See E. Snow, Red Star over China (rev. ed. 1968) and R. G. Wilson, The Long March, 1935 (1971).
The Long March began the ascent to power of Mao Zedong, whose leadership during the retreat gained him the support of the members of the party. The bitter struggles of the Long March, which was completed by only one-tenth of the force that left Jiangxi, would come to represent a significant episode in the history of the Communist Party of China, and would seal the personal prestige of Mao and his supporters as the new leaders of the party in the following decades.
The divisions of the "Chinese Workers' and Peasants' Red Army" (紅軍) were named according to historical circumstances, sometimes in a nonconsecutive way. Early Communist units often formed by defection from existing Kuomintang forces, keeping their original designations. By the time of the Long March, numerous small units had been organized into three unified groups, the First Red Army (紅一方面軍/红一方面军/Hóng Yī Fāngmiàn Jūn), the Second Red Army (紅二方面軍/红二方面军/Hóng Èr Fāngmiàn Jūn) and the Fourth Red Army (紅四方面軍/红四方面军/Hóng Sì Fāngmiàn Jūn). Some translations refer to these same units as the “First Front Red Army", “Second Front Red Army” and “Fourth Front Red Army" to distinguish them from the earlier organizational divisions. The First Red Army formed from the First, Third and Fifth Army Groups in southern Kiangsi under command of Bo Gu and Li De. When the Fourth Red Army under Zhang Guotao was formed in the Szechuan-Shensi border area from several smaller units, no standard nomenclature of the armies of the Communist Party existed; moreover, during the Chinese Civil War central control of separate Communist-controlled enclaves within China was limited. After the organization of these first two main forces, the Second Red Army formed in eastern Kweichow by unifying the Second and Sixth Army Groups under He Long and Jen Pi-shih. A “Third Red Army" was never established. The three armies would maintain their historical designation as the First, Second and Fourth Red Armies until Communist military forces were nominally integrated into the National Revolutionary Army, forming the Eighth Route Army and the New Fourth Army, during the Second Sino-Japanese War from 1937 to 1945.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), founded in 1921 by Chen Duxiu with Soviet support, initially collaborated with the Chinese Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (KMT), founded by the revolutionary republican Sun Yat-sen. After the unexpected death of Sun in March 1925, a power struggle within the KMT favored Chiang Kai-shek, whose Northern Expedition forces succeeded in wresting control of large areas of China from local warlords, establishing a unified government in Nanjing in April 1927. Unlike other nationalist leaders, like Wang Jingwei, Chiang was hostile to continued collaboration with the Communists. This initial period of cooperation to unify China against the feudal warlords and the Japanese Empire ended abruptly in April 1927 when Chiang Kai-shek struck out against the Communists. Unsuccessful urban insurrections (in Nanchang, Wuhan and Guangzhou) and the suppression of the Communist Party in Shanghai and other cities finally drove many party supporters to rural strongholds such as the Jiangxi Soviet organized by Mao Zedong. By 1928, deserters and defecting Kuomintang army units, supplemented by peasants from the Communist rural soviets, formed the Chinese Workers' and Peasants' Red Army. The ideological confrontation between the CCP and the KMT soon evolved into the first phase of the Chinese Civil War.
