China’s reality check on Long March

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

In his dreams, Tu Tongjin is back on the battlefield, a terror-stricken young medic wandering the Chinese countryside with Mao Tse-tung and his fledgling Red Army.

He is marching again, always marching. All around him are the bodies, including those of the 40,000 killed in one battle alone. He’s starving, eating only grass. He feels the nagging cold and desperation of being hounded by death and pursued by a relentless enemy army.

“What I remember most,” the 94-year-old says, “is the chaos.”


Tu is a survivor of the Long March, the epic trek by Red Army soldiers who fled southern China in the face of certain defeat at the hands of Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang forces.

Between 1934 and 1936, more than 300,000 men and women, divided into several armies, trudged inland through a brutal terrain of frigid mountain passes, freezing rivers and marshes in search of a sanctuary to continue their nascent Communist revolution. Only one in 10 survived. Now, seven decades later, fewer than 500 are still alive.

For generations, their sacrifices have been considered legend, a Chinese version of America’s Valley Forge, where sheer grit and dedication drove a young revolutionary army to overcome unthinkable odds and help give birth to a nation.

An integral chapter of Mao’s legacy, the plot line has rarely been questioned by older Chinese. Today, however, younger Chinese increasingly view march veterans as willing puppets of the Communist propaganda machine.

“I know people like my father have been used to further the government agenda,” said Tu’s 50-year-old son, Mike Tu, who lives in Ohio. “It hurts. I think it diminishes the great sacrifices these people made.”

Several controversial new histories have also cast light on the watershed event, many of them critical of Mao. Historians now put the distance of the march at 6,000 miles, not the 8,000 Mao had long boasted. Some question whether it lasted into 1936 as legend goes.

New research also shows that desertion among Red Army troops was common and that peasants often didn’t want to join. The army traded opium for supplies, and women were forced to leave their newborns behind with peasant families because a crying infant could endanger troops.

Intraparty struggles and betrayal brought repeated rounds of purges. And several of Mao’s critical blunders led to the bloody sacrifice of soldiers in hopeless battles.

“Still, Mao was a genius. He saw the propaganda value of the Long March -- for the party and his own legacy,” said Edmund Jocelyn, coauthor of the 2006 book “The Long March.”

“But there’s a huge amount of new research, some by the Chinese themselves, that helps separate fact from myth. We’re moving away from the old Maoist interpretations. People are pushing for a more objective history.”

For many older Chinese, however, the new insights strike at the heart of the national character. They are reluctant to view Mao, revered as the Great Helmsman, as merely human. He Li is one of them. Her mother, now 89, was a Red Army nurse during the march. No new revelation, He says, could ever diminish her mother’s sacrifices or the ideals for which she fought.

“Nobody’s perfect,” He said of Mao. “If you want to see a perfect man, either he hasn’t been born yet or he’s already dead.”

Tu Tongjin will never forget his first glimpse of Mao Tse-tung.

It was 1934, and the future Communist leader had come to Tu’s village in rural Fujian province to rally farmers. Most grew rice for wealthy landlords while subsisting on potatoes. Mao wanted them to take up arms to claim the land for themselves.

Mao was good-looking -- tall and rangy. Chain-smoking cigarettes, his gaze direct, he exuded the confidence of a true leader. His logic made sense. Tu wanted a piece of the new revolution and joined the Red Army forces.

Tu had completed the eighth grade, which set him apart from the mostly uneducated soldiers. He was drafted as a field medic and sent for training. Eight months later, in the frigid winter of 1934, Tu was called to action. He was 20.

Mao’s army was moving out of Fujian province. It had taken heavy casualties from run-ins with enemy forces. What would turn into an epic march began as an order to just go, as quickly as possible.

Tu was assigned to the First Division, Mao’s 86,000-troop formation. Unlike the officers, who rode horses, the young medic walked with the rest of the soldiers.

Recalling the thrill of marching off in his new uniform, he breaks into a smile as he sings a few lines from a rallying song of the day:

“Play the violins! Set up the revolutionary government!”

On the road, such elation was short-lived. Burdened by heavy equipment, Mao’s troops were quickly caught by the Kuomintang.

At the battle of Xiang River, Mao’s division lost half its number. Tu remembers wading up to his neck in an ice-cold river, the bodies of slain comrades floating past as enemy planes swooped down, dropping their bombs.

He recalls facing a devil’s order the night after the fighting. “The leaders told the wounded, ‘If you can walk, then go. If you cannot, you will be left behind,’ ” he says.

Left to the care of villagers, Tu knew, the injured men faced certain death or capture. Even many of those who managed to walk later froze to death in their wet uniforms.

Separated from the main army during one battle, Tu and three other medics remained lost for days. They came across dozens of wounded. They tried to carry them for treatment, but there were too many. He says he can still hear the cries of the men he was forced to leave behind.

Then there was the wintry climb over a mountain pass, when one battalion became caught in a storm. More than 300 men were left snow-blind, and Tu was given the task of nursing them. He remembers his frantic search for vegetables and herbs in the middle of winter as a remedy to help them see again.

Even today, Tu’s stomach still twitches over the old hunger pangs. He remembers the day he and his men emerged from the wilderness to find one village bursting with food.

Using his last few coins, he bought a chicken, some pork and some herbal medicine to treat his team of medics.

Those are the recollections that sustain him, the camaraderie that comes through hardship. Let the historians write what they want. In Tu’s eyes, nobody can question Mao.

“I don’t believe the new thinking,” says Tu, who walks slowly, using a cane. “I follow the version the Chairman has put forth.”

What do the young know, anyway? When his son makes an offhand reference to the length of the march, Tu leans forward in his chair and corrects him with a raspy growl.

“It was three years,” he snaps, “not two.”

Perhaps it wasn’t a Long March at all, or even a strategic retreat, but a flat-out run.

Mao’s troops were in fact fleeing for their lives, historians say, under attack not only by the Kuomintang but also by forces loyal to local landlords. This version is not so glorious.

But perhaps many Chinese are content to hold on to their myths.

“Marchers recall the Red Army as like joining a new family,” Jocelyn said. “They fell in love with the Communist Party. That love carried them through the abusive relationship that was to come, even today.”

Yet for those who want to know, the information is there. “In the West, we’re constantly rethinking our wars,” said Andrew McEwen, Jocelyn’s coauthor. “China is only now beginning to do that. But we’re running out of time. These survivors are dying off.”

For Tu Tongjin, the Long March inspired a career. He returned to medical school and later earned the rank of general. He retired as dean of the military medical school of the People’s Liberation Army.

He lives in a new house provided by the government. But not all march survivors are treated so well. And Mike Tu says the time has come to provide comfort to them in their few remaining years.

“Today, China is rich,” he says. “We can spend a lot of money on pandas, but we don’t have the money to take care of these people.”

At night, his house is warm, but not Tu Tongjin. He is an old man cursed by his memories. He returns to that wintry night when a snowstorm hit before his medical team could erect a tent or build a fire. So the team members climbed beneath the pile of cold canvas and huddled together.

A young soldier insisted on standing guard, despite entreaties to seek cover. By morning, he had frozen to death.

“I can still see that boy’s face outside in the snow,” Tu says.

He tries to sleep. But the bed is cold.