The Long March describes the relocation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its Red Army, from their base in Jiangxi to the northern province of Shaanxi in 1934-35. The Long March has become one of the most discussed and celebrated events in modern Chinese history, though its events have been disputed and its significance exaggerated by propaganda.
The Long March was, in essence, a communist flight from one part of China to another. Driven from Jiangxi by an expanded Nationalist army, the Red Army and CCP leadership embarked on a treacherous journey through western and northern China.
During this trek, the communists encountered dangerous terrain, perilous climate, starvation, disease and harassment from warlord armies and hostile tribes. There were also frequent engagements with the Nationalist army.
The Long March was not one single march but a series of marches, undertaken by several branches of the Red Army. It was completed almost entirely on foot and took a year to complete. The journey spanned around 3,700 miles or 6,000 kilometres (the equivalent of return trips from Paris to Moscow, Chicago to Las Vegas or Sydney to Cairns).
Victory or defeat?
Approximately 160,000 Red Army soldiers and CCP cadres embarked on the Long March. Fewer than 15,000 made it safely to Shaanxi. The enormity of these losses suggests the Long March was a failure. It was a military retreat, with little or no forward planning, that resulted in the loss of more 90 per cent of the Red Army.
CCP propagandists quickly manufactured their own account of the Long March, however, portraying it as a tale of inspiring heroism, human endeavour and self-sacrifice. Official histories of the party hailed it as a victory rather than a defeat. They attributed its strategic and military successes to Mao Zedong, who seized control of the expedition from Bolshevik loyalists.
The Long March became the most mythologised and propaganda-laden event in the history of the CCP. It also marks the beginning of Mao’s ascendancy to the party’s national leadership.
The story of the Long March begins with the Nationalists’ Fifth Encirclement Campaign, launched in September 1933.
Jiangi Jieshi’s four previous attempts to disperse communist bases in the south (1930-33) failed for several reasons. The Central Plains War (1930) preoccupied Nationalist forces and left them short of resources.
The success of defensive and guerrilla strategies implemented by Mao Zedong in Jiangxi also allowed the Red Army to withstand the first offensives.
Jiang’s new tactics
By 1933, however, the Nationalist government was prepared for another assault in Jiangxi, Hubei and Henan. Jiang’s strategy shifted after the October 1933 arrival of German military advisor, Hans von Seeckt. A veteran of World War I and one of Germany’s most competent generals, von Seeckt became Jiang’s most influential military counsellor.
Von Seeckt urged sweeping changes to the organisation of the Nationalist military, along with the industrial sector that supported it. On von Seeckt’s advice, Jiang mobilised more than 500,000 Nationalist soldiers and negotiated military alliances with warlords, bringing anti-communist troop numbers to over one million.
Together, these forces surrounded the communist bases in the south and constructed thousands of small fortifications. Rather than engaging with the communist Red Army, Jiang’s forces prepared for a long war of attrition.
Internal power shifts inside the Jiangxi Soviet also led to changes and, arguably, the weakening of CCP and Red Army strategy.
Since 1930, Mao Zedong had been the de facto military and political leader in Jiangxi. This changed in 1932 when the CCP Central Committee arrived from Shanghai. Control of Jiangxi was assumed by the party’s national leadership and by the so-called 28 Bolsheviks, a clique of CCP leaders loyal to ideological and tactical advice from the Comintern.
Despite his success in establishing and defending the Jiangxi Soviet, Mao was sidelined and his military tactics were reviewed and changed. The CCP leadership, overconfident and lacking an understanding of the situation, believed the Red Army was ready to wage a conventional war.
Fifth Encirclement Campaign
Despite its recent growth and improvement, however, the Red Army remained hopelessly outnumbered by Nationalist forces.
When the Fifth Encirclement Campaign commenced in the autumn of 1933, the communists in Jiangxi were blockaded by 60 divisions of Nationalist troops and starved of information and supplies from other provinces. Jiang’s men secured the border regions and captured stronghold towns one by one, a tactic that gradually reduced the size of the Jiangxi Soviet.
By mid-1934, the Nationalists were planning a mass assault on Ruijin, the Jiangxi capital. When CCP spies reported this to party leaders, they decided to abandon Jiangxi and relocate to the comparative safety of northern China. The main Red Army mobilised to leave Jiangxi, while the Fourth Red Army in Henan and the Second Red Army in Hubei made similar preparations.
