The Long March (1934-1936)

Introduction

All movements — political, religious, social — have their foundation myths and stories about their beginnings that reach heroic proportions over time and that are used to inspire and unify followers. For the Chinese Communist Party, it is the story of the Long March. In 1934, the Communists left their base in southeast China, where they had been more easily attacked by the Nationalists, and wound their way over 6,000 miles to the north on their Long March. The journey took two years. Read the following selection by Edgar Snow (1905-1972), an American journalist who traveled to meet Mao Zedong (1893-1976) in his northern China stronghold at Yenan, and Mao's poem on the Long March and note how:

      • past and present are intertwined in discussions of contemporary affairs;
      • leaders appeal to certain values to unify the people;
      • the difficulty of the struggle is used to test people's faith in the movement.

Edgar Snow's Account of "The Long March"

A Nation Emigrates

Having successfully broken through the first line of fortifications, the Red Army set out on its epochal year-long trek to the west and to the north, a varicolored and many-storied expedition describable here only in briefest outline. The Communists told me that they were writing a collective account of the Long March, with contributions from dozens who made it, which already totaled about 300,000 words. 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 modem times.

The Reds themselves generally spoke of it as the "25,000-li March," and with all its twists, turns and countermarches, from the farthest point in Fukien to the end of the road in far northwest Shensi, some sections of the marchers undoubtedly did that much or more. An accurate stage-by-stage itinerary prepared by the First Army Corps [1] showed that its route covered a total of 18,088 li, or 6,000 miles — about twice the width of the American continent — and this figure was perhaps the average march of the main forces. The journey took them across some of the world's most difficult trails, unfit for wheeled traffic, and across the high snow mountains and the great rivers of Asia. It was one long battle from beginning to end.

Four main lines of defense works, supported by strings of concrete machine-gun nests and blockhouses, surrounded the Soviet districts in Southwest China, and the Reds had to shatter those before they could reach the unblockaded areas to the west. The first line, in Kiangsi, was broken on October 21, 1934; the second, in Hunan, was occupied on November 3; and a week later the third, also in Hunan, fell to the Reds after bloody fighting. The Kwangsi and Hunan troops gave up the fourth and last line on November 29, and the Reds swung northward into Hunan, to begin trekking in a straight line for Szechuan, where they planned to enter the Soviet districts and combine with the Fourth Front Army there, under Hsu Hsiang-ch'ien. Between the dates mentioned above, nine battles were fought. In all, a combination of 110 regiments had been mobilized in their path by Nanking and by the provincial warlords Ch'en Ch'i-tang, Ho Chien, and Pai Chung-hsi.

During the march through Kiangsi, Kwangtung, Kwangsi, and Hunan, the Reds suffered very heavy losses. Their numbers were reduced by about one-third by the time they reached the border of Kweichow province. This was due, first, to the impediment of a vast amount of transport, 5,000 men being engaged in that task alone. The vanguard was very much retarded, and in many cases the enemy was given time to prepare elaborate obstructions in the line of march. Second, from Kiangsi an undeviating northwesterly route was maintained, which enabled Nanking to anticipate most of the Red Army's movements.

Serious losses as a result of these errors caused the Reds to adopt new tactics in Kweichow. Instead of an arrowlike advance, they began a series of distracting maneuvers, so that it became more and more difficult for Nanking planes to identify the day-by-day objective of the main forces. Two columns, and sometimes as many as four columns, engaged in a baffling series of maneuvers on the flanks of the central column, and the vanguard developed a pincerlike front. Only the barest and lightest essentials of equipment were retained, and night marches for the greatly reduced transport corps — a daily target for the air bombing — became routine.

Anticipating an attempt to cross the Yangtze River into Szechuan, Chiang-Kai-shek withdrew thousands of troops from Hupeh, Anhui, and Kiangsi and shipped them hurriedly westward, to cut off ( from the north) the Red Army's route of advance. All crossings were heavily fortified; all ferries were drawn to the north bank of the river; all roads were blocked; great areas were denuded of grain. Other thousands of Nanking troops poured into Kweichow to reinforce the opium-soaked provincials of warlord Wang Chia-lieh, whose army in the end was practically immobilized by the Reds. Still others were dispatched to the Yunnan border, to set up obstacles there. In Kweichow, therefore, the Reds found a reception committee of a couple of hundred thousand troops, and obstructions thrown up everywhere in their path. This necessitated two great countermarches across the province, and a wide circular movement around the capital.

