Mao’s Long March Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Facing a Nationalist assault on the Communist stronghold in southern China’s Jiangxi Province, Mao Zedong joined the Communist retreat toward a sanctuary at Yan’an in the remote northern Ningxia Huizu Province. On a trek that covered about five thousand miles, Mao engineered his rise to supremacy of the Chinese Communist Party and turned the event into a core myth of Communist triumph.

Summary of Event

The Chinese Communist Party formed an alliance with the Nationalist Party (the Kuomintang) in 1923 in order to unify China by defeating independent warlords, but this alliance broke apart in the period 1926-1927. When Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Kuomintang Kuomintang;conflict with Chinese Communist Party after 1925, launched a devastating attack on the Communists and purged his new government of all Communists on October 10, 1927, the Communists retreated into remote rural sanctuaries throughout China. One of the Communists’ most important southern strongholds, ruled through terror by Mao Zedong and Zhu De, was the Jiangxi Soviet state, which they proclaimed on November 7, 1931. [kw]Mao’s Long March (Oct. 16, 1934-Oct. 18, 1935)[Maos Long March (Oct. 16, 1934 Oct. 18, 1935)] [kw]Long March, Mao’s (Oct. 16, 1934-Oct. 18, 1935) [kw]March, Mao’s Long (Oct. 16, 1934-Oct. 18, 1935)[March, Maos Long (Oct. 16, 1934 Oct. 18, 1935)] Long March (1934-1935) Communist Party;China [g]China;Oct. 16, 1934-Oct. 18, 1935: Mao’s Long March[08720] [g]East Asia;Oct. 16, 1934-Oct. 18, 1935: Mao’s Long March[08720] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct. 16, 1934-Oct. 18, 1935: Mao’s Long March[08720] [c]Military history;Oct. 16, 1934-Oct. 18, 1935: Mao’s Long March[08720] [c]Government and politics;Oct. 16, 1934-Oct. 18, 1935: Mao’s Long March[08720] Mao Zedong Chiang Kai-shek Zhang Guotao Zhou Enlai Zhu De

Even though he faced challenges from independent warlords and Japanese aggression, in late 1933 Chiang Kai-shek moved to destroy the Jiangxi stronghold. Turning for advice to a German World War I general, Hans von Seeckt, Chiang Kai-shek trapped the Communists inside a series of blockhouses, where he hoped hunger would eventually force them to surrender. When the key Communist leaders—Red Army commander Zhu De, party officials Bo Gu and Zhou Enlai, and Joseph Stalin’s German envoy Otto Braun (who was married to a Chinese woman)—met in August, 1934, they decided to evacuate Jiangxi and move their forces to a sanctuary in northern China, which was closer to the border with the Soviet Union. Mao Zedong, president of the Jiangxi Soviet, made sure he joined the breakout against the wishes of his rivals.

After killing thousands of Chinese deemed unworthy in Jiangxi, Zhou Enlai coordinated the breakout of the Communist forces. The Communists chose a path through the southwest, which was guarded only by unreliable allied warlord troops from Guangxi Zhuangzu and Guangdong. Two days into the event, on October 18, 1934, Mao Zedong traveled across Yudu bridge and out of Jiangxi.

The Communists moved with relative ease through the four Kuomintang lines, and they crossed the Xiang River into the Guangxi Zhuangzu region in December, 1934. They took the town of Zunyi on January 7, 1935, after crossing the Wu River in Guizhou Province with their remaining forty thousand troops. Traditionally, the success of the Communist breakout was blamed on poor performance of the Kuomintang and warlord troops, but more recent historical evidence suggests that Chiang Kai-shek may have been willing to allow an escape by reduced Communist forces. He wanted to please Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union, which China hoped would be its ally against Japan. Matters were made even more complicated by the fact that Chiang’s son Jiang Jingguo was essentially a hostage in Moscow, where the young man had gone to study in 1925. Additionally, Chiang confided to his secretary that by pursuing the Communists into provinces still held by semi-independent warlords, the Kuomintang would establish its power there.

At a high-level Communist Party meeting in Zunyi from January 15 to 18, Mao cemented his position by becoming a member of the Secretariat of the Communist Party’s Politburo and by blaming others, including Otto Braun, for the Jiangxi defeat that made the Long March necessary. Contrary to later claims, Mao was not made chairman of the party until later. He did, however, become military adviser to Zhou Enlai at this time. After the Zunyi Conference, the Communists decided to move north into Sichuan, where they planned to double their strength by joining an army—led by the ruthless Zhang Guotao—already stationed in the region.

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Fearing that a successful linkup could result in a loss of his power, Mao made sure the forces could not meet. With Zhou Enlai’s approval, Mao ordered his troops southward, where they attacked a Nationalist force in the Battle of Tucheng on January 28. The Communists lost four thousand soldiers, and Mao used the defeat to argue against a breakthrough to Sichuan. Instead, he led the Long Marchers back into Guizhou and then back into Zunyi on February 27. In Zunyi, Mao was appointed commander of the general front after the Communists repelled a Kuomintang attack. Communist anger grew when Mao refused to go north, and he was finally forced to move west into Yunnan and Sichuan.

