In October 1934, with their stronghold encircled and under siege, the prospects for the Chinese Communist Party were bleak. The tattered remnants of the Red Army numbered roughly 130,000, with as many as 300,000 Nationalists soldiers now encamped around them. It seemed only a matter of time before China’s brief foray into Communism ended in cataphoric bloodshed.
Now, I always quite like it when I get to use grand, slightly ostentatious phrases, but this is one instance where it seems perfectly valid – because what began in southern China in October 1934, completely altered the course of Chinese history.
When Communist troops made a daring breakout through one of the weaker sections of the Nationalist lines on 16th October, it began a frantic, year-long pursuit through jungles, mountains and swamps that has come to be known as the Long March. Covering between 6,000 km (3,700 miles) and 9,375 km (6,000 miles) depending on who you ask, this was one of the most extraordinary human hunts we’ve ever seen and an event that has come to define communist China.
Build up to Civil War
Towards the end of the 1920s, China was more united than it had been in a long time, while still facing widespread division and unrest. Under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) had gained control over much of the country, in particular the eastern areas. Yet it still faced staunch opposition from regional warlords, some of whom held power over areas the size of European countries.
The KMT had another sizable problem in the form of the burgeoning Chinese Communist Party (CCP), a group founded in 1921 under the loose guise of the Soviet model. The Shanghai massacre in April 1927, which led to the deaths of between 5,000 and 10,000 left-wing sympathizers – and probably many just in the wrong place at the wrong time – was followed by widespread persecution of communists living in KMT controlled areas. The fuse of the powder keg that would be the Chinese Civil War had been well and truly lit.
In August 1927, CCP forces attacked the city of Nanchang in what is now known as the Nanchang Uprising. Initial success was quickly tempered, and the Communists began a frantic retreat into the mountains as the KMT gave chase. This is often referred to as the Little Long March, as the bedraggled Communists hoofed their way through mountains in the height of summer. Hounded by the Nationalists, Communist numbers eventually dipped to just 1,000 – from the 25,000 that began. Not for the last time in our story, the Chinese Communists faced annihilation.
Fighting for their Lives
The slow rebuild of the Communist Party took several years and saw one of its most powerful figures at the time, Mao Zedong, demoted as one of the leaders of the CCP. Mao had also been one of the principal military leaders since the uprising in Nanchang, but during the Ningdu Conference in 1932, the decision was taken to replace him as commissar of the army with Zhou Enlai. This was in part a consequence of Mao’s purges which had targeted the Red Army attempting to root out KMT spies or sympathisers. This was done to such an extent, that Red Army numbers declined from 40,000 to just 10,000. Though as I’m sure you know full well, that’s not the last we’ll hear of Mao Zedong.
In the meantime, the CCP was doing their best to create some kind of semblance of an independent Communist state, with its headquarters in Ruijin in the province of Jiangxi. Easier said than done with a ravenous Nationalist army a constant presence.
From November 1930 until the breakout which sparked the Long March in October 1934, KMT forces attempted five major encirclement campaigns, each growing in size and ferocity. The first two were little more than complete failures as the well dug in Communists held out with relative ease. A third campaign was aborted in response to the Mukden Incident, in which the Japanese fabricated an attack on their forces and followed it up with the invasion of Manchuria. I know there’s already a lot going on to be bringing the Japanese in at this point, but this was the chaotic state of affairs in China during the early 1930s.
The fourth encirclement proved widely successful as the border regions of Hubei, Henan, and Anhui were overrun by the KMT. But whether it was overconfidence, mismanagement or just poor luck, the majority of the remaining Red Army was able to slip quietly away into the mountains.
The Fifth Encirclement
With Chiang Kai-shek now frothing at the mouth with fury after his troops had allowed the Red Army to escape, the fifth campaign took on an entirely different tone. Instead of pushing deep into enemy territory, the KMT took their time to first encircle Jiangxi, then build 14,000 blockhouses on the perimeter, all with machines trained on the Communist area. Essentially, these were a series of defensive perimeters that would be used offensively to trap the CCP inside. The noose was set.