Maneuvers in Kweichow occupied the Reds for four months, during which they destroyed five enemy divisions, captured the headquarters of Governor Wang and occupied his foreign-style palace in Tsunyi, recruited about 20,000 men, and visited most of the villages and towns of the province, calling mass meetings and organizing Communist cadres among the youth. Their losses were negligible, but they still faced the problem of crossing the Yangtze. By his swift concentration on the Kweichow-Szechuan border, Chiang Kai-shek had skillfully blocked the short, direct roads that led to the great river. He now placed his main hope of exterminating the Reds on the prevention of this crossing at any point, hoping to push them far to the southwest, or into the wastelands of Tibet. To his various commanders and the provincial warlords he telegraphed: "The fate of the nation and the party depends on bottling up the Reds south of the Yangtze."

Suddenly, early in May, 1935, the Reds turned southward and entered Yunnan, where China's frontier meets Burma and Indochina. A spectacular march in four days brought them within ten miles of the capital, Yunnanfu, and warlord Lung Yun (Dragon Cloud) frantically mobilized all available troops for defense. Chiang's reinforcements meanwhile moved in from Kweichow in hot pursuit. Chiang himself and Mme. Chiang, who had been staying in Yunnanfu, hastily repaired down the French railway toward Indochina. A big squadron of Nanking bombers kept up their daily egg-laying over the Reds, but on they came. Presently the panic ended. It was discovered that their drive on Yunnanfu had been only a diversion carried out by a few troops. The main Red forces were moving westward, obviously with the intention of crossing the river at Lengkai, one of the few navigable points of the Upper Yangtze.

Through the wild mountainous country of Yunnan, the Yangtze River flows deeply and swiftly between immense gorges, great peaks in places rising in defiles of a mile or more, with steep walls of rock lifting almost perpendicularly on either side. The few crossings had all been occupied long ago by government troops. Chiang was well pleased. He now ordered all boats drawn to the north bank of the river and burned. Then he started his own troops, and Lung Yun's, in an enveloping movement around the Red Army, hoping to finish it off forever on the banks of this historic and treacherous stream.

Seemingly unaware of their fate, the Reds continued to march rapidly westward in three columns toward Lengkai. The boats had been burned there, and Nanking pilots reported that a Red vanguard had begun building a bamboo bridge. Chiang became more confident; this bridge-building would take weeks. But one evening, quite unobtrusively, a Red battalion suddenly reversed its direction. On a phenomenal forced march it covered eighty-five miles in one night and day, and in late afternoon descended upon the only other possible ferry crossing in the vicinity, at Chou P'ing Fort. Dressed in captured Nanking uniforms, the battalion entered the town at dusk without arousing comment, and quietly disarmed the garrison.

Boats had been withdrawn to the north bank — but they had not been destroyed. (Why spoil boats, when the Reds were hundreds of li distant, and not coming there anyway? So the government troops may have reasoned.) But how to get one over to the south bank? After dark the Reds escorted a village official to the river and forced him to call out to the guards on the opposite side that some government troops had arrived and wanted a boat. Unsuspectingly one was sent across. Into it piled a detachment of these "Nanking" soldiers, who soon disembarked on the north shore — in Szechuan at last. Calmly entering the garrison, they surprised guards who were peacefully playing mah-jong and whose stacked weapons the Reds took over without any struggle.

Meanwhile the main forces of the Red Army had executed a wide countermarch, and by noon of the next day the vanguard reached the fort. Crossing was now a simple matter. Six big boats worked constantly for nine days. The entire army was transported into Szechuan without a life lost. Having concluded the operation, the Reds promptly destroyed the vessels and lay down to sleep. When Chiang's forces reached the river, two days later, the rear guard of their enemy called cheerily to them from the north bank to come on over, the swimming was fine. The government troops were obliged to make a detour of over 200 li to the nearest crossing, and the Reds thus shook them from their trail. Infuriated, the Generalissimo now flew to Szechuan, where he mobilized new forces in the path of the oncoming horde, hoping to cut them off at one more strategic river — the great Tatu.

The Heroes of Tatu

The crossing of the Tatu River was the most critical single incident of the Long March. Had the Red Army failed there, quite possibly it would have been exterminated. The historic precedent for such a fate already existed. On the banks of the remote Tatu the heroes of the Three Kingdoms and many warriors since then had met defeat, and in these same gorges the last of the T'ai-p'ing rebels, an army of 100,000 led by Prince Shih Ta-k'ai, was in the nineteenth century surrounded and completely destroyed by the Manchu forces under the famous Tseng Kuo-fan. To warlords Liu Hsiang and Liu Wen-hui, his allies in Szechuan, and to his own generals in command of the government pursuit, Generalissimo Chiang now wired an exhortation to repeat the history of the T'ai-p'ing.

