The Long March

The Pathway to Communist Victory in China

Every movement, be it political, religious, or social, is often anchored in foundational myths and stories that, over time, attain heroic dimensions and serve as sources of inspiration and unity for their followers. For the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), this pivotal narrative is the Long March. In 1934, amidst the Chinese Civil War, the Communists abandoned their vulnerable southeastern base, embarking on the Long March, a grueling 6,000-mile (10,000-kilometer) journey northward. This epic trek, spanning an entire year, saw only a fraction―fewer than one in ten―of those who began the journey reach its conclusion.

The Long March was not only crucial for the CCP’s survival but also secured Mao Zedong’s leadership and paved the way for the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Founded in 1921 as both a political party and a revolutionary movement, the CCP, with prominent members like Mao Zedong, Liu Shaoqi, and Li Lisan, began organizing labor unions in urban areas during the tumultuous 1920s. An initial alliance formed in 1924 between the CCP and the powerful Nationalist Party showed early success, but it was not to be last.

National Revolutionary Army troops firing artillery at Communist forces

National Revolutionary Army troops firing artillery at Communist forces

The civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists erupted in 1927. By 1931, Mao became the chairman of the Soviet Republic of China, a Communist bastion in southeastern Jiangxi province, home to around 10 million people.

From 1930 to 1934, the Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek, launched five encirclement campaigns against the Soviet Republic. Mao’s guerrilla tactics effectively countered the first four campaigns. However, during the fifth campaign, Chiang’s overwhelming forces caused significant Communist losses, leading to Mao’s removal as chairman.

The new Communist leadership abandoned previous tactics in favor of conventional warfare, a decision that led to devastating losses and nearly resulted in their annihilation.

As defeat loomed, the Communists decided to break through the weakest points of the encirclement. This marked the beginning of the Long March at 5:00 p.m. on October 16, 1934. Employing secrecy and rear-guard maneuvers, they managed to confuse the Nationalists, who only realized after several weeks that the main body of the Red Army had escaped.

Detail from An arduous journey scroll: The start of the Long March. Ruijin, 1961.

Detail from An arduous journey scroll: The start of the Long March. Ruijin, 1961.

The initial retreat comprised 86,000 individuals, including troops, administrative staff, and around 30 women. Carrying weapons and supplies on their backs or in horse-drawn carts, the marchers stretched for an impressive 50 miles (80 kilometers). Typically marching at night, their path was occasionally illuminated by a long column of torches.

The leaders of the CCP during the Long March. From left to right: Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong, and Zhu De.

The leaders of the CCP during the Long March. From left to right: Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong, and Zhu De.

The marchers faced numerous challenges, including a significant blockade by Nationalist forces in November 1934, which cost them over half their personnel. Finally, in October 1935, Mao and about 8,000 survivors reached their destination. They had traversed 24 rivers and 18 mountain ranges, enduring battles, disease, and starvation. Notably, Mao lost his two small children and younger brother.

The map of the Long March route

The map of the Long March route. Light red areas show Communist enclaves. Areas marked by a blue “X” were overrun by Nationalists. The heavy-dashed red line is the route of the First Red Army. The light-dashed red lines are the routes of the minor commands.

The Long March stands as the longest continuous march in military history and was instrumental in establishing Mao Zedong as the unchallenged leader of the Chinese Communists. While Mao claimed the journey spanned 8,000 miles (13,000 kilometers), the more commonly accepted figure is 6,000 miles (10,000 kilometers), averaging about 16 miles (26 kilometers) daily.

The Long March’s stories of heroism and determination inspired thousands of young Chinese to join Mao’s Red Army. This surge in support proved crucial in the ensuing years. By 1949, Mao’s forces had defeated the Nationalists, leading to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, with Mao as its chairman until his death in 1976.

Editors’ finds

Words of wisdom

“Not all those who wander are lost.” ―J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

“Courage isn’t having the strength to go on―it is going on when you don’t have strength.” ―Napoleon Bonaparte

“Keep your fears to yourself, but share your courage with others.” ―Robert Louis Stevenson

“Maybe this world is another planet’s hell.” ―Aldous Huxley

Bibliography

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