China’s Long March: The Facts and the Myths.

This week in Asian history month I will be covering one of the important events in the history of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – the Long March. The Long March ensured the survival of the CCP and capitulated Mao Zedong to the front of the party’s leadership. Due to this importance, the events of the Long March have essentially become myth and legend in Chinese history – the political capital of this event has fuelled CCP propaganda ever since. In this post I will address the history and facts of the events and why it has become so important to the CCP and their propaganda.

The Long March lasted from 1934 to 1935 and was a military retreat undertaken by the CCP to evade the Kuomintang Party (KMT). The KMT was founded by Dr. Sun Yat-Sen in 1911 and was considered the Nationalist party in China and the often opposition and partner of the CCP. The KMT and the CCP unified in 1923 to form the First United Front to end Warlordism in China. However leadership of the KMT transferred to Chiang Kai-Shek in 1925 after the death of Sun Yat-Sen and a spilt occurred between the CCP and KMT shortly thereafter, hence the Long March. The Long March was not one continuous trek but rather a series of skirmishes as various CCP fractions escaped the KMT.

Under the guidance of Chiang Kai-Shek the KMT launched a series of five encirclement campaigns against the CCP who were then based in the Jiangxi and Fujian provinces in south-east China. This to ensure their demise in 1930 and 1934 – they used guerrilla tactics to surround the CCP camps and essentially starve them out and force them to fight. The CCP managed to resist the first four campaigns but in the fifth Chiang Kai-Shek built massive fortifications, successfully overrunning the CCP. This was because Mao had been removed from his position as an influential leader by Otto Braun (a Russian communist sent as a form of support from the Soviets) who used the tactics that clashed with Mao’s. With defeat clear, the CCP began to break out of the encirclement and the Long March began on October 16, 1934. Using secrecy and undercover tactics meant that it was some weeks before the KMT noticed that the main body of the Red Army had fled. The retreating force of around 85,000 troops often marched under the cover of night. Mao began to gain his influence, emerging as a top military and political leader by offering a change of strategy which saw the main army break up into several smaller fractions to take varying paths to confuse the enemy.

After enduring starvation, aerial attacks, and almost daily attacks by the KMT for a year, Mao halted the long March in the northern Shaanxi province on October 20, 1935. By some historians’ estimates, 8,000 or fewer marchers completed the journey – which covered more than 4,000 miles, 24 rivers, and 18 mountain ranges. The CCP were safe from the KMT and they could continue to gain influence over the Chinese masses until 1949 when the KMT was defeated and the People’s Republic of China was claimed.

The history of the Long March is so unusual that it almost doesn’t need exaggeration but due to the fact that Mao Zedong emerged as the undisputed leader of the CCP during this, it has almost entered mythical status. From this, Mao would serve as head of the CCP until his death in 1976 and is still remembered by Chinese society as a larger than life figure. It is considered one of the great physical feats of the twentieth century but due to its use in Chinese propaganda, it is surrounded by conflicting accounts of what occurred. For example, the Battle of Luding Bridge has always been portrayed as a glorious and heroic moment in Chinese history. The official account offered by the CCP shows that exhausted CCP forces had to fight across a bridge guarded by the much larger KMT forces. The CCP sent a small battalion that braves the gunfire to assault the enemy positions hence securing the bridge for the army to cross. This event is incorporated into all textbooks in Chinese elementary schools and is used to magnify the heroism of the Red Army. However British-Chinese author Jung Chang and her husband Jon Halliday wrote in their 2005 biography of Mao, Mao: The Unknown Story, claim that there was no battle using eyewitnesses as evidence. Although their claim that the battle did not occur is actually rare most agree that propaganda greatly exaggerated the event.

The legend of the Long March is central to the history of the CCP and their Red Army. Military victories during from 1934-35 were few and far between but when they did come, such as the Battle of Luding Bridge, they were exploited to the full. This is all especially true as it was established Mao Zedong as the undisputed leader of the CCP, allowing for him to lead China and become a mythical figure even now, decades after his death It is often said that history is written by winners and the Long March narrative does show support for this. The way it is taught in Chinese schools today still closely reflects the way Mao believed it to be understood. It would be too far to call it a lie – the March happened and is undoubtedly a great feat of physical strength and military tactics. However the narrative has been shaped to showcase the values that Mao believes in – physical toughness, self-sufficiency, and more. Whilst some facts can be disputed, no one can claim that this Long March was not a turning point for the CCP, Mao Zedong, and for China.

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