But the Reds also knew about Shih Ta-k'ai, and that the main cause of his defeat had been a costly delay. Arriving at the banks of the Tatu, Prince Shih had paused for three days to honor the birth of his son — an imperial prince. Those days of rest had given his enemy the chance to concentrate against him, and to make the swift marches in his rear that blocked his line of retreat. Realizing his mistake too late, Prince Shih had tried to break the enemy encirclement, but it was impossible to maneuver in the narrow terrain of the defiles, and he was erased from the map.

The Reds determined not to repeat his error. Moving rapidly northward from the Gold Sand River (as the Yangtze there is known) into Szechuan, they soon entered the tribal country of warlike aborigines, the "White" and "Black" Lolos of Independent Lololand. Never conquered, never absorbed by the Chinese who dwelt all around them, the turbulent Lolos had for centuries occupied that densely forested and mountainous spur of Szechuan whose borders are marked by the great southward arc described by the Yangtze just east of Tibet. Chiang Kai-shek could well have confidently counted on a long delay and weakening of the Reds here which would enable him to concentrate north of the Tatu. The Lolos' hatred of the Chinese was traditional, and rarely had any Chinese army crossed their borders without heavy losses or extermination.

But the Reds had already safely passed through the tribal districts of the Miao and the Shan peoples, aborigines of Kweichow and Yunnan, and had won their friendship and even enlisted some tribesmen in their army. Now they sent envoys ahead to parley with the Lolos. On the way they captured several towns on the borders of independent Lololand, where they found a number of Lolo chieftains who had been imprisoned as hostages by provincial Chinese warlords. Freed and sent back to their people, these men naturally praised the Reds.

In the vanguard of the Red Army was Commander Liu Po-ch'eng, [2] who had once been an officer in a warlord army of Szechuan. Liu knew the tribal people, and their inner feuds and discontent. Especially he knew their hatred of Chinese, and he could speak something of the Lolo tongue. Assigned the task of negotiating a friendly alliance, he entered their territory and went into conference with the chieftains. The Lolos, he said, opposed warlords Liu Hsiang and Liu Wen-hui and the Kuomintang; so did the Reds. The Lolos wanted to preserve their independence; Red policies favored autonomy for all the national minorities of China. The Lolos hated the Chinese because they had been oppressed by them; but there were "White" Chinese and "Red" Chinese, just as there were "White" Lolos and "Black" Lolos, and it was the White Chinese who had always slain and oppressed the Lolos. Should not the Red Chinese and the Black Lolos unite against their common enemies, the White Chinese? The Lolos listened interestedly. Slyly they asked for arms and bullets to guard their independence and help Red Chinese fight the Whites. To their astonishment, the Reds gave them both.

And so it happened that not only a speedy but a politically useful passage was accomplished. Hundreds of Lolos enlisted with the "Red" Chinese to march to the Tatu River to fight the common enemy. Some of those Lolos were to trek clear to the Northwest. Liu Po-ch'eng drank the blood of a newly killed chicken before the high chieftain of the Lolos, who drank also, and they swore blood brotherhood in the tribal manner. By this vow the Reds declared that whosoever should violate the terms of their alliance would be even as weak and cowardly as the fowl.

Thus a vanguard division of the First Army Corps, led by Lin Piao, reached the Tatu Ho. On the last day of the march they emerged from the forests of Lololand (in the thick foliage of which Nanking pilots had completely lost track of them), to descend suddenly on the river town of An Jen Ch'ang, just as unheralded as they had come into Chou P'ing Fort. Guided over narrow mountain trails by the Lolos, the vanguard crept quietly up to the little town and from the heights looked down to the river bank, and saw with amazement and delight one of the three ferryboats made fast on the south bank of the river! Once more an act of fate had befriended them.

How had it happened? On the opposite shore there was only one regiment of the troops of General Liu Wen-hui, the co-dictator of Szechuan province. Other Szechuan troops, as well as reinforcements from Nanking, were leisurely proceeding toward the Tatu, but the single regiment meanwhile must have seemed enough. A squad should have been ample, with all boats moored to the north. But the commander of that regiment was a native of the district; he knew the country the Reds must pass through, and how long it would take them to penetrate to the river. They would be many days yet, he could have told his men. And his wife, one learned, had been a native of An Jen Ch'ang, so he must cross to the south bank to visit his relatives and his friends and to feast with them. Thus it happened that the Reds, taking the town by surprise, captured the commander, his boat, and their passage to the north.

