Historic retreat and rise of the Red Army

More than 75 years ago, Mao Zedong led nearly 90,000 soldiers in China’s central Red Army on a grueling trek that has been mythologized as the Long March. For Mao, the journey began in 1934 as the ruling Nationalists and the underdog Communists waged a bitter fight for control of China. The Communists were fleeing from the larger and better-armed Nationalist force. History books say only one out of every five people who started out on the Long March was left at the end, but their survival, against all odds, has become one of the founding legends of Chinese Communism. Officially, the Long March covered 10,000 kilometers. The Red Army soldiers trekked on foot, over difficult routes and circuitous trails. They were often forced to retrace their steps many times, as in the famous four crossings of the Chishui River.

My VOA colleague Nan Zhang and I went along the path of the Long March. We tried to follow the original route as closely as we could, but to save time, we traveled along roads and new highways. In the end, we covered about 7,500 kilometers in three weeks.

The Long March was the focus of the trip, but since the route passed through some of China's poorest and most remote countryside, we also wanted to see how the country’s 800 million peasants cope in the 21st century. We talked to witnesses along the way who saw the Red Army pass through their towns 75 years ago. We found one Long March survivor whose legs were injured in the fighting. We talked to peasants who were stricken by a severe drought this year in the southwestern province of Guizhou. Everywhere we went, peasants told us their lives are better than their parents’ lives were, but they also were eager to discuss their concerns about corruption and growing social inequality. We talked to ethnic Tibetans, who would like to see their religious leader, the Dalai Lama, return from exile in India. We met children who demonstrated their martial arts skills and recited poetry written by the closest figure officially atheistic China has to a god, former leader Mao Zedong.

We traveled on some horrible roads. One day the car suffered three flat tires in the middle of nowhere. We also drove on some freshly paved roads and saw grand highways and road tunnels under construction. By the end of 2008, China had more than 60,000 kilometers of highway, second only to the United States, with ambitious plans to add even more in the next decade. China is a country on the move, and as more roads are built through remote rural areas, social changes will accelerate.

- Stephanie Ho


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