Friday, October 23, 2015

Thinking about China: The Long March

A Chinese tribute to Mao and the Long March

Nations have their own noble founding stories.  We have Paul Revere's ride; the French speak of the storming of the Bastille.

In China, the story is the Long March, which ended 8o years ago this month.  The march was a yearlong 6,000-mile journey undertaken by the Red Army, which was facing near-certain defeat by the much larger army of the Nationalist party, the Guomintang.  The Guomintang had surrounded and laid siege to the Communists in southeastern China. 

The map below shows the general route, which took the Communists over snow-capped mountains, through large marshlands and across regions commanded by unfriendly local warlords.  Soldiers marched 15 to 20 miles a day.

When the Red Army -- what was left of it -- reached Yunan, fewer than 10,000 of its original 87,000 soldiers had survived.  Over time, the army recruited 70,000 new soldiers. It had lived to fight the Nationalists again.  


The Red Army and the Guomintang continued their civil war and then, starting in 1939, fought the Japanese separately until World War II ended in 1945.

After that, both groups vied to run China.  The Communists won, and the Nationalists fled with their leader, Chiang Kai-shek, to Taiwan.

Mao led China until his death in 1976.  The Long March has been lionized in Chinese history books ever since.  Mao himself estimated the distance covered was a third greater than it actually was, and many apparently embellished stories became part of the Long March lore.  Somewhat more realistic accounts have been published since Mao's death, including some that suggest Mao was conveyed for much of the journey on a litter carried by his troops.  

Winners write the history books, of course.  

One event that only years later began to receive careful treatment was the death of as many as 36 million Chinese people during Mao's so-called Great Leap Forward between 1958 and 1962.
       Bad weather, compounded by ill-advised and frankly ignorant central planning orders, reduced crop yields in a humanitarian disaster that only began to be discussed in China in the 1980s.
        In a book published in 2008, Yang Jisheng said this of one province :  "In Xinyang, people starved at the doors of the grain warehouses. As they died, they shouted, 'Communist Party, Chairman Mao, save us.' If the granaries of Henan and Hebei had been opened, no one need have died. As people were dying in large numbers around them, officials did not think to save them. Their only concern was how to fulfill the delivery of grain."


If China in the Mao years was a difficult place to live, Taiwan certainly had its own growth pains. 

Chiang was disliked intensely by American military advisers during and after World War II, and he was as uninterested as Mao in a power-sharing Chinese government that Americans urged after the war.  

After he and his leadership decamped to the formerly Japanese-controlled island of Taiwan, Chiang was consumed for many years by his goal of taking control of the Chinese mainland.  (China still seems eager to take control of Taiwan.)

Chiang was most notorious for his response to the violent suppression of an anti-government uprising in 1947.  Between 10,000 and 30,000 protesters were killed, and others lost their lives in the White Terror period that followed.  

On the other hand, Taiwan has developed in the years since Chiang's 1975 death into a multi-party democracy.  Economically, it is one of Asia's Four Tigers, and its people enjoyed more prosperity, earlier, than those in mainland China.  


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