SEVENTY-FIVE years ago today, China's Red Army, the predecessor of the People's Liberation Army, ended its Long March, a storied, 24-month retreat from the Nationalist Army's often, near-successful attempts under Chiang Kai-shek to crush the communist revolution. On Oct 22, 1936, the Red Army's three main units - the First Front Army, Second Front and Fourth Front - came together at Huining in Shaanxi province.
By Anthony Paul, For The Straits Times
There was some early debate about when the Long March ended. The First Front Army, Mao Zedong's central force, was able to stop marching and fighting a year earlier in Wuxi, about 120km away. But Mao settled the matter: Huining was, he declared, 'Peace Town'. It was the place where 'the Red Army's union heralds peace for China'.
As it happened, real peace was a long time coming. First, it took until 1945 before a Japanese invader could be expelled. In Beijing, in October 1949, Mao announced the formation of the People's Republic. Two months later, Chiang, who was then in Chongqing, fled to Taiwan to rejoin his remnant forces. Apart from sporadic aerial and naval encounters and skirmishes between special forces, the last time that communist and nationalist units fought was in 1950. The civil war has never officially ended, though tourists from both the mainland and Taiwan are now a common sight all over China.
A friend of Mao's is reported to have heard him say that Snow's book 'had a merit no less than that of the Great Yu, the mythical emperor who was supposed to have brought China's floods under control and saved the people'.
The fledgling People's Republic, anxious to build a new, party-centred nationalism for China, soon set about glorifying the Long March. They had a lot of propaganda material to use and went about making the most of it. At the core of the effort was a famous book of the late 1930s - Red Star Over China by Edgar Snow (Random House, 1938).
Snow was just 30 when he produced this classic. Born in Kansas in the United States, he had spent seven years in China, five of them as a correspondent for a then prestigious US magazine, the Saturday Evening Post. He and his wife lived for much of the time in Beijing - near Yenching University, then a leading Christian missionary college that was eventually closed by the communists and merged with Peking University.
The Snows were not communists but they spent time with student activists and were aware of the Chinese Communist Party's policies and motivations. But like most of the world, including China itself at that time, they had little knowledge of Mao, the Red Army or Mao's determination to mobilise the rural masses.
Helped by contacts with a warlord's army in Xi'an, Snow was able to cross communist lines and meet Mao, at a time when the party's reclusive chairman had decided to put himself on record.
Snow's reports created something of a sensation. In Britain, the book sold more than 100,000 copies in the first few weeks of its launch. Many young Chinese radicals, including Jiang Qing, a Shanghai actress who would become Mao's wife, joined the communists in Shaanxi after reading it.
Said Harvard University professor John Fairbank in an introduction to one of the many later editions of the book: 'The remarkable thing about Red Star Over China was that it not only gave the first connected history of Mao and his colleagues and where they had come from, but it also gave a prospect of the future of this little-known movement which was to prove disastrously prophetic.' (Prof Fairbank wrote this in 1968, when US-China relations were at a very low ebb.)
Mao remained grateful to Snow for the portrait shown in the book. Was it altogether accurate? In a word, no.
One example among many available: Snow described the Red Army's seizure of a chain bridge over the Dadu River in western Sichuan province as 'the most critical single incident of the Long March'. In a chapter he titled The Heroes Of Dadu, he breathlessly recounts the reaction of the Sichuanese defenders of the bridge as just 22 Red soldiers raced across it to press an attack against a regiment: 'Were (the Reds) human beings or madmen or gods?'
Unfortunately for him, we now have paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's own frank footnote to the history of the operation. During a visit to China in the 1980s, former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski told Deng that he went to the Dadu bridge and had been impressed by 'the great feat of arms'. Deng smiled and said: 'Well, that's the way it's presented in our propaganda. We needed that to express the fighting spirit of our forces. In fact, it was a very easy military operation. There wasn't really much to it. (On) the other side were just some troops of a warlord who were armed with old muskets, and it really wasn't that much of a feat, but we felt we had to dramatise it.'
Over the years since, countless documentaries, plays and movie scripts have turned the action into a centrepiece of modern Chinese history. Across The Dadu River is a popular song from the Chinese musical, The East Is Red.
Mao's gratitude is on the record. A friend of his is reported to have heard him say that Snow's book 'had a merit no less than that of the Great Yu, the mythical emperor who was supposed to have brought China's floods under control and saved the people'.
That Snow saved the people may be debatable. That the founding myth of the Long March helped to create a 'New China' would be easier to argue.
This curious retreat into victory ended just 75 years - only three generations - ago today. Pondering the latest growth statistics, we sometimes forget just how quickly a changed China has reversed its fortunes.