The Long March was a devastating and lengthy
retreat by the Chinese Communist Party from nationalist KMT forces begun
in 1934. It began as Chiang Kai-Shek and his nationalist KMT (Guomindang)
forces, through their "encirclement" tactics, drove the Chinese Communists
from their base at the Jiangxi soviet in southern China. Mao Zedong,
Zhu De, and other Communist leaders along with the Red Army began
"The Long March," a 6,000 mile ordeal through mountains, grasslands, and
other forbidding terrain, all the while engaging Chiang and his KMT forces
in battle. The "Long March" was a successful retreat even though
the Communists and the Red Army lost a staggering number of troops.
Following the collapse of the final dynasty in China
(the Qing) in 1911, China experienced a long period of disunity and administrative
chaos. The key revolutionary, Sun Yat-Sen, sought the establishment
of a republican system based on Western concepts of democracy following
a widespread revolution on October 10, 1911. Sun's vision of a Chinese
republic was never realized, and when the last Qing emperor, Puyi, abdicated
the throne on February 12, 1912, Sun also stepped down from power and handed
the reins of the new government to his military leader, Yuan Shikai.
Yuan ruled the country from 1912-1916, continuing for the most part centralization
and other Qing policies. Yuan's rule was incompatible with Sun Yat-Sen's
republican ambitions, and it seemed that Yuan Shikai was merely another
emperor with absolute power, attempting to restore the age-old system of
dynastic rule in China. Yuan stepped down from government in 1916,
amid overwhelming popular hostility towards his new "dynasty."
Following the decline of Yuan Shikai's rule, China was again thrown into
a maelstrom of administrative chaos. The period 1916-1926 is often
called the Warlord Era in China because power fell into the hands of six
splinter groups, each faction controlled by a "warlord."
During this period of disunity, a new political theory, Marxism, began to emerge and grow in China. Two major Marxist theorists, Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu, were gaining influence during the Warlord Era. Sun Yat-Sen, although no longer in bureaucratic power, still held heavy philosophical influence over China. In collaboration with the Russian Bolshevik Mikhail Borodin, he formed a new political cadre, the Guomindang, or KMT. The KMT was formally a new political party against the Warlords and for Sun Yat-Sen's principles of republicanism and democracy. However, the KMT eventually split into a right-wing nationalist group, led by Chiang Kai-Shek, and a left-wing communist faction, led by Wang Jingwei and Zhou Enlai. The right-wing group led by Chiang Kai-Shek initially held the most sway. Chiang launched what is termed the "Northern Expedition" in 1926, in which he and his armies captured first the province of Wuhan, then the important cities of Nanking and Shanghai in 1927. Chiang, now having seized control in the north, began what is known as the "White Terror" on April 12 of the same year, which was a comprehensive attack on communists in China. Soon, around eighty percent of all communists in China were killed. Certain key left-wing leaders, such as Mao Zedong, escaped this terror. By 1928, Chiang Kai-Shek had taken Beijing, unified China, and established his nationalist government at the city of Nanjing; however, there was still a large group of communists left in China, led by Mao Zedong and Zhu De. With some cooperation from the Soviet Union, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) established what they termed a 'soviet' or collective, communist state, in the province of Jiangxi in 1931. In the following years, Chiang Kai-Shek and his nationalist army led a series of "annihilation campaigns" designed to weaken and subdue the CCP in Jiangxi and elsewhere in China. In 1934 the CCP could withstand these campaigns no longer, and, in the fall, broke through a line in the nationalist KMT blockade and began a retreat called the "Long March."
On October 16, 1934, the "Red Army," as it was known, abandoned
their soviet base in Jiangxi and began a march that would last over a year.
This extraordinary effort, the route of which would circuitously wind around
China for thousands of miles, was an undertaking that killed tens of thousands
of party loyalists. Following five seperate KMT offensives, around
100,000 CCP survivors set out on the morning of October 16th in what seemed
to be a crushing defeat. Apparently the KMT was baffled by this retreat
in varying waves, which included a number of "diversionary detachments"
(Wilson 74). Mao Zedong and Zhu De, who would later become the leaders
of the party, left last in plain grey uniforms. The quick mobilization
by the CCP, coupled with inclement weather (heavy rain and fog) appears
to have caught the KMT off guard, who ringed the Jiangxi soviet with four
armies. The armies of the north and east, led by Kuo Zhutung and
Chiang Tingwen respectively, had applied pressure on the soviet from those
directions late on October 14th, which forced Mao and the CCP to mobilize
quickly and retreat towards the west. At first, the Red Army moved
only at night to avoid being seen, but then were forced to move much more
rapidly by the enclosing KMT forces. They were also forced to split into
two groups near the Xinfeng river to confuse the enemy, but eventually
reunited in southern Hunan province a month later on November 16th.