By 1930, the Communist Red Army had established the Chinese Soviet Republic in the provinces of Jiangxi and Fujian around the city of Ruijin, including industrial facilities. Between 1930 and 1933, four attempts by Chiang to defeat the Communists were repelled by forces led by Mao. In spite of these successes, the Soviet Union and Comintern-influenced leaders of the party distrusted the ideas of Mao, who held that the rural Chinese peasants, not the urban proletariat, were the Communist party's base. In September 1933, the National Revolutionary Army under Chiang Kai-shek eventually completely encircled Jiangxi, with the advice and tactical assistance of his German adviser, Hans von Seeckt. A fortified perimeter was established by Chiang's forces, and Jiangxi was besieged in an attempt to destroy the Communist forces trapped within. In July 1934, the leaders of the party, dominated by the "Twenty-Eight Bolsheviks", a militant group formed in Moscow by Wang Ming and Bo Gu, forced Mao from the Politburo of the Communist Party in Ruijin and placed him briefly under house arrest. Mao was replaced by Zhou Enlai as leader of the military commission, and the Chinese Red Army was commanded by a three man military committee, including a German military advisor Otto Braun (called in Chinese, Li De 李德), the Comintern military advisor Bo Gu, and Zhou. The committee abandoned Mao's successful tactics of mobile warfare against the Kuomintang forces. Direct engagements with the Nationalist army soon caused heavy casualties and loss of material and territory. Mao would later write of this period:
In August 1934, with the Red Army depleted by the prolonged conflict, a spy placed by Zhou Enlai in the KMT army headquarters in Nanchang brought news that Chiang Kai-shek was preparing a major offensive against the Communist capital, Ruijin. The Communist leadership decided on a strategic retreat to regroup with other Communist units, and to avoid annihilation. The original plan was to link up with the Second Red Army commanded by He Long, thought to be in Hubei to the west and north. Communications between divided groups of the Red Army had been disrupted by the Kuomintang campaign, and during the planning to evacuate Jiangxi, the First Red Army was unaware that these other Communist forces were also retreating westward.
The early troop movements were actually a diversion to allow the retreat of more important leaders from Jiangxi. On 16 October 1934, a force of 130,000 under Bo Gu and Li De attacked the line of Kuomintang positions near Yudu. More than 86,000 troops, 11,000 administrative personnel and thousands of civilian porters actually completed the breakout; the remainder, largely wounded or ill soldiers, continued to fight a delaying action after the main force had left, and then dispersed into the countryside. Several prominent members of the Chinese Soviet who remained behind were captured and executed by the Kuomintang after occupation of Ruijin in November 1934, including Qu Qiubai and the youngest brother of Mao Zedong, Mao Zetan.
Initially, the First Red Army, with its baggage of top communist officials, records, currency reserves and other trapping of the exiled Chinese Soviet Republic, fought through several lightly defended Kuomintang checkpoints, crossing the Xinfeng river and through the province of Guangdong, south of Hunan and into Guangxi. At the Xiang river, Chiang Kai-shek had reinforced the KMT defenses. In two days of bloody fighting, 30 November to 1 December 1934, the Red Army lost more than 40,000 troops and all of the civilian porters, and there were strongly-defended Nationalist defensive lines ahead. Personnel and material losses after the battle of the Xiang river affected the morale of the troops and desertions began. By a 12 December 1934 meeting of Party leaders in Tongdao, discontent with Bo Gu and Otto Braun appeared, and Mao Zedong began a more active role in the leadership.
Under these conditions, the Communists met in Zunyi in Guizhou province from January 15–17, 1935 to reshuffle the Party politburo. Although the failed leadership of Bo Gu and Li De was denounced, after three days Mao was not able to win the support of a sufficient number of Party leaders to gain outright power at the conference. Mao was passed over for the position of General Secretary by Zhang Wentian, but gained enough influence to be elected one of three members of Military Affairs Commission. The other two members, Zhou Enlai (appointed Director of the Commission) and Wang Jiaxiang, whose support Mao had enlisted earlier, were not as highly regarded in military affairs, leaving Mao in effective control of the First Red Army after the Zunyi conference.
When the army resumed its march northward, the direct route to Sichuan was blocked by Chiang's forces. Mao's forces spent the next several months maneuvering to avoid direct confrontation with hostile forces, but still attempting to move north to join Zhang Guotao's Fourth Red Army. During this period, in February 1935, Mao's wife, He Zizhen, gave birth to a daughter. Given the harsh conditions of the retreat, the infant was left with a local family. Two British men retracing the Long March route in 2003 met a woman in rural Yunnan province, said by local officials to be Mao and He Zizhen's long-lost daughter. By moving south and west, the First Red Army finally broke out of Guizhou and crossed the Yangtze on May 8, 1935. The Communist forces had now been on the move for seven months since leaving Jiangxi and had only 25,000 men left. Penetrating northward into areas populated by ethnic minorities hostile to Chinese encroachment, the Communist forces were not only harassed by the Kuomintang and their local warlord allies, but also by tribes hostile to all ethnic Chinese. The terrain was another formidable opponent: the Red Army had to cross mountains and rivers, often capturing river crossings heavily defended by hostile warlords and Nationalist troops, such as the Luding Bridge.
