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Epic Odyssey
Eight decades after the Long March ended, its spirit remains a precious legacy for national rejuvenation
By Yin Pumin | NO. 42 OCTOBER 20, 2016

 

The snow-clad Jiajin Mountain that Red Army soldiers scaled during the Long March (XINHUA)

Overcoming incredible difficulties, the Red Army led by the Communist Party of China (CPC), the forerunner of the People's Liberation Army, carried out a daring military maneuver from October 1934 to October 1936. It marched through raging rivers and crossed snowy mountains and dangerous marshes to break the encirclements of the Kuomintang (KMT), the then ruling party of China, and continued to fight against Japanese invaders. Some of the soldiers marched as far as 12,500 km from central and east China to their new base area in the northwest.

During his visit to an exhibition commemorating the 80th anniversary of the end of the Long March in Beijing on September 23, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for continuing the spirit of the Long March and striving fearlessly to realize the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation. The Long March spirit, he said, is characterized by hard work, readiness to make any kind of sacrifice, and a firm belief in communism and the ultimate victory of China's revolution.

Xi, who is also general secretary of the CPC Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission, said the ideals demonstrated by the Long March should be treasured in the new age to guide the Chinese through the hardships in their pursuit of prosperity and national rejuvenation.

"The spirit of the Long March is a precious legacy left to us by those revolutionary predecessors," Wang Xinsheng, a researcher with the Party History Research Center of the CPC Central Committee, said at a seminar hosted by the Tianjin-based Nankai University in May.

 

The site of the Lazikou Battle in September 1935 (XINHUA)

The genesis

According to Wang, the direct cause of the Long March was the Red Army's failure to counter the fifth round of attacks by the KMT in October 1934.

From 1930 to 1934, the KMT launched five rounds of attacks against the Red Army in central and east China. The first four rounds, lasting till April 1933, were fended off by the Red Army with skillful guerrilla tactics.

In October 1933, the KMT organized the fifth offensive with more than 700,000 men. They constructed fortresses as they advanced, tightening the blockade to cut off all supplies to communist-controlled areas.

The Red Army adopted the strategy of positional warfare instead of the former tried-and-tested guerrilla warfare and the switch proved fatal. Throughout the first half of 1934, it suffered great losses and was nearly crushed.

In September 1934, CPC leaders decided to retreat and in mid-October 1934, the Long March began with 85,000 soldiers and 15,000 officials.

In the first stage, the Red Army suffered enormous losses. According to the files collected by the First Army Corps, the losses were caused by obstructions in the way of the marching Red Army and a wrong tactic. The central leaders decided the soldiers would move forward in a straight line. This enabled the KMT to anticipate the Red Army's movements.

During this period, nine battles were fought against 110 KMT regiments. More than 25,000 Red Army soldiers died, followed by another 30,000 in the weeklong Battle Over Xiangjiang River.

In December 1934, the Red Army captured Liping, a county on the border of Guizhou Province. It then regrouped and decided to discard every single unnecessary item it was carrying. After a brief rest, the Red Army went deeper into Guizhou. Without unnecessary burdens, it was itself again and many small towns fell to it. Also, the Red Army started to adopt new tactics. Discarding the straight advance, it began a series of distracting maneuvers, making it difficult for the KMT to gauge its intentions.

On January 5, 1935, the Red Army captured Zunyi, the second largest city in Guizhou. In Zunyi, an enlarged meeting of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee was held from January 15-17 to correct former errors and make plans for the future.

"It was the Zunyi Meeting that laid a solid foundation for the final victory of the Long March," Fei Kanru, an expert on the history of the Long March and former Deputy Curator of Zunyi Meeting Memorial Museum, told People's Daily.

The Zunyi Meeting put an end to positional warfare, which had failed, and mooted guerrilla warfare, where the enemy would be lured into ambushes and destroyed.

Mao Zedong, who had lost Party command just before the Long March but regained his authority over the military at the Zunyi Meeting, urged the Red Army to return to its original model and emphasized its goal—to march to the northwest to fight the invading Japanese troops.