On May 29, 1935, Mao’s forces reached the hundred-yard-long Luding (or Dadu) Bridge, which spanned the raging Datong River. Communist mythology describes the events there as a fierce battle in which the Communists heroically captured the bridge. Later historical research, however, revealed that there was no real battle; Chiang Kai-shek wanted the Communists to go north. Mao turned the May 31 crossing into a legend in order to build his status. Similarly, during this time and throughout the Long March, Mao and his leadership circle were carried on chairs by porters, although Communist legend states that this happened only when Mao was ill with malaria.

The Long Marchers finally reached the Sichuan town of Mougong on June 12, 1935, after crossing the inhospitable passes across the Snow Mountains (the altitude of which exceeded 10,000 feet). On this part of the journey, Mao abandoned his sedan chair and walked with his men. By the time Mao was joined by a furious Zhang Guotao and his eighty thousand troops on June 25, his suffering troops numbered only about ten thousand.

Mao was in control of the party’s leadership, and to ensure that his troops would reach the sanctuary first, Mao proposed a two-pronged approach into Shaanxi Province. His forces would go directly northeast through the Banyou marshes, while Zhang’s troops were to take a more northwesterly route. The two Communist columns departed in early August. Bogged down in the dangerous marshes, Mao feared that Zhang would overtake him, and in the name of the party Mao ordered Zhang to go through the marshes as well. Even though he objected, Zhang obeyed, and after realizing that he could not cross the marshes that late in the year, Zhang issued a September 3 order for all Communist troops to rest for the winter.

Mao and his allies refused this military order, denounced Zhang, and took their most loyal troops away to the north. The group stopped in surprisingly hospitable Muslim minority territory in south Gansu Province, where a rash of desertions caused Mao to release an October 2 order promising harsh punishments for stragglers. Many soldiers were executed under the order. On October 18, 1935, Mao and a mere four thousand Communists reached Communist-controlled territory in Ningxia Huizu Province; they entered the city of Wuqizhen on October 20.

In Moscow, Mao’s envoy Chen Yun gave a glowing report of Mao’s leadership on the Long March, and this account earned Mao an admiring article in the Soviet Pravda newspaper in late October. By December, 1935, Mao had ended his Long March in Yan’an and was busy ensuring that his version of the event was enshrined in history. In the spring of 1936, Zhang Guotao’s army arrived; over the course of the winter, the army had lost half its men.

Significance

The Long March provided Mao Zedong with an extraordinary chance to take hold of the Chinese Communist Party, and he ruthlessly exploited this opportunity. By brilliantly outmaneuvering his Communist adversaries (at staggering human costs to his fellow Communists), Mao rose to a near-mythical status without any real challenges. He consistently used propaganda to emphasize the Long March’s importance, and in the process he built a solid foundation for his rule.

If, as history suggests, Chiang Kai-shek’s political and personal interests led him to allow a small band of Communists to escape from Jiangxi into Yan’an, his move backfired. The Communists were quick to spread their version of a heroic Long March to receptive Chinese and other sympathizers from around the world. Within a few years, Mao’s account of the Long March gathered support from Chinese and international supporters such as American journalist Edgar Snow, whose interviews with Mao fascinated an international audience.

The Long March allowed Mao’s Communists to build a secure base of power that provided crucial support during Japan’s 1937-1945 war on China and launched the 1946-1949 conquest of mainland China during the final phase of China’s civil war. The Communist myths and memoirs of the Long March became an accepted part Chinese history, and historians whose research contradicted Mao’s long-accepted version of the event faced a challenging battle. Long March (1934-1935) Communist Party;China

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chang, Jung, and Jon Halliday. Mao: The Unknown Story. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. Controversial but based on fresh eyewitness accounts. Questions conventional wisdom built on Communist propaganda and highlights Mao’s ambitions, which caused a great deal of suffering for his followers and for his Communist rivals. Illustrated with maps, notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Salisbury, Harrison E. The Long March: The Untold Story. New York: Harper & Row, 1985. Description of the event by a journalist who later traveled Mao’s route by himself. Endorses the Communist version of events.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Snow, Edgar. Red Star Rising over China. Rev. ed. New York: Grove Press, 1968. Originally published in 1937 and based on the author’s interviews with Mao after the event. Decisively pro-Communist, this account had considerable influence on America’s view of events. Uses Wade-Giles romanizations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spence, Jonathan. The Search for Modern China. Rev. ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001. Gives a succinct and balanced account of the event based on the conventional historical belief biased in Mao’s favor. Maps, illustrations, notes, glossary, bibliography, and index. Uses Pinyin romanizations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Young, Helen Praeger. Choosing Revolution: Chinese Women Soldiers on the Long March. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001. Detailed account of women’s experience of the Long March through analysis of twenty-two interviews with survivors, including four in-depth case studies. Illustrated, bibliography, index. Uses Pinyin romanizations.

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