But before we get into what came next, there was a slight oddity at play during the fifth encirclement, in that both sides came complete with a German advisor. On the Communist side was Otto Braun, a man from Bavaria who had initially trained to be a teacher before he fell into the life of the left-wing revolutionary – as you do. A Comintern agent sent from the USSR, he arrived in China in 1932 and first visited Shanghai before moving on to Ruijin where he was given the role of military advisor.
On the other opposite side – militarily and very much ideologically – was Hans von Seeckt, a veteran commander from World War I who arrived in China in 1933 as the head of the German military mission. This was a barely disguised I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine situation, in which the German government hoped to gain trade agreements, in particular for raw materials to manufacture weapons. In response, the Germans would sell the Chinese top of the range (or so they said) weapons and even throw in an eagle-eyed military man who could help them with their little ‘communist problem’. Chiang Kai-shek was so impressed with Von Seeckt that he made him his Deputy Chairman of the Military Affairs Council and the German’s advice led to immediate success.
With the thousands of bunkhouses constructed, the KMT began a scorched earth policy, proposed by Von Seeckt, that they hoped would force the Red Army to fight in the open. The tactic proved successful and over several months, the KMT pushed their way forward, while the Red Army continued with its suicidal frontal assaults on the heavily defended KMT lines – apparently, they had Otto Braun to thank for those ideas.
As the summer came to an end, Ruijin was now well within sight. A spy within the KMT army headquarters in Nanchang delivered the crushing news that a vast offensive was being planned, with anywhere between 500,000 and 700,000 soldiers set to descend on the Communist stronghold. With such overwhelming odds, the embattled Communist leaders knew they had some difficult decisions to make.
This is the point where I need to mention that the Long March has gone down in Chinese history as an event that came to represent the resilience and courage of the Chinese Communists. And as with any historical facts that have been carefully cultivated to promote a swelling of nationalistic pride, it can sometimes be difficult to tell propaganda from the truth. For example, Mao originally stated that his troops had travelled more than double the distance that most historians now agree on. Then there is the usual glossing over regarding the actions of the Red Army, whether that be widespread theft or recruiting teenage boys into the army. Just like what happened in the Soviet Union, the people who were said to fight for the people often did pretty horrific things to those people.
The breakout that would start the Long March was shrouded in secrecy, with many top commanders not informed of their role until the last minute. A series of small-scale attacks would be launched against the line to act as diversions while the majority of the remaining forces attacked the weakest point of the line, near Yudu. As many as 100,000 people, made up of soldiers, family members, administrative personnel and thousands of porters, broke through the line on 16th October 1934. But casualties were high and only around 86,000 made it through the early stages of the breakout. Between 25,000 and 30,000 troops remained behind in Ruijin, but of those only around 15,000 were combat-ready. These soldiers were given the unenviable task of holding off the Nationalists long enough for the remainder of the Red Army to escape.
It appears at this point the Communist got a helping hand after a warlord in control of a section of the line was identified as being – how can I say, less than fully committed. If the story is accurate, General Chen Jitang ordered his men to step aside and allow the Communists to pass because he either simply wanted to preserve his own military force or through lingering distrust of Chiang Kai-shek – or possibly both.
But this was just one of the lines that needed to be navigated and within sight of relative freedom, the Red Army came into contact with the KMT. The fighting was savage and of the 86,000 who had battled out of Ruijin, only 36,000 made it through the fortified lines.
The Chase Begins
There seems to have been plenty of confusion surrounding how, when and how many Red Army soldiers had escaped. I know when we’re talking about numbers in the tens of thousands it can be difficult to believe, but this speaks of not only the chaos going on at the time but also the terrain in which Communists were able to disappear into. But harsh, difficult to navigate terrain is a double-edged sword, as remnants of the First Red Army would quickly discover.
