of on-the-ground reporting, interweaving the memories of survivors to build up the narrative.
added by mercure | editThe Guardian, Jonathan Fenby (Mar 5, 2006)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0385520247, Hardcover)

The Long March is Communist China’s founding myth, the heroic tale that every Chinese child learns in school. Seventy years after the historical march took place, Sun Shuyun set out to retrace the Marchers’ steps and unexpectedly discovered the true history behind the legend. The Long March is the stunning narrative of her extraordinary expedition.

The facts are these: in 1934, in the midst of a brutal civil war, the Communist party and its 200,000 soldiers were forced from their bases by Chiang Kaishek and his Nationalist troops. After that, truth and legend begin to blur: led by Mao Zedong, the Communists set off on a strategic retreat to the distant barren north of China, thousands of miles away. Only one in five Marchers reached their destination, where, the legend goes, they gathered strength and returned to launch the new China in the heat of revolution.

As Sun Shuyun journeys to remote villages along the Marchers’ route, she interviews the aged survivors and visits little-known local archives. She uncovers shocking stories of starvation, disease, and desertion, of ruthless purges ordered by party leaders, of the mistreatment of women, and of thousands of futile deaths. Many who survived the March report that their suffering continued long after the “triumph” of the revolution, recounting tales of persecution and ostracism that culminated in the horrific years of the Cultural Revolution.

What emerges from Sun’s research, her interviews, and her own memories of growing up in China is a moving portrait of China past and present. Sun finds that the forces at work during the days of the revolution—the barren, unforgiving landscape; the unifying power of outside threats from foreign countries; Mao’s brilliant political instincts and his use of terror, propaganda, and ruthless purges to consolidate power and control the population—are the very forces that made China what it is today.

The Long March is a gripping retelling of an amazing historical adventure, an eye-opening account of how Mao manipulated the event for his own purposes, and a beautiful document of a country balanced between legend and the truth.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:06:23 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

The Long March is Communist China's founding myth. Seventy years afterwards, Sun Shuyun set out to retrace its steps and discovered the true history behind the legend. The facts: in 1934, in the midst of civil war, the Communist party and its 200,000 soldiers were forced from their bases by the Nationalists. After that, truth and legend begin to blur: led by Mao Zedong, the Communists set off on a strategic retreat to the distant barren north of China, thousands of miles away. Only one in five reached their destination, where, the legend goes, they gathered strength and returned to launch the new China in the heat of revolution. Sun journeys to remote villages along the route, interviews aged survivors and visits local archives. She uncovers shocking stories of starvation, disease, and desertion, of ruthless purges, of thousands of futile deaths. Many who survived the March report that their suffering continued long after the "triumph" of the revolution, culminating in the horrific years of the Cultural Revolution.--From publisher description.… (more)

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