When Zhou Enlai and Zhu De were driven out of Nanchang after their abortive uprising, they fled to the Jinggang Shan (井岗山, jĭnggāng shān) ranges, 300km southwest along the mountainous border with Hunan. Here they met up with Mao, whose Autumn Harvest Uprising in Hunan had also failed, and the remnants of the two armies joined to form the first real PLA divisions. Their initial base was near the country town of CIPING (茨坪, cípíng), and, though they declared a Chinese Soviet Republic in 1931 at the Fujian border town of Ruijin, Ciping was where the Communists stayed until forced out by the Guomindang in 1934. Today, Jinggang Shan is reasonably accessible thanks to new roads, though it doesn’t attract huge numbers of tourists, making the picture-perfect forest scenery and meandering hiking trails an attractive proposition.
Ciping is little more than a village. Completely destroyed by artillery bombardments during the 1930s, it was rebuilt after the Communist takeover and has recently been remodelled to take better advantage of tourism. It is unintentionally ironic that that the heart of Ciping, once the frontline of the Communist cause, is now a soulless market selling tourist tat commemorating the bloody struggle. The main streets form a 2km elliptical circuit, the lower half of which is taken up with a lake surrounded by well-tended gardens.Having waded through the terribly serious displays in town, it’s nice to escape into Jinggang Shan’s surprisingly wild countryside. Some of the peaks provide glorious views of the sunrise – or frequent mists – and there are colourful plants, natural groves of pine and bamboo, deep green temperate cloud forests, and hosts of butterflies and birds.
The Long March
The Long March
In 1927, Chiang Kai-shek, the new leader of the Nationalist Guomindang (GMD) government, began an obsessive war against the six-year-old Chinese Communist Party, using a union dispute in Shanghai as an excuse to massacre their leadership. Driven underground, the Communists set up half a dozen remote rural bases, or soviets, across central China. The most important of these were the Fourth Front army in northern Sichuan, under the leadership of Zhang Guotao; the Hunan soviet, controlled by the irrepressible peasant general He Long; and the main Jiangxi soviet in the Jinggang Mountains, led by Mao Zedong and Zhu De, the Communist Commander-in-Chief.
Initially poorly armed, the Jiangxi soviet successfully fought off GMD attempts to oust them, acquiring better weapons in the process and swelling their ranks with disaffected peasantry and defectors from the Nationalist cause. But they over-estimated their position and in 1933, abandoning Mao’s previously successful guerrilla tactics, they were drawn into several disastrous pitched battles. Chiang, ignoring Japanese incursions into Manchuria in his eagerness to defeat the Communists, blockaded the mountains with a steadily tightening ring of bunkers and barbed wire, systematically clearing areas of guerrillas with artillery bombardments. Hemmed in and facing eventual defeat, the First Front army, comprising some eighty thousand Red soldiers, decided to break through the blockade in October 1934 and retreat west to team up with the Hunan soviet – marking the beginning of the Long March.
Covering a punishing 30km a day on average, the Communists moved after dark whenever possible so that the enemy would find it difficult to know their exact position; even so, they faced daily skirmishes. One thing in their favour was that many putative GMD divisions were, in fact, armies belonging to local warlords who owed a token allegiance to Chiang Kai-shek, and had no particular reason to fight once it became clear that the Red Army was only crossing their territory. But after incurring severe losses during a battle at the Xiang River near Guilin in Guangxi, the marchers found their progress north impeded by massive GMD forces, and were obliged to continue west to Guizhou, where they took the town of Zunyi in January 1935. With their power structure in disarray and with no obvious options left, an emergency meeting of the Communist Party hierarchy was called – the Zunyi Conference. Mao emerged as the undisputed leader of the Party, with a mandate to “go north to fight the Japanese” by linking up with Zhang Guotao in Sichuan. In subsequent months they circled through Yunnan and Guizhou, trying to shake off the GMD, routing twenty regiments of the Guangxi provincial army at the Loushan Pass in the process; they then suddenly moved up into Sichuan to cross the Jinsha River and, in one of the most celebrated and heroic episodes of the march, took the Luding Bridge across the Dadu River. Now they had to negotiate Daxue Shan (Great Snowy Mountains), where hundreds died from exhaustion, exposure and altitude sickness before the survivors met up on the far side with the Fourth Front army.
The meeting between these two major branches of the Red Army was tense. Mao, with Party backing, wanted to start resistance against the Japanese, but Zhang, who felt that his better-equipped forces and better education gave him superiority, wanted to found a Communist state in Sichuan’s far west. Zhang eventually capitulated, and he and Mao took control of separate columns to cross the last natural barrier they faced, the Aba grasslands in northern Sichuan. But here, while Mao was bogged down by swamps, hostile nomads and dwindling food reserves, Zhang’s column suddenly retreated to Garzê, where Zhang set up an independent government. Mao and what remained of the First Front struggled through southern Gansu, where they suffered further losses at the hands of Muslim supporters of the GMD, finally arriving in Communist-held Yan’an, Shaanxi province, in October 1935. While the mountains here were to become a Communist stronghold, only a quarter of those who started from Jiangxi twelve months before had completed the 9500km journey. For his part, Zhang was soon harried out of western Sichuan by Chiang’s forces, and after meeting up with He Long, he battled through to Shaanxi, adding another twenty thousand to the Communist ranks. Here he made peace with Mao in October 1936, but later defected to the GMD.
Immediately after the Long March, Mao admitted that in terms of losses and the Red Army’s failure to hold their original positions against the Nationalists, the Guomindang had won. Yet in a more lasting sense, the march was an incredible success, uniting the Party under Mao and defining the Communists’ aims, while changing the Communists’ popular image from simply another rebel group opposing central authority into one of a determined and patriotic movement. After Zunyi, Mao turned the march into a deliberate propaganda mission to spread the Communist faith among the peasantry, opening up prisons in captured GMD towns and promoting tolerance and cooperation with minority groups (though not always successfully). As Mao said, “Without the Long March, how could the broad masses have learned so quickly about the existence of the great truth which the Red Army embodies?”