This Week in History: The Long March


“After the breakup of the First United Front of the Nationalist Party and the Chinese Communist Party in April 1927, the Chinese Communists retreated to the countryside and managed to establish some revolutionary bases in Jiangxi Province through guerrilla war. There, at Ruijin, they founded the Soviet Republic of China in November 1931. Feeling threatened by the rapid Communist growth, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi) launched five encirclement campaigns to eradicate the Communists and their Red Army from 1931 to 1934. The Red Army successfully defended against the first four attacks of the Nationalists, but suffered heavy casualties in the fifth campaign. As a result, the Communists faced total annihilation.

“On October 16, 1934, 86,000 people consisting mostly of troops of the central Red Army (also known as the First Front Army) and Communist officials started retreating from Yudu, in Jiangxi Province, toward the west. Their original plan was to link up in west Hunan Province with the Second and Sixth Corps (also known as the Second Front Army), led by He Long and Xiao Ke respectively. With heavy baggage of the exiled Soviet Republic of China—including archives, office supplies, and even currency printers—the Red Army moved slowly over rugged mountains to avoid the Nationalist chase. During the first month, the Communist forces fought through the first three blockades by the Nationalists with few casualties. The local commander of the Nationalist force in Guangdong Province let the Communist troops by for fear that his own power would be weakened by Chiang should the battle between the Communists and Nationalists break out within the territory of Guangdong. The Red Army passed through Guangdong and reached the Guangxi-Hunan border in late November. Chiang deployed a large number of forces along the Xiang River, a tributary of Yangzi River, to reinforce the Nationalist defenses. From November 25 to December 1, 1934, the Red Army encountered severe attacks from the Nationalist Army along the Xiang River. Because of the equipment burden, the troops were unable to pass the river as quickly as needed. The Communists lost over 40,000 men in the bloody fight along the Xiang River. By the time that they crossed the river, the Red Army had been reduced to 30,000. They climbed over the mountains in Guangxi Province and entered Guizhou Province, where the local forces known as “double gun” troops—one gun for fighting and the other “gun” for smoking opium—were barely capable of defense. They easily occupied Zunyi on January 7, 1935.

“Later, Zunyi became well known as a historically significant city during the Long March. From January 15 to 17, 1935, the Politburo held an enlarged meeting at Zunyi to discuss lessons from the retreat and where to head next. The resolutions adopted by the meeting, which pointed to the tactical mistakes of conventional warfare as opposed to more mobile warfare with small units, essentially reflected Mao Zedong’s views. The upshot was Mao’s election to full membership in the Politburo, which restored part, but not all, of his power within the Party and the Red Army. It was decided that the Red Army would go north and set up revolutionary bases in Sichuan Province. To shake pursuing Nationalist troops, the Red Army had to go back and forth over the Chishui River, a branch of the Yangzi, four times by the end of March. They entered Yunnan Province in late April. After passing over the Jinsha River, an intimidating natural barrier, around May 10, the Red Army broke through Chiang Kai-shek’s encirclement. They then crossed an isolated Yi-minority area. On May 21 the Red Army was challenged by the Dadu River, where Shi Dakai, the Assistant King of the Taiping Rebellion, had suffered his final defeat in 1863. The Communist troops seized an iron-shackled bridge in Luding and crossed the natural barrier at the end of May. The Red Army reached the foot of Mount Jiajin, a snow-covered mountain. In the middle of June they climbed over the mountain and, in Maogong, met up with the Fourth Front Army led by Zhang Guotao, who in October 1932 had begun his retreat toward the west from the revolutionary bases in Hubei, Henan, and Anhui Provinces.

“The union of the two Red Armies was joyfully celebrated. The Fourth Front Army had 45,000 troops, while the First Front Army numbered less than 10,000. Both were optimistic for the Red Army’s future. But disagreement surfaced between the leaders of the two forces over the leadership of the Communist Party in general, and of the Red Army in particular. Zhang suggested a meeting to rectify the party’s wrong political route and to reelect leaders. Mao and his supporters denied Zhang’s proposal and insisted on sticking to the decision of the Zunyi meeting. The conflict resulted in separation: Mao led the First and Third Corps of the First Front Army to the north after two months of rest and struggle with Zhang. Zhang stayed and then headed south with the remaining forces. Mao and his followers suffered heavy losses trudging through the wild grasslands in Qinghai Province and eastern Tibet. On September 16 they took the Lazikou Pass. From there they opened a way to the north and reached a town called Wuqi in northern Shaanxi Province in November 1935. At the beginning of July 1936, the Second Front Army led by He Long joined the Fourth Front Army led by Zhang Guotao at Ganzi (in modern day Tibet). In October 1936 the Second and Fourth Front Armies arrived in Huining, Shaanxi Provience, welcomed by the First Front Army. The three Red Armies thus reunited and concluded the Long March.

“The term Long March did not exist when the event actually started. The Long March was originally called “withdrawal” (zhuanyi) or “retreat” (chetui) even as late as the summer of 1935 after the Red Army finished two-thirds of its journey. The earliest record of the Long March on the Communist side Suijun xixing jianwen lu (Experiences of the march westward) by Chen Yun called it “expedition to the west (xizheng).” The earliest extant written use of the term Long March, dated September 12, 1935, appears in “Zhongyang guanyu Zhang Guotao tongzhi de cuowu de jueding” (Decision on Comrade Zhang Guotao’s mistake). In October, after the Red Army crossed Mount Min, Mao Zedong wrote his spectacular poem “The Long March.” Since then Long March has become the standard term for this event. Two months later Mao expounded on the significance of the Long March in a public speech later published under the title “On Tactics against Japanese Imperialism”: “Speaking of the Long March, one may ask, ‘What is its significance?’ We answer that the Long March is the first of its kind in the annals of history, that it is a manifesto, a propaganda force, a seeding-machine.”

Source Citation:

“Long March.” Encyclopedia of Modern China. Ed. David Pong. Vol. 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2009. 526-528. World History in Context. Web. 9 Oct. 2015.


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