By the time Chiang Kai-shek grasped the full extent of what had happened, the Communists were pushing west into Hunan and then Guizhou Provinces. Now, to give you an idea of the early days of the Long March, here are a few points to consider. The Red Army didn’t leave Ruijin empty-handed – far from it. They intended to not simply escape the clutches of the Nationalists but to set up another Soviet (community or council) far enough away that they might be able to recover sufficiently to one day be able to once again challenge for the heart and soul of China. Heavy weapons, printing presses, x-rays, cooking equipment – you name it – the Communists were attempting to drag vast amounts through the harsh terrain. It must be said that much of this didn’t get very far and after some of the earliest major engagements, most of the equipment was soon abandoned.
Another factor was how relatively predictable – and incredibly slow – the early parts of the Long March were and how the soldiers chasing them often had a pretty good idea of where they were and where they were going. This was to such an extent that Nationalist forces were sometimes able to skirt around them in small groups and set up elaborate ambushes that frequently ravaged the large, lumbering force. It wasn’t until later that the Communists, and Mao, in particular, began using baffling manoeuvres to try and bamboozle the Nationalists.
And speaking of Mao, in the early stages of the March he was suffering from malaria and so spent much of his time travelling in a litter made up of woven fibre stretched between two bamboo poles and carried by two servants. Even when he recovered strength, he frequently favoured being carried rather than trudging through the mud – I mean who wouldn’t, but it doesn’t exactly paint an image of the heroic socialist man of the people. To be fair, many of the other Communist leaders were also often found snoozing away on a litter as the foot soldiers of the Red Army toiled on. This was rather outrageously explained by the fact that the leaders had to stay up all night devising plans, so took to sleeping during the day. It’s well known that Mao and several others developed sleeping pill addictions while on the Long March, which again, doesn’t exactly fit with the official party portrait.
As the bedraggled army approached the second largest city in Guizhou Province, Zunyi, cracks were beginning to tear through the Communist leaders. Disagreements on whether to backtrack east and try to join up with the Fourth Red Army or push further west had split those at the top. Otto Braun, possibly the only foreigner on the Long March, favoured returning east, but his stock had been shattered after several calamitous military engagements. Mao, who if you remember had actually been stripped of most of his power, thought heading west was the better option.
After taking the lightly defended town on 15th January, the Red Army paused to recuperate from what had been a harrowing three months. A make or break conference was convened that would not only establish who was to blame for the events after the breakout but also what kind of leadership change might be in the air. At this conference, our German friend Otto Braun, along with several others, shouldered the majority of the blame and once again power swung towards Mao. He was by no means in sole command at this point, but as one of the three members of the Military Affairs Commission, he had a huge say over military matters.
After leaving Zunyi, the Red Army turned north. Originally planning to pass directly through Sichuan Province, where they hoped to meet up with another section of the Red Army, their route was soon blocked by the mass ranks of the Nationalist force. What came next was a dizzying set of military manoeuvres in which Mao and his troops ducked, dived and dodged the large numbers of Nationalist soldiers over several months.
This led to the famous Four Crossings of Chishui River where the Red Army essentially turned their opponents inside out and back to front. You know when children chase each other but one has managed to get behind something sizable and the other just tires themselves out by chasing them in circles around it? This was almost exactly what happened, but with thousands of troops. With approximately 400,000 KMT troops converging from three sides, Mao just about managed to weave his way through and crossed the Chishui River on four separate occasions before finally finding a suitable place to cross the Yangtze and spring north, away from Chiang Kai-shek who had moved down to take control of the operation.
It’s also worth mentioning that amid this madcap game of chase, Mao’s wife gave birth. Details are pretty hazy about this, but apparently, the baby girl was given to a local couple in a village they were passing, because, well, you can’t take a baby on a multiple thousand-mile slog while being pursued by people who wanted nothing more than to put a bullet through your head. This part of the story gets even stranger, because in 2003, two Europeans retracing the route of the Long March, came to a village where the local authorities swore blind that a woman living there was Mao’s long lost daughter. It’s not clear whether anything ever came of this, and considering the number of children who would soon suffer under Mao leadership, it’s perhaps a story that the Chinese government is exactly itching to dig into.
