A Change of Guard

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Monday, 20 February 2012

Long March to mythology

by Martin Adams
Asia Tmes – Oct. 2006
Mao on horse back with survivors of the epic Long March

BEIJING - More than 70 years ago, chairman Mao Zedong decreed that "the Long March is propaganda". If he were alive today, he would doubtless be proud of the way in which the official 70th anniversary of the end of the Long March (1934-36) was marked on Sunday.

In Beijing, bookstores boast special displays of dozens of new books portraying the Red Army's hardships and derring-do. Newspapers carry the reminiscences of aging veterans. And Chinese television is presenting a feast of Long March-themed entertainment, including a 20-part drama series, documentaries, and even a song-and-dance extravaganza.

Under Mao's direction, the Chinese Communist Party spun one of the longest fighting retreats in military history, stretching from Jiangxi province in the south to Yanan in the barren northeast, into a heroic victory over the CCP's Kuomintang (KMT) foes.

To this day, Chinese history textbooks continue to bear the hallmarks of Mao in telling the tale of the Reds' escape from certain obliteration at the hands of KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek. A textbook used in Beijing schools, for instance, tells a classic tale of heroism conquering enemy encirclement, "snowy mountains" and treacherous marshes to regroup victoriously in Gansu 25,000 li (one li is 500 meters) away. The chapter even kicks off with a poem written by the Great Helmsman himself.

Indeed, two British writers who retraced the Long March in 2002-03 and interviewed veterans and witnesses, Ed Jocelyn and Andrew McEwen, conclude in their book The Long March (2006) that "Mao and his followers twisted the tale of the Long March for their own ends. Mao's role was mythologized to the point where ... it seemed he had single-handedly saved the Red Army and defeated Chiang Kai-shek". Mao exaggerated, perhaps even doubled, the length of the march, they believe.

Given the contribution of Edgar Snow in Red Star over China (1937) to Mao's glorification of the march, it may be appropriate that two foreigners should be among the first to begin the demystification of this key episode in modern Chinese history.

But, as implied by another book of the same name also released this year, written by Chinese-born, London-based documentary-maker Sun Shuyun, the importance of the Long March to CCP mystique means that China is far from ready for a reassessment. Long after the demise of the leader who set its tone, communist China's "founding myth" continues to serve its purpose. As she recounts, generations of Chinese have been indoctrinated in the "Long March spirit".

"If you find it hard, think of the Long March; if you feel tired, think of our revolutionary forbears." The message has been drilled into us so that we can accomplish any goal set before us by the party because nothing compares in difficulty with what they did. Decades after the historical one, we have been spurred on to ever more Long Marches - to industrialize China, to feed the largest population in the world, to catch up with the West, to reform the socialist economy, to send men into space, to engage with the 21st century.

Through interviews with more than 40 Long March veterans, Sun sets out explicitly to explode this myth, and try to piece together a more realistic version of events. She finds that, though the official version of the Long March may make good propaganda, it is not good history. While the evidence of these now-ancient witnesses 70 years after the fact must be treated with some circumspection, the tale they tell collectively points to large gaps and distortions in the officially sanctioned account.

To begin with, in contrast to the popular image of peasants practically queuing up to join the Reds, the recruitment of the rank-and-file was often far from idealistic. Kidnap and blackmail appear to have been common recruitment strategies. Female officers sometimes even recruited men with sex rather than be punished for not meeting their quotas. With morale based on these shaky foundations, it is no wonder that, despite orders that deserters be shot, men left in droves: Sun estimates that in a single battle at the Xiang River, perhaps a majority of the 30,000 unaccounted-for men deserted.

And while, in the popular legend, the Red Army is warmly welcomed by common folk wherever it wanders, this was far from always the case. As the desperate "Red Bandits", harried by Chiang Kai-shek's KMT troops and local warlords, passed through remote villages and ever more hostile terrain, disease and desertion took their toll and the Reds' desperation mounted.

In China's impoverished "wild west", where food was short and the weather deadly, if opium could not bribe villagers into giving the "Red Bandits" food, soldiers often stole the peasants' livelihoods. Indigenous Tibetans suffered especially badly, many reportedly starving to death after the Red Army confiscated their yaks and grain. Not even vain promises of independence could overcome their enmity: one veteran told Sun he remembers having more battles with the Tibetans than the KMT troops. Their suffering was so great that even Mao and Deng Xiaoping later recognized the debt the Red Army - renamed People's Liberation Army in 1946 - owed them.

However, one should not underestimate the hardships endured by the Red Army soldiers. In fact, says Sun, their experience was, if anything, actually tougher than the official history suggests.

Ill-equipped, many froze to death in the winter, while others were driven to eating their belts and rifle straps to ward off starvation. In these conditions, the sick and the young - including babies - were often abandoned. Female soldiers had a particularly harrowing time.

At a talk in Beijing this year, a tearful Sun Shuyun related how the extreme conditions caused many women to become infertile, and some were left behind to be raped by warlord troops only to be disowned later by the Communist Party. You may be sure that these grim realities will receive short shrift in the romanticized version of the Long March shown on prime-time TV this week.

But perhaps the most chilling detail, pieced together from Chinese sources, to emerge from Sun's book is how, even before coming to power, in the 1930s the party and Mao in particular showed early indications of a ruthlessly oppressive streak in a series of purges. One bloodthirsty cleanup in 1931 claimed an estimated 20,000 lives. Indeed, Sun believes that it was precisely because of these purges that a severely weakened Red Army was unable to defend its Jiangxi base in 1934 and was forced to flee. She laments, poignantly:
The new long marches [Mao] drove the Chinese people on for the next 40 years and were longer and more painful than the [Long] March itself. We suffered in part because we never knew why they had to go on the original march in the first place: the real reasons why the Red bases collapsed. The lessons of the [Long] March were eclipsed by the glory that was heaped on it. That remains true to this day.
As the 70th anniversary of the end of the Long March approaches, it may be appropriate to reflect with Sun on English playwright Alan Bennett's observation that the best way to forget an event is to commemorate it.

Martin Adams is a Beijing-based freelance writer. His credits include articles published in the Wall Street Journal Asia, That's Beijing magazine and That's Beijing Excursions Guide.

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