Chapter 9: The Long March
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.
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.