Every nation has its founding myth. For Communist China, it is the Long March – a story on a par with Moses leading the Israelites’ exodus out of Egypt. I was raised on it.
The myth can be stated succinctly. The fledgling Communist Party and its three Red Armies were driven out of their bases in the South in the early 1930’s by Chiang Kaishek’s Nationalist government. Pursued and harried by their enemies, they crossed high mountains, turbulent rivers, and impassable grassland, with Mao steering the course from victory to victory. After two years and 10,000 miles of endurance, courage, and hope against impossible odds, the Red Armies reached northwest China. Only a fifth of the 200,000 soldiers remained, worn out, battered, but defiant. A decade later, they fought back, defeated Chiang Kaishek, and launched Mao’s New China.
How does China’s founding myth stand up to reality?
In 2004, seventy years after it began, I set out to retrace the Long March. It remains a daunting journey, through areas little changed to this day, inaccessible, and desperately poor. Of the 40,000 survivors, perhaps 500 are still alive; I tracked down and interviewed 40 of them – ordinary people who were left behind or managed to reach the end, but with stories that are highly instructive.