The Second Red Army began its own withdrawal west from Hubei in November 1935, led by He Long, who commanded the KMT Twentieth Army in 1923 before joining the Communist Party of China (CPC). In retribution, Chiang Kai-Shek had He Long's relatives executed, including three sisters and a brother. In 1932 he established a soviet in the Hunan-Kiangsi border area, and in August 1934 received command of the Second Red Army, establishing a base in Hubei. An advance party of the First Red Army called the Sixth Group, commanded by Xiao Ke, was sent towards the Second Red Army two months before the beginning of the Long March. Xiao Ke's force would link up with He Long and his army, but lost communication with the First Army that came behind.
On November 19, 1935, the Second Red Army set out on its own Long March. He Long's force was driven further west than the First Red Army, all the way to Lijiang in Yunnan province, then across the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain massif and through the Tibetan highlands of western Sichuan. He Long and Xiao Ke were married to sisters who also accompanied the army. He Long's wife, Jian Xianren, carried the baby daughter she had given birth to three weeks before the retreat began. Jian Xianfo gave birth to a son in the desolate swamps of northern Sichuan. Forces of the Second Army detained two European missionaries, Rudolf Bosshardt and Arnolis Hayman, for 16 months. Bosshardt later related his account of the details of daily life on the Long March in a book..
All along the way, the Communist Army confiscated property and weapons from local warlords and landlords, while recruiting peasants and the poor. Nevertheless, only some 8,000 troops under Mao's command, the First Front Army, ultimately made it to the final destination of Yan'an in 1935. Of these, less than 7,000 were among the original 100,000 soldiers who had started the march. A variety of factors contributed to the losses including fatigue, hunger and cold, sickness, desertion, and military casualties. During the retreat, membership in the party fell from 300,000 to around 40,000.
While costly, the Long March gave the Communist Party of China (CPC) the isolation it needed, allowing its army to recuperate and rebuild in the north of China. It also was vital in helping the CPC to gain a positive reputation among the peasants due to the determination and dedication of the surviving participants of the Long March. Mao wrote in 1935:
In addition, policies ordered by Mao for all soldiers to follow, the Eight Points of Attention, instructed the army to avoid harm to or disrespect for the peasants, in spite of the desperate need for food and supplies. This policy won support for the Communists among the rural peasants. Hostilities ceased while the Nationalists and Chinese Communists formed a nominal alliance during the Second Sino-Japanese War from 1937 until 1945. During these years, the Chinese Communist Party persevered and strengthened its influence. The Red Army fought a disciplined and organized guerilla campaign against superior Japanese forces, allowing it to gain experience. Following the end of World War II, the resurgent Communist Eighth Route Army, later called the People's Liberation Army, returned to drive the Kuomintang out of Mainland China to the island of Taiwan. Since the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the Long March has been glorified as an example of the Communist Party's strength and resilience. The Long March solidified Mao's status as the undisputed leader of the CCP. Other participants in the March also went on to become prominent party leaders, including Zhu De, Lin Biao, Liu Shaoqi, Dong Biwu, Ye Jianying, Li Xiannian, Yang Shangkun, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping.
In 2003, controversy arose about the distance covered by Mao's First Front Army in the Long March. The figure of 25,000 li (12,500 kilometres or about 8,000 miles) was Mao's estimate, quoted by his biographer Edgar Snow in Red Star Over China, published not long after the end of the Long March in 1935. In 2003, two British researchers, Ed Jocelyn and Andrew McEwen, retraced the route in 384 days, and in their 2006 book "The Long March" estimated the March actually covered about 6,000 km (3,700 miles). Jocelyn and McEwen conclude in their book that "Mao and his followers twisted the tale of the Long March for their own ends. Mao's role was mythologized to the point where ... it seemed he had single-handedly saved the Red Army and defeated Chiang Kai-shek". Mao exaggerated, perhaps even doubled, the length of the march, they believe. Their report has been disputed by the Chinese media, citing "The 25,000 li of the Red Army's Long March are a historic fact and not open to doubt.