What Was the Long March?

The Long March solidified Mao Zedong's leadership position within the Communist forces.
Map of the Long March, the Chinese Red Army's famous series of 6,000 + kilometer retreats during the Chinese Civil War. US Military Academy at West Point.

Imagine leading your troops on a retreat through territory so deadly that it kills 90% of them.  Imagine climbing through some of the highest mountain ranges on Earth, fording flooded rivers without any boats or safety equipment, and crossing rickety rope bridges while under enemy fire.  Imagine being one of the soldiers on this retreat, perhaps a pregnant female soldier, possibly even with bound feet.

This is the myth and to some extent the reality, of the Chinese Red Army's Long March of 1934 and 1935.

The Long March was an epic retreat by the three Red Armies of China that took place in 1934 and 1935, during the Chinese Civil War.  It was a key moment in the civil war, and also in the development of communism in China.  A leader of the communist forces emerged from the horrors of the march - Mao Zedong, who would go on to lead them to victory over the Nationalists.

Background:

Early in 1934, the communist Red Army of China was on its heels, outnumbered and outgunned by the Nationalists or Kuomintang (KMT), led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.  Chiang's troops had spent the previous year deploying a tactic called the Encirclement Campaigns, in which his larger armies encircled communist strongholds and then crushed them. 

The Red Army's strength and morale were seriously undermined as it faced defeat after defeat, and suffered numerous casualties.

Threatened with extermination by the better-led and more numerous Kuomintang, about 85% of the Communist troops fled west and north.  They left a rearguard to defend their retreat; interestingly, the rearguard suffered far fewer casualties than the Long March participants.

The March:

From their base in Jiangxi Province, southern China, the Red Armies set out in October of 1934, and according to Mao, marched some 12,500 kilometers (about 8,000 miles).

More recent estimates put the distance at a much shorter but still impressive 6,000 km (3,700 miles). This estimate is based on measurements two British trekkers made while retracing the route - a large arc that ended in Shaanxi Province.

Mao himself had been demoted before the march and was also sick with malaria.  He had to be carried for the first several weeks in a litter, borne by two soldiers.  Mao's wife, He Zizhen, was very pregnant when the Long March began.  She gave birth to a daughter along the way and gave the child to a local family.

As they made their way west and north, the communist forces stole food from local villagers.  If the locals refused to feed them, the Red Armies might take people hostage and ransom them for food, or even force them to join the march.  In later Party mythology, however, the local villagers welcomed the Red Armies as liberators and were grateful for being rescued from the rule of local warlords.

One of the first incidents that would become a communist legend was the Battle for Luding Bridge on May 29, 1935.  Luding is a chain suspension bridge over the Dadu River in Sichuan Province, on the border with Tibet.  According to the official history of the Long March, 22 brave communist soldiers seized the bridge from a larger group of Nationalist forces armed with machine guns.

  Because their foes had removed the cross-boards from the bridge, the communists crossed by hanging from the underside of the chains and shimmying across under enemy fire.

In reality, their opponents were a small group of soldiers belonging to a local warlord's army.  The warlord's troops were armed with antique muskets; it was Mao's forces that had machine guns.  The communists forced several local villagers to cross the bridge before them - and the warlord's troops shot them all down.  However, once the Red Army soldiers engaged them in battle, the local militia pulled back very quickly.  It was in their best interest to get the communist army through their territory as fast as possible.  Their commander was more concerned about his supposed allies, the Nationalists, who might pursue the Red Army into his lands, and then take direct control of the area.

The First Red Army wanted to avoid confronting either the Tibetans to the west or the Nationalist army to the east, so they crossed the 14,000 foot (4,270 meter) Jiajinshan Pass in the Snowy Mountains in June.  The troops carried packs weighing between 25 and 80 pounds on their backs as they climbed.  At that time of year, snow was still heavy on the ground, and many soldiers died of hunger or exposure.

Later in June, Mao's First Red Army met up with the Fourth Red Army, led by Zhang Guotao, an old rival of Mao's.  Zhang had 84,000 well-fed troops, while Mao's remaining 10,000 were weary and starving.  Nonetheless, Zhang was supposed to defer to Mao, who held a higher rank in the Communist Party. 