Sixteen men from each of five companies volunteered to cross in the first boat and bring back the others, while on the south bank the Reds set up machine guns on the mountainsides and over the river spread a screen of protective fire concentrated on the enemy's exposed positions. It was May. Floods poured down the mountains, and the river was swift and even wider than the Yangtze. Starting far upstream, the ferry took two hours to cross and land just opposite the town. From the south bank the villagers of An Jen Ch'ang watched breathlessly. They would be wiped out! But wait. They saw the voyagers land almost beneath the guns of the enemy. Now, surely, they would be finished. And yet . . . from the south bank the Red machine guns barked on. The onlookers saw the little party climb ashore, hurriedly take cover, then slowly work their way up a steep cliff overhanging the enemy's positions. There they set up their own light machine guns and sent a downpour of lead and hand grenades into the enemy redoubts along the river.

Suddenly the White troops ceased firing, broke from their redoubts, and fled to a second and then a third line of defense. A great murmur went up from the south bank and shouts of "Hao!" drifted across the river to the little band who had captured the ferry landing. Meanwhile the first boat returned, towing two others, and on the second trip each carried eighty men. The enemy had fled. That day and night, and the next, and the next, those three ferries of An Jen Ch'ang worked back and forth until at last nearly a division had been transferred to the northern bank

But the river flowed faster and faster. The crossing became more and more difficult. On the third day it took four hours to shift a boatload of men from shore to shore. At this rate it would be weeks before the whole army and its animals and supplies could be moved. Long before the operation was completed they would be encircled. The First Army Corps had now crowded into An Jen Ch'ang, and behind were the flanking columns, and the transport and rear guard. Chiang Kai-shek's airplanes had found the spot, and heavily bombed it. Enemy troops were racing up from the southeast; others approached from the north. A hurried military conference was summoned by Lin Piao. Chu Teh, Mao Tse-tung, Chou En-lai, and P'eng Teh-huai had by now reached the river. They took a decision and began to carry it out at once.

Some 400 li to the west of An Jen Ch'ang, where the gorges rise very high and the river flows narrow, deep, and swift, there was an iron-chain suspension bridge called the Liu Ting Chiao — the Bridge Fixed by Liu. [3] It was the last possible crossing of the Tatu east of Tibet. Toward this the barefoot Reds now set out along a trail that wound through the gorges, at times climbing several thousand feet, again dropping low to the level of the swollen stream itself and wallowing through waist-deep mud. If they captured the Liu Ting Chiao the whole army could enter central Szechuan. If they failed they would have to retrace their steps through Lololand, re-enter Yunnan, and fight their way westward toward Likiang on the Tibetan border — a detour of more than a thousand li, which few might hope to survive.

As their main forces pushed westward along the southern bank, the Red division already on the northern bank moved also. Sometimes the gorges between them closed so narrowly that the two lines of Reds could shout to each other across the stream; sometimes that gulf between them measured their fear that the Tatu might separate them forever, and they stepped more swiftly. As they wound in long dragon Ales along the cliffs at night their 10,000 torches sent arrows of light slanting down the dark face of the imprisoning river. Day and night these vanguards moved at double-quick, pausing only for brief ten-minute rests and meals, when the soldiers listened to lectures by their weary political workers, who over and over again explained the importance of this one action, exhorting each to give his last breath, his last urgent strength, for victory in the test ahead of them. There could be no slackening of pace, no halfheartedness, no fatigue. "Victory was life," said P'eng Teh-huai; "defeat was certain death."

On the second day the vanguard on the right bank fell behind. Szechuan troops had set up positions in the road, and skirmishes took place. Those on the southern bank pressed on more grimly. Presently new troops appeared on the opposite bank, and through their field glasses the Reds saw that they were White reinforcements, hurrying to the Bridge Fixed by Liu. For a whole day these troops raced each other along the stream, but gradually the Red vanguard, the pick of all the Red Army, pulled away from the enemy's tired soldiers, whose rests were longer and more frequent, whose energy seemed more spent, and who were perhaps none too anxious to die for a bridge.