"The Long March now became an epic, a succession of marvelous exploits, through the endurance, the courage, the unbending faith of many thousands of peasants and workers," author Elisabeth Comber, also known by her pen name Han Suyin, wrote in her famous book, The Morning Deluge: Mao Zedong and the Chinese Revolution.

 

A docent guides visitors in an exhibition commemorating the 80th anniversary of the end of the Long March in Beijing on October 3 (XINHUA)

Marching to victory

The plan was made. The Red Army would cross Sichuan and Gansu provinces and finally reach northwest China's Shaanxi Province, which had a communist base area in the north.

However, the KMT troops had not been idle. They blocked the route to Sichuan and sought to squeeze the Red Army between two rivers, the Wujiang and the Yangtze. The KMT deployed its central armies as well as private armies of local warlords from regions along the route of the march, trying to crush the Red Army in one single strike.

Under Mao's leadership, the Red Army adopted a flexible mobile tactic, preparing to enter Sichuan by pretending not to go there. They went round in circles, which confused and exhausted the KMT troops. Taking advantage of the chaos, the Red Army entered Sichuan in May 1935 by crossing the Jinsha River, the name given to the Yangtze in its upper course.

After capturing the Luding Bridge and crossing the Dadu River, as well as scaling the snow-clad Jiajin Mountain towering over 4,000 meters, the Red Army arrived in Maogong, a small county deep in west Sichuan.

On August 1, 1935, the Revolutionary Military Council of the CPC issued a proclamation to the nation, Appeal to Fellow Countrymen Concerning Resistance to Japan and National Salvation. It called for the formation of a national united front against Japanese aggression.

At the end of August, the march resumed and the Red Army came to the Zoige Marsh in the eastern part of the Tibetan Plateau. Crossing the treacherous swamp which sucked in unwary travelers was one of the most terrible experiences of the Long March.

"Many of our soldiers died in crossing the Great Marshes due to the shortage of food and villainous weather. In the marshes, the weather kept changing from sunshine to rain to hail to snow and to wind in a brief moment. We could not sleep at night, the only thing we could do was sit back to back," a Red Army soldier who underwent the crossing recalled in the book Long March, written by Wang Shuzeng and published in 2006.

Finally, after crossing the Liupan Mountain, the Red Army entered Shaanxi. On October 20, 1935, the main body of the Red Army reached the communist base area in the northern part of Shaanxi. In the following year, other units of the Red Army also arrived at the base. The Long March was completed in October 1936.

After the two-year epic struggle, barely 20,000 soldiers survived.

"Adventure, exploration, discovery, human courage and cowardice, ecstasy and triumph, suffering, sacrifice, and loyalty, and then through it all, like a flame, an undimmed ardor and undying hope and amazing revolutionary optimism of those thousands of youths who would not admit defeat by man or nature or God or death—all this and more seemed embodied in the history of an odyssey unequaled in modern times," wrote American journalist Edgar Snow, who became a legend with his book on the Chinese communist movement, Red Star Over China.

"The Red Army crossed 18 mountain ranges, five of which were perennially snow-capped, and they crossed 24 rivers. They passed through 12 different provinces, occupied 62 cities and towns, and broke through enveloping armies of 10 different provincial warlords, besides defeating, eluding, or outmaneuvering the various forces of central troops of the KMT sent against them. They crossed six different aboriginal districts, and penetrated areas through which no Chinese army had gone for scores of years," Snow wrote in his book.

Mao made a prophecy about the Long March. "The Long March is the first of its kind in the annals of history...It has proclaimed to the world that the Red Army is an army of heroes. It has announced to some 200 million people in the provinces we marched through that the road of the Red Army is their only road to liberation," he wrote in his article On Tactics Against Japanese Imperialism. "The Long March has sown many seeds which will sprout, leaf, and blossom, and bear fruit, and will yield a harvest in the future."

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

Comments to yinpumin@bjreview.com

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