The eventual destination of the CCP forces was unclear, but they did have a temporary destination of Zunyi, deep in Guizhou province. During this segment of the March, marked by heavy and almost continuous fighting, the CCP suffered the loss of nearly a third of its number. The KMT's blockade and forces were still strong in Guangxi and Hunan provinces, and the CCP forces suffered a heavy toll. The Red Army was forced to split again near the Xiang river, which was the fourth and last defense of the KMT blockade. They had lost over a third of their number (34,000) but the Red Army had broken through "the circle" of the Guomindang's blockade, and, in early January 1935, reached Zunyi. It was in Zunyi that party and military leaders met and eventually planned a strategy for the CCP advance. This resolution was termed "Summing up the Campaign against the Enemy's Punitive Encirclement Drive" (Wilson 92). It called for a more offensive military strategy against the KMT, and also for the establishment of a new soviet somewhere in the area of Sichuan province. This conference at Zunyi was perhaps the most important CCP meeting ever, in which they decided on an eventual destination for the Long March: the Shaanxi soviet, another enclave of Soviet influence and the CCP, somewhat smaller than the lost Jiangxi soviet. Party leadership (the Politburo) was also somewhat reshuffled in Zunyi; after the January conferences, the CCP began to favor Mao Zedong as its new leader. The party was not intact in Zunyi, however- the official leader, Wang Ming, was in Moscow. Nevertheless, the core of the CCP was present at Zunyi, including Zhou Enlai, Zhu De, and others. They eventually voted for Mao's version of the resolutions, and, after January 1935, he emerged as the clear leader of the party.
After Zunyi the character of the Long March changed, and strategy became more offensive. CCP troops crossed into Yunnan province in April, and made a successful feint towards the capitol at Kunming. This misdirection confused the KMT opposition, and the Red Army moved north towards the Yangzi river. This was the turning point in the March, for Chiang Kai-Shek stressed the importance of containing the 'reds' south of the Yangzi. However, his efforts were unsuccessful and on May 1, 1935, the Red Army, reduced in number to half of its former size (50,000) crossed the Yangzi river into Sichuan province.
This segment of the Long March proved to be the most arduous. From Sichuan province to the eventual destination at Yenan in Shaanxi province was a fantastic distance over a variety of harsh terrain. The KMT forces were always close at hand, and continually engaging the Red Army in a series of skirmishes. One particular incident in Sichuan province would determine the entire fate of the CCP forces. Chiang Kai-Shek and the Guomindang army had removed the planks from the bridge over the Litung River. The almost impossible crossing over the "Bridge of Iron Chains" (Wilson 162) left the KMT baffled and the CCP forces feeling invincible. The Red Army, although significantly reduced in number again, had faced numerous obstacles and had still survived. However, perhaps the largest obstacle lay ahead near the border of Sichuan and Gansu provinces- the grasslands. The Red Army's journey over the grasslands was even more incredible than their triumph at the Bridge of Iron Chains. For nearly a week, the CCP had to negotiate and cross a gigantic area of swamp and marsh known as the grasslands. These grasslands were deceptive, because fresh grass grew on many layers of grass and water underneath due to torrential rains. The Red Army slogged through this marsh for seven days, sleeping standing up and leaning on one another.
These were just a few of the obstacles faced on the unprecedented Long March; the KMT army was perhaps the most major threat, but the sheer impassibility of the terrain was another important one. The Red Army faced a number of food shortages, for they carried only a small amount of grain and were forced to subsist on whatever they could catch or find. Fresh water was also a major setback, for many of the sources along the way had been severely depleted. One could only imagine the hardships inherent in such an undertaking; it is surprising that from the nearly 100,000 communists who left Jiangxi, any at all survived the arduous voyage of 6,000 miles. Nonetheless, a relatively small number (around 5,000) did live to see the arrival in Shaanxi province in October 1935, including Mao Zedong, of course, and others who would eventually build the foundation of the People's Republic of China.
The Long March began as a rather ignominious retreat
from Jiangxi, but turned into an unprecedented 6,000 mile test of human
will and endurance. During the KMT's blockade, the future of the
CCP looked bleak to say the least. After the conferences at Zunyi,
the party was strengthened significantly by the new leadership of Mao Zedong.
The completion of the Long March, even though only around one in twenty
survived, strengthened the CCP immeasurably. The impossible undertaking
of the Long March had been brought to reality, and it filled the party
with a new sense of power and solidarity. If the CCP had not done
the impossible and survived the Long March, it almost definitely would
have been eventually defeated by Chiang and the KMT. The triumph
of the communists in China could never have happened without the testing
and the strengthening of the Long March. Truly the course of Asian
and world History changed forever with Mao and the CCP.
Ch'en, Jerome. Mao and the Chinese Revolution. London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1965.
Lindesay, William. Marching With Mao. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1993.
Salisbury, Harrison E. The Long March. New York: Harper & Rowe, 1985.
Wilson, Dick. The Long March: 1935. New York: The Viking Press, 1971.
Yang, Benjamin. From Revolution to Politics: Chinese Communists on
the Long March. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1990.
http://www-chaos.umd.edu/history/republican2.html Overview of the Chinese Republican Period
http://www.megastories.com/china/glossary/march.htm Overview of the Long March
http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/history/elman/ClassBib/ Classical Historiography of Chinese History
http://www.cnd.org:8011/fairbank/ Chinese History Virtual Library
Cultural Online Library
This page created by: A. Edward Williams