Magazine article The Spectator

Spring Forward, Fall Back

Magazine article The Spectator

Spring Forward, Fall Back

Article excerpt

THE LONG MARCH by Sun Shuyun HarperCollins, £20, pp. 302, ISBN 000719479X

Republics, as much as monarchies, need founding myths in order to legitimise themselves in the eyes of their subjects. For a long time, the image of Chairman Mao leading his ragtag troops over 10,000 kilometers, across 18 mountain ranges and 24 rivers, offered abundant proof of communist bravery, endurance and selfless idealism to the Chinese. Compared to Mao's exertions, Gandhi's Salt March, the central legend of Indian nationalism, looks like a public relations gimmick.

The Long March was first mythologised by the American journalist Edgar Snow, who visited Mao at his safe base in north-west China in 1936, and whose largely admiring account of Chinese communists in Red Star Over China shaped international perceptions of them for the next few decades. The communists, who finally overthrew their rival Chiang Kai-shek in 1949, then memorialised the Long March in hundreds of stories, songs and plays.

What was unsurprisingly not stressed in these accounts was that the Long March was a desperate military retreat, caused as much by communist disunity and military ineptitude as Chiang Kai-shek's campaigns to root out the 'Red Bandits'. One-sided battles, starvation and disease reduced the 100,000 who started out in late 1934 to about 8,000.

Though Mao saw off such rivals as Zhou Enlai and emerged as the undisputed leader of the communists during the March, the Great Helmsman made mistakes that cost thousands of lives.

Since Mao outlasted, or managed to suppress, many of the survivors of the Long March, it was not until after his death in 1976, after all the many arduous tasks -- the March as well as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution -- he imposed on the Chinese that his legend was re-evaluated. The boldest recent revisionists are Jung Chang and Jon Halliday who claim, in their recent biography, that the most famous battle of the Long March at Dadu Bridge never took place, and that Mao, who fought only one real battle, was greatly helped by Chiang Kai-shek's decision to leave many escape routes open.

Whatever the truth of this, the Long March is due for a re-examination, particularly because its few hundred survivors don't have too long to live. In 2004, the year of its 70th anniversary, Sun Shuyun, who had previously traced the journey of the seventhcentury Chinese monk Xuanzang, set out to follow the zigzag path taken by the retreating communists in the mid-1930s. …

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