The most extraordinary march in human history changed not only the balance of forces in China but also the world...
On 16 October 1934, about 100,000 men and women in China’s Red Army began their march. Abandoning their soviet base (as large as Belgium) in the south-central province of Kiangsi, they burst through the stranglehold of their enemy – Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang forces – and began a trek mostly on foot which was to last for a whole year, taking them 6,000 circuitous miles to the other end of China.
The Long March took the revolutionary army through eleven provinces, over raging rivers and snow-capped mountain ranges, through swamps and forests. The Red Army had to fight against nationalist armies as well as the troops of provincial warlords, local bandits and hostile tribesmen.
As soon as they began their odyssey, most of the other scattered Red Army soviet bases in various parts of China collapsed, so the burden of revolutionary survival fell largely on this column. A year later at the end of October 1935, the Red Army remnants reached Yenan [now known as Yan’an] in north China.
Tradition of peasant revolts
Peasant revolts had long played a leading role in China’s history. Usually peasant unrest and popular discontent stemmed from the demands of the tax collector, compulsory military service and the forced labour imposed by many of the emperors.
The most famous peasant uprisings in historical times were the Red Eyebrows in AD 18, the Yellow Turbans in 184, around the famine in 860 and outbreaks in the final years of the Ming dynasty that ended in 1644. There were several insurrections of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and notably the Taiping Revolt (1850-64) and the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901).
The 1910s and 1920s saw a growing number of peasants with small holdings being turned into tenant farmers and subject to landlord exactions and extortionate taxation from central government or local warlords. Conditions were again ripe for peasant grievances to erupt into revolt.
After the Chinese Communist Party was formed in 1921, Mao Tse Tung and others gradually creatively applied Marxism-Leninism to the circumstances of China by harnessing the tradition of peasant revolts to new ends. He said “The peasants fight for land is the basic feature of the anti-imperialist and anti-feudal struggle in China.”
The Kiangsi Soviet
The base in Kiangsi [Jiangxi]that the Red Army abandoned had lasted nearly seven years, but by the time the march began its existence was threatened. After the failure of the Autumn Harvest Revolt in Hunan in October 1927 Mao led around 1,000 Red Army troops to a remote mountain area.
Chingkangshan was a wild outcrop of forested mountains and volcanic peaks about 150 miles in circumference between Hunan and Kiangsi. To survive Mao’s soldiers had to forge an alliance with the already ensconced bandit chieftains who used it as a hideaway. In April 1928 they were joined by Chu Teh and 900 more troops.
Both Mao and Chu agreed that the red army must subordinate itself to political direction, with some success. In time the revolutionary base area became the Kiangsi soviet in south-east China. By the end of 1931 the Red Army in Kiangsi had grown to 200,000 soldiers and the soviet held sway over 21 counties comprising two and a half million people.
Japan invaded China in 1931; in April 1932 Mao and the Kiangsi soviet declared war on Japan, advocating a united front with the nationalist Kuomintang. The rest of the Communist Party had not yet considered taking a stance.
Unfortunately, the Kiangsi soviet was then attacked relentlessly by Chang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang forces in a series of five encirclement campaigns from December 1930 until 1934. Chiang Kai-shek decided against a full frontal attack on Kiangsi. Instead 500,000 Kuomintang troops surrounded Kiangsi in an attempt to enforce an economic blockade and throttle the red army base area.
The Kuomintang had a policy of making a slow advance, building trenches and concrete blockhouses as they went; a war of attrition. This gave their troops places of protection with minimal contact, aiming to starve out the insurrection. By the fourth and fifth encirclement campaigns Mao had lost political influence as well as his place on the communist party central committee.
Those party members trained by the Soviet Union assumed leadership. They urged a military approach of conventional positional and defensive strategies instead of Mao’s guerrilla warfare. When the final encirclement campaign began in August 1933, Chiang Kai-shek’s army around Kiangsi had a million soldiers and 400 warplanes.
The decision to leave
Mao Tse Tung and Chu Teh now advocated that the Red Army should break through the ever-tightening encirclement and split into small units and fight guerrilla campaigns in the areas to the north and east of enemy lines where there were no blockhouses. This view was rejected presumably because many thought the abandonment of the soviet area would undermine their credibility as a rival to the Kuomintang.
In April 1934 the Red Army was badly defeated at Kuangchang. By June the soviet area was reduced to just a few counties. The choice was stark: either break out or face annihilation.
