In 1927, Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Nationalist Guomindang (GMD) government, began an obsessive war against the Chinese Communist Party. Driven underground, the Communists set up remote rural bases, or soviets, across central China. The main Jiangxi soviet in the Jinggang Mountains was led by Mao Zedong and Zhu De, the Communist Commander-in-Chief. Ignoring Japanese incursions into Manchuria, Chiang 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, broke through the blockade in October 1934 and retreated west to team up with the Hunan soviet – marking the beginning of the Long March.
Covering a punishing 30km a day, the Communists moved after dark whenever possible, but still faced daily skirmishes. 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, and 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 one of the most celebrated and heroic episodes of the march, they took the Luding Bridge across the Dadu River, only to negotiate the Great Snowy Mountains, where hundreds died from exposure before the survivors met up on the far side with the Fourth Front army.
The meeting between these two branches of the Red Army was tense. Mao wanted to start resistance against the Japanese, but Zhang Guotao favoured founding 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. Here, while Mao was bogged down by swamps, hostile nomads and dwindling food reserves, Zhang’s column suddenly retreated to Ganzi, where Zhang set up an independent government. Mao struggled through southern Gansu, 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.
Immediately after the Long March, Mao admitted that in terms of losses and the Red Army’s failure to hold their original positions, the Nationalists 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 cementing their popular image as a determined and patriotic movement. After Zunyi, Mao turned the march into a deliberate propaganda mission to spread the Communist faith among the peasantry and minority groups. 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?”