The Long March begins
In October 1934, the Jiangxi column of more than 97,000 communists, one-tenth of them party officials and civilians, prepared to break through Nationalist lines at Yudu, west of Ruijin.
The marchers carried whatever could be carried: typewriters, desks, furniture, printing presses, chests of currency, more than two million rounds of ammunition. They had neither a predetermined route or a set destination, Shaanxi being one option among others.
The breakout from Jiangxi succeeded but came at a considerable human cost. The Red Army pushed west but endured air attacks from Jiang Jieshi’s 200 planes, along with assaults from small Nationalist and warlord brigades.
Battle of Xiang River
By November, the Red Army had crossed into Hunan province. There they encountered a sizeable force of Nationalist troops.
In the Battle of Xiang River which followed, the communists lost 40,000 soldiers in just two days, its single greatest defeat during the Long March. There were also thousands of desertions or defections to the Nationalists.
By mid-December, the Red Army, which had set out from Jiangxi with around 86,000 men, was down to around 35,000.
The disastrous losses at Xiang River forced the party to review its tactics. This was considered at a January 1935 conference in Zunyi, in the southern province of Guizhou.
The Zunyi conference was a pivotal moment in the history of the CCP. Red Army commanders were replaced with a new trio of Mao Zedong and his allies, Zhou Enlai and Wang Jiaxiang.
Two years after being shelved by the party hierarchy in Jiangxi, Mao was now more prominent and powerful than ever.
Mountains and grasslands
After Zunyi, the Red Army marched on into western China. Now in command of strategy, Mao sometimes ordered unlikely or circumlocutious routes to evade or confuse the Nationalists and their warlord allies.
Travelling through Yunnan and into Sichuan, the Red Army crossed the Great Snowy Mountains. Many veterans later described as the worst part of the Long March. Facing mountainous heights of up to 5,000 metres and low oxygen concentration, thousands of Red Army soldiers died from altitude sickness, exposure, frostbite, avalanches, falls and other injuries.
Thousands more were lost while moving through the dreaded ‘grasslands’: swamps and bogs in Sichuan, close to the Tibetan border. Though seemingly innocuous, the grasslands also proved deadly, as recalled by Long March veteran Xie Fei:
“That damn place was really strange. Just grass, no trees. It wasn’t mountainous, just flat land. It rained every day and the sun came out every day. The ground was all wet. At first, the vanguard troops sank into the bog. If you tried to pull them out, you would sink too. They couldn’t climb out and they couldn’t be rescued either. You could only watch them die. Once we learned this lesson, we let the animals walk first. If the animal sank then the people wouldn’t die. What a weird place.”
The far west
Mao’s unpredictable routes took the Long Marchers into the far west of the country, where they encountered hostility from ethnic groups like Tibetan tribesmen and the Hui (ethnic Chinese Muslims).
The communists also benefited from the support given by sympathetic farmers, who welcomed the Red Army into their villages, gave them food and tended their sick and wounded.
Where peasants were less compliant, the Red Army often stole food or demanded it through extortion, threats and kidnapping. There were also reports of the Red Army replenishing its numbers by conscripting young male peasants and forcing them to join the Long March.
In less populated regions, the Red Army often found itself chronically short of food. Frequent shortages gave rise to malnutrition and starvation. Marchers sometimes boiled boots, gun straps and other leather to make ‘beef soup’. When they had no freshwater they sometimes drank their own urine.
Arrival in Shaanxi
For the first Red Army, their ordeal ended in October 1935 when Mao led barely 8,000 people into the comparative safety of Shaanxi province.
Of the 160,000 men and women who participated in the Long March, fewer than 10 per cent made it safely to the new communist base in Shaanxi. It was there they would establish the Yan’an Soviet.
More than 40,000 marchers were lost in the Battle of Xiang River alone. The rest succumbed to other Nationalist, warlord or tribal attacks, to accidents, illnesses, malnutrition or desertion.
Long March propaganda
By most measures, the Long March was a catastrophic failure, a poorly planned chain of withdrawals and military defeats that decimated the ranks of the Red Army.
