Series (History): The Cultural Revolution

Chapter 9: The Long March

This is the next installment of my book, The Cultural Revolution: Then and Mao.
To read the previous installment, click this link.
To start at the beginning, click this link.

Route of the Long March. There were actually three Long Marches, that all converged on Shaanxi, in the north. The dark red dashed line was the main march, and the route taken by Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, with their forces. The pink areas marked with X’s are Communist enclaves overrun by the KMT during the Fourth Encirclement Campaign. Notice that dashed lines run from two of these X’d out enclaves to new enclaves formed to the west. The pink, shaded areas that are not X’d out are Communist enclaves that were evacuated during the Fifth Encirclement Campaign. Map by Rowanwindwhistler. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Chapter 9
The Long March

85,000 Communist soldiers and 15,000 Communist cadres broke through the Kuomintang (KMT) line on October 14, 1934, and headed to southern Hunan Province. This began what would famously become known as the “Long March.” And it was indeed, very long.

It was a grueling and deadly ordeal of thousands of miles, which would later be mythologized and exaggerated to seem even more grueling, deadly, and long than it actually was. But even without exaggeration, the Long March was a heroic effort that galvanized the Communist Party.

By December 1st, 50,000 had already been lost through military casualty or desertion. They encountered heavy fighting, crossed rivers, and pushed tenaciously onward, finally arriving in Guizhou Province in January, 1935. There they were able to rest for a little while, catch their breath, and hold an important bureaucratic meeting to discuss their shitty situation.

This meeting is known as the Zunyi Conference. In this conference, Mao got involved in another fight. It was a power struggle over how they’d gotten into this mess, between some hand-picked leaders chosen by Stalin, and Mao and Zhou Enlai.

Zhou took responsibility for having made poor decisions, and criticized himself in front of the other leaders. But Stalin’s men did not take any responsibility. Mao, himself, had no responsibility, since he had been stripped of most leadership positions two years earlier. So he was in a position to criticize. And he went after Stalin’s men, and managed to have them demoted.

Zhou put his support behind Mao, and the two managed to emerge victorious. Mao emerged as the undisputed leader of the Communist Party. He was elected to Chairman of the Politburo, and leader of both the CPC and the Red Army. Zhou emerged as the number two leader.

They would both retain these #1 and #2 positions for the rest of their lives. Well, except for Mao, during the five years or so leading up to the Cultural Revolution. Stalin felt dismayed by all of this, but he grudgingly decided to support Mao.

Now Mao and Zhou were running the show. They knew the Red Army couldn’t stay where they were for very long, because Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT Army were after them. So the question put to Mao was, which way to go? North? East? South? West?

Mao decided on north by west. They would head west first, to evade the KMT. Then they would head north, until they reached Shaanxi Province in northern China. Shaanxi was near Japanese occupied territory. Mao reasoned that by fighting the imperialist Japanese forces, the Communists would win over the trust of the people, and could turn them against the KMT, who had abandoned their fight against the Japanese.

But China is a big country, and Shaanxi was a long, long way off from Guizhou Province, especially by foot. Mao led his troops through mountain passes. They fought their way over bridges. And when Chiang flew in KMT troops to meet him, he managed to outmaneuver the KMT and continue northward.

At one point, his forces encountered 50,000 CPC troops, led by General Zhang Guotao. Zhang urged Mao to head west to avoid capture, but Mao was stubborn in his direction north. The two forces parted ways. And onward Mao’s troops forged, through quagmires where they were attacked by Manchu tribesmen, and where famine and disease took the lives of many Red Army soldiers.

Communist leader addressing Long March survivors.

Finally they straggled into Shaanxi, 370 days and 5,600 miles later. Or so the propaganda claims. Some historians say they only traveled about three to four thousand miles, and the rest is exaggeration. But even so, it was a long, arduous, and costly journey. Only 7,000 to 8,000 of the original 100,000 managed to survive this march.

The Long March came at a tremendous cost to the Red Army and the Communist Party. But it was a moral victory for Mao. He became a celebrated hero, and this further secured his position as undisputed leader of the Party.

By the spring of 1936, Mao’s forces had increased to 15,000 strong. He began a recruitment and training operation, and by January, 1937, he was able to send guerrilla fighters into Japanese occupied territory to attack and harass imperial troops.

Come on back in a few days for the next installment, entitled Chapter 10: The Crazy, Wacky Xi’an Incident.

72 replies »

  1. I guess Mao was more than happy to be able to freely criticize and not have to bear any responsibility for his actions.
    I agree about it not mattering how many thousands of miles they marched, Thousands of miles are ALOT no matter how many! When we were in Vancouver I thought we walked A LOT, but well …. it wasn’t anywhere close to thousands of miles or hundreds even, but my legs were tired at the end of each day!

    Liked by 1 person

    • As I recall, there was a Long Bridge you marched over. I would have probably jumped off it, rather than walk that distance.

      So I think I’d be a lousy Communist. Ain’t no way I’m marching thousands of miles for any political cause.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You have a good memory! YES, that bridge about did me in. It wouldn’t have been as bad, if we hadn’t been walking most of the day before getting to the bridge in the evening. I don’t think I said what happened once we got over the bridge. We still had a ways to walk back to our hotel or we could call a taxi. I told my husband that he and my son were welcome to keep walking, but I was calling a taxi for my daughter and me. 🙂
        So yes, I would make a lousy Communist too! Plus I am not very good at torturing or being tortured!

        Liked by 1 person

        • So you admit I have a good memory? Great, so no more insinuations that I have dementia. I’m going to try to remember this comment. (Must repeat this comment over and over in my head).

          Thank heaven for taxis.

          The torturing part of communism isn’t so bad. They use very large feathers, and tickle their victims into delirium. Or, they get tickled when captured by their enemies. It’s actually kind of fun.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve always wondered how much of the recounting of the Long March was propaganda, like the supposed “Battle of Luding Bridge”. I don’t think an army is usually considered a viable fighting force without significant re-provision and reorganization when casualties reach 50%. And the whole point of a fighting retreat is to maximize casualties on the pursuer: Battle of Bataan, the Russians and Napoleon, Chief Joseph and the US Army Cavalry, even the local Paiute in battles of Pyramid Lake. Hmmm… I’m imagining a lot of (not especially heroic) desertions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I had thought of including a recounting of the Battle of Luding Bridge, but there’s been so much doubt cast on the accuracy of the facts, that I decided to leave it alone.

      I agree about desertions. That probably accounts for much of the decline in the Red Army numbers during this march.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think the Battle of Luding Bridge would be interesting in the same way as the (and I had to spend about 20-minutes digging around to recall his name) “Learn from Lei Feng” propaganda. The CCP tried reviving that latter one back in the early/mid 2000s, but not to much avail.

        Sorry for an off-topic question and comment: What inspired your interest in all of this? And… “…hold an important bureaucratic meeting to discuss their shitty situation.” If high school history textbooks (or EduTube videos) were written like this, I suspect a lot more teenagers would be able to locate China on a map.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’d never heard of Lei Feng, so I looked him up. Egads, what a load of crap. I can see how a propaganda campaign like that would inspire cynicism and sarcasm.

          After the death of George Floyd, we’ve seen a dramatic rise in the BLM movement. I can understand the initial protests, but it quickly devolved into a level of violence and political correctness that left some political pundits referencing China’s Cultural Revolution. I’d only been vaguely aware of the Cultural Revolution, so my curiosity got the best of me, and I started investigating. I guess having a lot of time on my hands, and a lot of enjoyment in the subject, one thing led to another, and now I have this book.

          Liked by 1 person

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