The Bridge Fixed by Liu was built centuries ago, and in the manner of all bridges of the deep rivers of western China. Sixteen heavy iron chains, with a span of some 100 yards or more, were stretched across the river, their ends imbedded on each side under great piles of cemented rock, beneath the stone bridgeheads. Thick boards lashed over the chains made the road of the bridge, but upon their arrival the Reds found that half this wooden flooring had been removed, and before them only the bare iron chains swung to a point midway in the stream. At the northern bridgehead an enemy machine-gun nest faced them, and behind it were positions held by a regiment of White troops. The bridge should, of course, have been destroyed, but the Szechuanese were sentimental about their few bridges; it was not easy to rebuild them, and they were costly. Of Liu Ting it was said that "the wealth of the eighteen provinces contributed to build it." And who would have thought the Reds would insanely try to cross on the chains alone? But that was what they did.

No time was to be lost. The bridge must be captured before enemy reinforcements arrived. Once more volunteers were called for. One by one Red soldiers stepped forward to risk their lives, and, of those who offered themselves, thirty were chosen. Hand grenades and Mausers were strapped to their backs, and soon they were swinging out above the boiling river, moving hand over hand, clinging to the iron chains. Red machine guns barked at enemy redoubts and spattered the bridgehead with bullets. The enemy replied with machine-gunning of his own, and snipers shot at the Reds tossing high above the water, working slowly toward them. The first warrior was hit, and dropped into the current below; a second fell, and then a third. But as others drew nearer the center, the bridge flooring somewhat protected these dare-to-dies, and most of the enemy bullets glanced off, or ended in the cliffs on the opposite bank.

Probably never before had the Szechuanese seen fighters like these — men for whom soldiering was not just a rice bowl, and youths ready to commit suicide to win. Were they human beings or madmen or gods? Was their own morale affected? Did they perhaps not shoot to kill? Did some of them secretly pray that these men would succeed in their attempt? At last one Red crawled up over the bridge flooring, uncapped a grenade, and tossed it with perfect aim into the enemy redoubt. Nationalist officers ordered the rest of the planking torn up. It was already too late. More Reds were crawling into sight. Paraffin was thrown on the planking, and it began to bum. By then about twenty Reds were moving forward on their hands and knees, tossing grenade after grenade into the enemy machine-gun nest.

Suddenly, on the southern shore, their comrades began to shout with joy. "Long live the Red Army! Long live the Revolution! Long live the heroes of Tatu Ho!" For the enemy was withdrawing in pell-mell flight. Running full speed over the remaining planks of the bridge, through the flames licking toward them, the assailants nimbly hopped into the enemy's redoubt and turned the abandoned machine gun against the shore.

More Reds now swarmed over the chains, and arrived to help put out the fire and replace the boards. And soon afterwards the Red division that had crossed at An Jen Ch'ang came into sight, opening a flank attack on the remaining enemy positions, so that in a little while the White troops were wholly in flight — either in flight, that is, or with the Reds, for about a hundred Szechuan soldiers here threw down their rifles and turned to join their pursuers. In an hour or two the whole army was joyously tramping and singing its way across the River Tatu into Szechuan. Far overhead angrily and impotently roared the planes of Chiang Kai-shek, and the Reds cried out in delirious challenge to them.

For their distinguished bravery the heroes of An fen Ch'ang and Liu Ting Chiao were awarded the Gold Star, highest decoration in the Red Army of China.

[1] An Account of the Long March, First Army Corps (Yu Wang Pao, August, 1936).
[2] See BN.
[3] Literally the bridge "made fast" by Liu.

From Edgar Snow, Red Star Over China (New York: Grove Press, 1968). (Originally published 1938).

| back to top |

"The Long March": A Poem by Mao Zedong

The Red Army fears not the trials of the Long March
And thinks nothing of a thousand mountains and rivers.
The Wuling Ridges spread out like ripples;
The Wumeng Ranges roll like balls of clay.
Warmly are the cliffs wrapped in clouds washed by the Gold Sand;
Chilly are the iron chains lying across the width of the Great Ferry.
A thousand acres of snow on the Min Mountain delight
My troops who have just left them behind.

— Mao Zedong, September 1935

From David L. Weitzman, Mao Tse-tung and The Chinese Revolution.

| back to top |

Suggested Activities

  1. On a map of China trace the route of the Long March. Why was the route so twisted and torturous? Why did the Communists travel all the way to Yenan? Find the places Mao's poem refers to. Why did he mention these particular places?

  2. Compare the Long March of the Chinese Communists with other key events that become mythologized, for example: Paul Revere's ride, the storming of the Bastille in Paris, the attack on the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, the victory of Shaka Zulu in southern Africa, the slave mutiny on the Amistad, Rosa Parks' refusal to move to the back of the bus in the American Civil Rights movement.

| back to top |

© 2009 Asia for Educators, Columbia University | http://afe.easia.columbia.edu