March 07, 2006

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Deconstructing the Long March

Jonathan Dresner has done a typically great job of pulling together the 3rd Asian history blog carnival. Plenty of interesting links and reading.

While on things history, Sun Shuyun in today's SCMP looks at the realities of China's founding myth in an excellent piece of historical analysis:

Every nation has its founding myth. For communist China, it is the Long March - a story on a par with Moses leading the Israelites' exodus out of Egypt. I was raised on it...
Continued below the jump.

...The myth can be stated succinctly. The fledgling Communist Party and its three Red Armies were driven out of their bases in southern China in the early 1930s by Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government. Pursued and harried by their enemies, they crossed high mountains, turbulent rivers and impassable grassland, with Mao Zedong steering the course from victory to victory.

After two years and 16,000km of endurance, courage and hope against impossible odds, the Red Armies reached northwestern China. Only a fifth of the original 200,000 soldiers remained, worn out and battered, but defiant. A decade later, they fought back, defeated Chiang, and launched Mao's New China.

How does China's founding myth stand up to reality? In 2004, 70 years after it began, I set out to retrace the Long March. Of the 40,000 survivors, perhaps 500 are still alive; I tracked down and interviewed 40 - ordinary people like Huang Zhiji, who was a boy when he joined the Red Army. He had no choice: they had arrested his father and would not release him until Huang agreed. He thought of deserting, but stayed for fear of being shot. Many did run away.

Six weeks into the March, Mao's First Army was reduced from 86,000 to 30,000 troops. The loss is still blamed on the Xiang River Battle, the first big engagement of the march. But, at most, 15,000 died in battle; the rest vanished. Another battle, at the Dadu River, is the core of the Long March legend: 22 brave men supposedly overpowered a regiment of Nationalist troops guarding the chains of the Luding Bridge, and opened the way for the marchers. Mao told Edgar Snow, author of Red Star Over China, that crossing the Dadu was the single most important incident during the Long March.

But documents that I have seen indicate that the general who commanded the division that crossed the Dadu River first told party historians a very different story. "This affair was not as complicated as people made it out to be later," he said. "When you investigate historical facts, you should respect the truth. How you present it is a different matter."

So, there was only a skirmish over the Dadu River. The local warlord, who hated Chiang, let Mao pass. As a reward, he was later made a minister in the communist government.

The marchers did not know where they would end up. When they converged in north China in October 1936, it was hailed as the end of the march. But the "promised land" could barely support its own population, let alone the Red Armies. Barely a month later, the party decided the Long March was to continue. But the communists were saved when Chiang was kidnapped by the general he had ordered to wipe them out. As part of the price for his release, Chiang recognised the communists as legitimate: the march was over. But not, however, for the 21,000 men and women of the Western Legion. They belonged to the Fourth Army, headed by Zhang Guotao, Mao's arch-rival. Their mission was to get help from Russia. But Mao kept sending them contradictory orders, so they could neither fight nor retreat. They were trapped in barren land, and the overwhelming forces of Muslim warlords wiped them out. Only 400 reached the border. It was the Red Army's biggest defeat, yet it is missing from official history.

So, what motivated the marchers? I asked a top general what he knew of communism at the time. "I had no idea, then and now," he replied. "I doubt that even Mao knew what it was." Perhaps no one knew how much suffering would lie ahead, and how great the difference would be between the dream and the reality.

My emphasis. The author is due to release a book on the Long March. I don't expect you'll be seeing many copies in China.

posted by Simon on 03.07.06 at 09:46 AM in the China history, education & culture category.


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