Battle of Luding Bridge
Here we come to either A) the most glorious moment of the entire Long March or B) an embellished or even completely fabricated fable used purely for propaganda purposes. This is the argument over the Battle of Luding Bridge.
To the exuberant, hardline Chinese Communists, it doesn’t get any more misty-eyed than the events that took place in and around the Luding Bridge on 29th May 1935. When the Communists arrived at the Dadu River shortly before, they found only a handful of available boats. It would have taken at least a month to ferry everybody across, but there was a second option. Further upstream lay the Luding Bridge, one of those old rope bridges with wooden slats. The problem of course was that it was heavily defended and to make matters worse, many of the slats had already been removed.
According to the Communist legends, at least 22 men crawled painstakingly across the bridge under a torrent of fire before valiantly taking the other side with the help of a few hand grenades. This story has been repeated – and dare I say preached – ever since and was widely included in school textbooks as a way of exemplifying the brave Communist spirit. However, there are serious doubts over the validity of this version of the story. The taking of the Luding Bridge certainly happened, but rumours of a fairly easy engagement against poorly armed troops who quickly fled have swirled for years now.
At a speech at Stanford University, former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski shared what Deng Xiaoping, a future paramount leader of the People’s Republic of China, had once told him,
“Well, that’s the way it’s presented in our propaganda. We needed that to express the fighting spirit of our forces. In fact, it was a very easy military operation. There wasn’t really much to it. The other side was just some troops of the warlord who were armed with old muskets and it really wasn’t that much of a feat, but we felt we had to dramatize it.
Let me just reiterate that that was what the American said the Chinese man had told him, so we can’t take it as blind truth. I’ll leave that one with you.
The End of the Long March
After battling through the swamps and incessant attack by local warlords, Mao and his army arrived in Shaanxi in October 1935. There they joined other communist forces in the area who had already established a Soviet, while the shattered remains of the Fourth Army limped in soon after. The Long March officially came to a close on 22nd October 1935, when the Second Army arrived at the camp, an event known in China as the “union of the three armies”.
In truth, what had survived of the Communist movement in China was pitiful. Only around 8,000 remained of the Red Army that left Ruijin over a year before and membership of the party, in general, had plummeted from 300,000 to roughly 40,000. The fact that the CCP managed to not only survive, but eventually take control of all of China is fairly astonishing, but it’s important to remember that just two years later, the Communists and the KMT united to fight the invading Japanese. It’s impossible to say how it would have played out if the Japanese had not bitten off considerably more than they could chew, but had a sustained campaign against the Communists continued, they may not have survived.
The Long March was certainly an extraordinary campaign that epitomized the incredible resilience that humans possess. We can quibble over whether it was 6,430 km (4,000 miles) or 13,000 km (8,000 miles), but the truth is, how many of us could even do the low estimate – which by the way is roughly the distance across the United States – twice. However, this was also a story that has been carefully curated over time. The astonishing amount of ultra-heroic media on display to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Long March shows us that this story is still incredibly important to the Chinese government to help preserve its social mandate.
Even the fact that Mao was sometimes carried on a litter instead of walking is often not discussed, because that certain image just doesn’t work with how this story is supposed to look. In the later stages of the march he rode a white horse, and it is this image that is usually presented. The Chinese government wants to portray this as a rousing epic for a noble cause, but it’s probably a better example of how far humans can go when they’re running for their lives. But that’s not taking anything from those who took part. The survival of the First Red Army and the distance it covered, is barely believable in our soft 21st Century lives.
The tale of the Long March has to be considered one of the most extraordinary human achievements – an astonishing feat of endurance and willpower under horrific circumstances – but be careful where you step – there’s some bullshit lying around.