Mao Zedong, acutely aware of the value of propaganda, transformed it from a defeat into a victory. Under Mao’s leadership, the story of the Long March was told in the party’s own terms and incorporated into its political and cultural history.
According to this history, the events of 1934-35 marked the CCP’s lowest period but also its rebirth and rejuvenation. The leadership of Mao and the courage of surviving Red Army soldiers, who were hailed as heroes and martyrs, was pivotal to this rebirth.
These perspectives were later echoed by Western writers, like Agnes Smedley (China’s Red Army Marches, 1934) and Edgar Snow (Red Star over China, 1937). Later, Mao explained the importance of the Long March as a propaganda device:
“The Long March is a manifesto. It has proclaimed to the world that the Red Army is an army of heroes, while the imperialists and their dogs are impotent. It has proclaimed their utter failure to encircle, pursue, obstruct and intercept us. The Long March is also a propaganda force. It has announced to some 200 million people in eleven provinces that the road of the Red Army is their only road to liberation. Without the Long March, how could the broad masses have learned so quickly about the existence of the great truth which the Red Army embodies? The Long March is also a seeding machine. In the eleven provinces, it has sown many seeds which will sprout, leaf, blossom, and bear fruit, and will yield a harvest in the future.”
Sculpting this Long March “propaganda force” required a considerable amount of manipulation and distortion. Official CCP histories of the Long March are riddled with gross exaggerations, unverified accounts and one-sided interpretations.
In recent times, historians have sought to penetrate this propagandist shell to discover the realities of the Long March – but with the CCP still in power in China, access to information, evidence and witnesses remains difficult.
Despite this, some historians have found enough evidence to raise significant questions. Much of this evidence has been obtained from oral history and interviews with Long March veterans.
Battle of Luding Bridge
One significant controversy is what happened at Luding Bridge, a crossing over the Dadu River, located just west of Yan’an.
According to official communist histories, Luding Bridge was the scene of a fierce battle with Nationalists in May 1935. Under heavy fire from the other side, regiments of the Red Army stormed across the fragile chain bridge, defeating the Nationalists and securing the area.
Eyewitness accounts collected recently suggest the bridge was manned by a handful of disorganised warlord soldiers, most of whom turned tail and fled after seeing the approaching Red Army.
Accounts of the Long March highlight Mao Zedong’s brilliance as a tactician and military strategist. There is also evidence suggesting the Long March’s meandering route through western China, along with the Red Army’s heavy losses in military engagements, were the results of Mao’s blundering or poor planning.
More than 80 years after the event, the Long March has retained its mythical status in Chinese culture while historians continue to debate its true meaning.
A historian’s view:
“The March became a classic triumph of survival, a picture of stirring memories with 11 provinces spanned, 18 lofty mountains scaled, 24 wide rivers crossed, enemy points stormed by a few commandos, river rafts navigated under heavy fire, rocky cliffs climbed in midnight blackness, a forced march of 80 miles in 24 hours, a struggle through snow blizzards over lofty passes. The Red Army’s Long March bears a romantic history and in China today, its legends are more potent than all the talks by persuasive or threatening cadres.”
Khoon Choy Lee
1. The Long March, one of the best-known events of the Chinese Revolution, describes the forced relation of the Red Army from Jiangxi in southern China to Shaanxi in the north.
2. This march began with Jiang Jieshi’s fifth and most successful Encirclement Campaign, which was launched against Jiangxi in the autumn of 1933.
3. The Red Army and CCP began breaking out of their southern bases in late 1934, then spent a year marching through western and northern China.
4. Mao Zedong had been sidelined by the party hierarchy in Jiangxi, however, the early disasters of the Long March led to the Zunyi conference, which allowed Mao and his supporters to gain control of the expedition.
5. The Red Army lost more than 90 per cent of its personnel during the Long March, yet it was hailed as a victory in CCP propaganda, a testament to the courage of the Red Army and the leadership of Mao Zedong. More recent scholarship has exposed some of this Long March mythology to be exaggerated and possibly fraudulent.
Title: “The Long March”
Authors: Glenn Kucha, Jennifer Llewellyn
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: September 17, 2019
Date updated: December 29, 2022
Date accessed: February 24, 2023