long march

long march

long march, Chin., Changzheng, the journey of c.6,000 mi (9,660 km) undertaken by the Red Army of China in 1934-35. When their Jiangxi prov. Soviet base was encircled by the Nationalist army of Chiang Kai-shek, some 90,000 men and women broke through the siege (Oct., 1934) and marched westward to Guizhou prov. There, at the Zunyi Conference (Jan., 1935), Mao Zedong won leadership of the Communist party and decided to join the remote Shaanxi prov. Soviet base. Overcoming numerous natural obstacles (such as towering mountain ranges and turbulent rivers) and despite constant harassment by Nationalist troops and the armies of provincial warlords, the Red Army arrived at its new home in the north in Oct., 1935. However, more than half of the original marchers were lost in this almost incredible trek. Those who survived settled around the city of Yan'an.

See E. Snow, Red Star over China (rev. ed. 1968) and R. G. Wilson, The Long March, 1935 (1971).

The Long March was a massive military retreat undertaken by the Red Armies of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the forerunner of the People's Liberation Army, to evade the pursuit of the Kuomintang (KMT or Chinese Nationalist Party) army. There was not one Long March, but several, as various Communist armies in the south escaped to the north and west. The most well known is the march from Jiangxi province which began in October 1934. The First Front Army of the Chinese Soviet Republic, led by an inexperienced military commission, was on the brink of complete annihilation by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek's troops in their stronghold in Jiangxi province. The Communists, under the eventual command of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, escaped in a circling retreat to the west and north, which reportedly traversed some 12,500 kilometers (8,000 miles) over 370 days. The route passed through some of the most difficult terrain of western China by traveling west, then north, to Shaanxi.

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.

Background to the Long March

The Red Army in 1934

Although the literal translation of the Chinese Cháng Zhēng is “Long March”, official publications of the People's Republic of China refer to "The Long March of the Red Army" (Chinese traditional: 紅軍長征, Chinese simplified: 红军长征, pinyin: Hóng Jūn Cháng Zhēng). The Long March most commonly refers to the transfer of the main group of the First (or Central) Red Army, which included the leaders of the Communist Party of China, from Yudu in the province of Jiangxi, to Yan'an in Shaanxi. In this sense, the Long March lasted from 16 October 1934 to 19 October 1935. In a broader view, the Long March included two other forces retreating under pressure from the Kuomintang: the Second Red Army and the Fourth Red Army. The retreat of all the Red Armies was not complete until 22 October 1936, when the three forces linked up in Shaanxi.

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.

Civil war

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:

"By May 1928, basic principles of guerilla warfare, simple in nature and suited to the conditions of the time, had already been evolved...But beginning from January 1932...the old principles were no longer to be considered as regular, but were to be rejected as 'guerilla-ism'. The opposition to 'guerilla-ism' reigned for three whole years.

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.

Retreat and battles

The First Red Army

The first movements of the retreat were undertaken by forces led by Fang Zhimin, breaking through Kuomintang lines in June 1934. Although Fang Zhimin's troops were soon destroyed, these movements surprised the Kuomintang, who were numerically superior to the Communists at the time and did not expect an attack on their fortified perimeter.

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.

The rise of Mao Zedong

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 Fourth Red Army

In July 1935, the troops under Mao united with the Fourth Red Army, led by Zhang Guotao, which had retreated west from Henan. The Communist leadership was determined to move into Shaanxi province, although the decision was not unanimous. Zhang Guotao preferred to establish a refuge near the border with the Soviet Union. In command of a much smaller force, Mao carefully avoided Zhang's discovery of this fact, and overcame Zhang's influence over the subordinate commanders of the Communist forces. After disagreement over the direction in which the troops should move, the two forces split up. Zhang Guotao's Fourth Red Army, which took a different route, south, then west and finally north through China, was largely destroyed by the forces of Chiang Kai-shek and his Chinese Muslim allies, the Ma clique. The remnants of Zhang's forces joined elements of the Second Red Army, eventually linking up with Mao's forces in Shaanxi.

The Second Red Army

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..

Union of the three armies

Mao's First Red Army traversed several swamps and suffered ambushes from the Tibetans and the Hui. Finally, in October 1935, his army reached Shaanxi province. The remnants of Zhang's Fourth Red Army eventually joined Mao in Shaanxi, but with his army destroyed, Zhang, even as a founding member of the CCP, was never able to challenge Mao's authority. After an expedition of almost a year, the Second Red Army reached Bao'an (Shaanxi) on 22 October 1936, known in China as the “union of the three armies”, and the end of the Long March.

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:

"The Long March is a manifesto. It has proclaimed to the world that the Red Army is an army of heroes, while the imperialists and their running dogs, Chiang Kai-shek and his like, are impotent. It has proclaimed their utter failure to encircle, pursue, obstruct and intercept us. The Long March is also a propaganda force. It has announced to some 200 million people in eleven provinces that the road of the Red Army is their only road to liberation.

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.


Further reading

  • (2005). Mao: the unknown story. Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 0-679-42271-4.
  • (2005). Yu Chi Chan (On Guerrilla Warfare) by Mao Tse-tung (1937). Dover Books on History. ISBN 0-48644-376-0.
  • (2006). The Long March. Constable and Robinson. ISBN 1-84529-255-3.
  • Kampen, Thomas (2000). Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and the Evolution of the Chinese Communist Leadership. Nordic Institute of Asian Studies. ISBN 87-87062-76-3.
  • Salisbury, Harrison Evans (1985). The Long March : The Untold Story. Harper & Row, New York. ISBN 0-06-039044-1.
  • Shuyun, Sun (2006). The Long March. Harper Collins. ISBN 0-007-19479-X.
  • Snow, Edgar (1968 Revised Edition). Red Star Over China. Grove Press. ISBN 0-8021-5093-4.
  • Whitson, William W. (1973). The Chinese High Command : A History of Communist Military Politics 1927-71. Praeger. ISBN 0333150538.
  • Yang, Benjamin (1990). From Revolution to Politics: Chinese Communists on the Long March. Westview Press. ISBN 0-8133-7672-6.
  • Wilson, Dick (1971). The Long March 1935: The Epic of Chinese Communism's Survival. Penguin Press. ISBN 0-1400-6113-4.

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