‘The choice was stark: either break out or face annihilation.’
On 2 October, with a sick Mao back inside the planning meeting, there was a decision to evacuate the Kiangsi base. The battered survivors of five encirclement campaigns began a retreat through enemy lines and the Kiangsi soviet – the pride of the movement – vanished.
A rear guard of 6,000 soldiers was left behind. Many were to be captured and killed. 20,000 who were already wounded were scattered in mountain hospitals and only survived due to help from village farmers who hated the thought of the landlords returning with their despised system. But the rear guard succeeded in enabling the main force to escape the Kuomintang trap.
The Red Army
Unlike most Chinese armies up till then, the Red Army was mixed and not segregated according to provincial origin. About 68 per cent were peasants, most of the remainder proletarian. In the Fourth Front Army, there was a regiment of women, 2,000 strong.
Levels of discipline were high. Even though there was considerable hunger at times, it was the custom to only pick wild fruit; private orchards were ignored. Grain and vegetables eaten in the villages had to be paid for. The property of the rich landlords and local officials could be confiscated, but only by order of the confiscation department of the Finance Commission and distributed only by department officers. The army practice was to sleep on removable door-boards, which were to be rehung the next morning.
Aspects of the March
Marching was strenuous without regular rest and interspersed with battles. After the end of the march many participants had heart trouble. The chief scourges during the march were malaria, dysentery, typhoid, influenza, cholera and tuberculosis. The Red Army climbed snow-covered mountains, ate roots, slept in the snow, marched and fought and marched again. During the journey the communists had to sort out the question of political direction and reconciled internal disputes that had at times threatened to tear them apart.
The Red Army at first moved southwest. It took them 40 days to get through the blockhouses surrounding Kiangsi. Then they were attacked by the Kuomintang at Hsiang [Xiang] and lost up to 45,000 of their 87,000 soldiers. The fleeing army carried what it could, including typewriters, furniture, printing presses and so on. This slowed them up as there were many tortuous places on the way, such as the crossing of raging rivers. The items of no military or survival value were soon jettisoned along with most of their archival records.
Poor strategy played its part in these setbacks. Braun, the Comintern military adviser, planned for the Red Army to march in a straight line; the Kuomintang were able to predict where the Red Army would be at any given point.
A conference of the enlarged Politburo took place in January 1935 at Tsunyi [Zunyi]. Resolutions were adopted that reinstated a mobile, guerrilla approach to the military fight. Leadership of the Red Army was accorded to Mao. Supported by Chu Teh, he adopted new tactics. Mao wanted the Red Army to move in a completely unpredictable way.
As the Red Army moved away from Hsiang, it used twisting movement patterns that made predicting its direction very difficult. Mao also split up the Red Army into smaller units. In theory this made them more open to attack: in practice, they were more difficult to find in the open spaces of China.
Mao also had a new target – Shensi [Shaanxi] province towards the north of China, a journey that was very physically demanding as it crossed extreme terrain. The Red Army had to cross the Snowy Mountains, some of the highest mountains in the world, and the Chinese Grassland, an area of deep marshes that claimed hundreds of lives. The Red Army not only had to contend with the Kuomintang, but also the warlords who controlled much of the land in northern China. They did not welcome the arrival of the Red Army into an area they effectively ruled.
The end of the march
By October 1935, what was left of the original Red Army eventually reached the goal of Yenan. Less than 10,000 soldiers had survived the 368-day march. They were later reinforced by 60,000 other communist troops who made their way to the new base. Together they formed a formidable fighting force against the Japanese and the Kuomintang.
‘The Long March changed in character as it progressed; from a desperate retreat to a prelude of victory.’
The Long March changed in character as it progressed; from a desperate retreat to a prelude of victory. The tide of struggle in China was fundamentally turned on one of the great physical feats of all time. The Long March was an unparalleled story of dogged grit and determination, which not only ensured that the civil war in China would continue but also put the Red Army in a far better place to confront and counter the Japanese invasion.
After a period of recuperation, the Red Army was to become a major force in the ejection of the Japanese occupiers and then the victor of the civil war against the Kuomintang (by then it was known as the People’s Liberation Army). All these achievements could not have happened without the Long March and the overcoming of indescribable hardship and triumph over enemies and challenges. The political setbacks in China since 1979 do not in any way diminish the significance of this amazing feat.
• A shorter version of this article was published in Workers September/October 2017 edition.