The founding myth of Communist China
is The Long March. Just as Moses led his people to
the Promised Land, Mao led his into a new China -
but how much of the myth as passed down through
official records is actually true? Sun Shuyun
retraces the route of the Long March across a little
changed landscape, relating the first hand accounts
of some of the few remaining survivors who tell
their version of the March unembellished by
political propaganda. The result is a stunning
rewrite of the history that she and about a billion
other Chinese have learned as fact from their
earliest days in school. In place of heroic battles
are ruthless purges, in place of honorable death are
countless desertions and futile loss of life; in
place of honored veterans are thousands who have
suffered for decades at the hands of the Communist
The March was a triumph - a triumph for the power of propaganda. But should this diminish the respect the Chinese people have for those who took part in the Long March? As Sun Shuyun so eloquently shows, through her interviews with those who were actually there, the answer is no. While many modern-day readers may find it hard to comprehend the blind willingness to follow without question that many of the Long Marchers displayed, one cannot but admire their courage and endurance in the face of circumstances which were actually more harsh than shown in the historical record.
If these first hand narratives and Sun Shuyun's research reveal such a different version of The March, the question then arises how the official version became so firmly entrenched and unquestioned. The short answer is that what most of the Chinese people know of the Long March comes from a 1938 book of 100 stories collected by Mao's Political Department. According to the book's editor, when the request for first hand accounts went out "articles poured in" and from these the 100 best were chosen; that is to say the 100 that best conformed with Party lines. The 100 stories are powerful, and impressive, telling of great battles, heroism, and the invulnerability and wisdom of Mao.
There's only one catch - most of the soldiers on the march were illiterate, so Mao ordered a song of the Long March to be composed. "The Tune of the Long March" has 13 parts, one for each month of the March with the last stanza summing things up. All soldiers could sing the song and, for many, it came to color their memories. The song turns a ragged retreat into a glorious victory, and thanks to Mao's great gift for propaganda and for silencing any dissenting voices, it has become the founding legend of the Communist Chinese.
Readers brought up on the history of the Long March, will be riveted from the opening words. For those of us brought up in a Western culture who know of the Long March only as a vague piece of history, it will take a little longer to get into; but within a chapter, two at the most, readers with the remotest interest in history will be fully engrossed in the first person accounts of foot soldiers such as Woman Wang, Soldier Huang, Orderly Liu, Propagandist Wu, Fighter Li, whose stories Sun Shuyun so ably interweaves with archival research and official history.
This review was originally published in September 2007, and has been updated for the May 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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