This union of the two armies is called the Great Joining.  To meld their forces, the two commanders switched subcommanders; Mao's officers marched with Zhang and Zhang's with Mao.  The two armies were divided evenly so that each commander had 42,000 of Zhang's soldiers and 5,000 of Mao's.  Nonetheless, tensions between the two commanders soon doomed the Great Joining.

Late in July, the Red Armies ran into an impassable flooded river.  Mao was determined to continue northward because he was counting on getting resupplied by the Soviet Union through Inner Mongolia.  Zhang wanted to travel back to the southwest, where his power base was located.  Zhang sent a coded message to one of his subcommanders, who was in Mao's camp, ordering him to seize Mao and take control of the First Army.  However, the subcommander was very busy, so handed the message to a lower ranking officer to decode.  The lower officer happened to be a Mao loyalist, who did not give Zhang's orders to the subcommander.  When his planned coup failed to materialize, Zhang simply took all of his troops and headed south.   He soon ran into the Nationalists, who essentially destroyed his Fourth Army the following month.

Mao's First Army struggled north, in late August of 1935 running into the Great Grasslands or Great Morass.

This area is a treacherous swamp where the Yangtze and Yellow River drainages divide at 10,000 feet in elevation.  The region is beautiful, covered with wildflowers in the summer, but the ground is so spongy that the exhausted soldiers were sinking into the mire and could not free themselves. There was no firewood to be found, so soldiers burned grass to toast grain instead of boiling it. Hundreds died of hunger and exposure, worn out with the effort of digging themselves and their comrades out of the muck.  Survivors later reported that the Great Morass was the worst part of the entire Long March.

The First Army, now down to 6,000 soldiers, faced one additional obstacle.  To cross into Gansu Province, they needed to get through the Lazikou Pass.  This mountain passage narrows down to a mere 12 feet (4 meters) in places, making it highly defensible.  Nationalist forces had built blockhouses near the top of the pass and armed the defenders with machine guns.  Mao sent fifty of his soldiers who had mountaineering experience up the cliff face above the blockhouses.  The communists threw grenades down on the Nationalists' position, sending them running.

By October of 1935, Mao's First Army was down to 4,000 soldiers.  His survivors joined forces in Shaanxi Province, their final destination, with the few remaining troops from Zhang's Fourth Army, as well as the remnants of the Second Red Army.

Once it was ensconced in the relative safety of the north, the combined Red Army was able to recover and rebuild itself, finally defeating the Nationalist forces more than a decade later, in 1949.  However, the retreat was disastrous in terms of human losses and suffering. The Red Armies left Jiangxi with an estimated 100,000 troops and recruited more along the way. A mere 7,000 made it to Shaanxi - less than 1 in 10. (Some unknown amount of the reduction in forces was due to desertions, rather than deaths.)

Mao's reputation as the most successful of the Red Army's commanders seems odd, given the enormous casualty rate his troops suffered.  However, the humiliated Zhang was never able to challenge Mao's leadership again after his own completely catastrophic defeat at the hands of the Nationalists.

The Myth:

Modern Chinese Communist mythology celebrates the Long March as a great victory, and it did preserve the Red Armies from complete annihilation (barely). The Long March also solidified Mao's position as the leader of the Communist forces. It plays such an important role in the Communist Party's history of itself that for decades, the Chinese government forbade historians from researching the event, or talking with survivors.  The government rewrote history, painting the armies as liberators of the peasants, and exaggerating incidents like the Battle for Luding Bridge.

Much of the communist propaganda surrounding the Long March is hype rather than history.  Interestingly, this is also true in Taiwan, where the defeated KMT leadership fled at the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949.  The KMT version of the Long March held that the communist troops were little better than barbarians, wild men (and women) who came down out of the mountains to fight the civilized Nationalists.

Sources:

A Military History of China, David A. Graff & Robin Higham, eds. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2012.

Russon, Mary-Ann. "Today in History: The Long March of the Red Army in China," International Business Times, Oct. 16, 2014.

Salisbury, Harrison. The Long March: The Untold Story, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1987.

Snow, Edgar. Red Star over China: The Classic Account of the Birth of Chinese Communism," Grove / Atlantic, Inc., 2007.

Sun Shuyun. The Long March: The True History of Communist China's Founding Myth, New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing, 2010.

Watkins, Thayer. "The Long March of the Communist Party of China, 1934-35," San Jose State University, Department of Economics, accessed June 10, 2015.