“We followed on the route of the Red Army. Not every li of the way. We skipped a bit here and there, particularly some of the zigzags in Guizhou, taking side excursions over the terrain trav eled by the secondary armies, tasting the sheer exhaustion of the Red Army’s travel by climbing the spiky trail that leads from the crossing of the Golden Sands River past Fire Mountain and Lion’s Head not far from Tibet, emerging from the mountains by mule and horseback, and moving up to the Great Snowies, the roads in late May leading through fields of snow, on to the terrible Grasslands, where, as at Passchendaele, men had slipped into the bottomless muck and dragged down to eter nity anyone who tried to lend a helping hand.
The journey covered 7,400 miles on the roads and trails—jeep, mini bus, command car—and took two and a half months. Then more and more interviews, and another trip to China, in autumn 1984.
Only the journey over the actual ground could convey a feeling of what Mao and his men and women endured. This is still backcountry. No cities. No foreigners. In town after town, no one could remember a foreigner ever visiting.
No one, foreign or Chinese, had made the trip. No one is likely soon to repeat it as we did.
Here, then, is the record of the Long March of fifty years ago, pieced together from hundreds of interviews, documents, archives. I put to the Chinese every hard question I could think of. They did their best to answer, sometimes going back again and again to the records until they ferreted out the missing fact.
The story is an epic. Not only because of the heroism of the simple soldiers and their commanders but because it became, in effect, the crucible of the Chinese Revolution. It forged the brotherhood that fought Chiang Kai-shek to a standstill and came to power under Mao’s leadership.
That this brotherhood disintegrated in the madness of Mao’s final years adds a note of tragedy to the heroic drama. But now, amazingly, the survivors have come to the top. Under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping they have moved China onto what they call a “new Long March,’’one as difficult as the original and one which may become the great social and political experiment of our times. But that and the debacle of the Cultural Revolution and the Gang of Four constitute another tale. This is the story of the Long March—all of it that I could assemble together with the help of Chinese historians and the survivors themselves.
Here and there, more episodes may float to the surface. But enough is told here to demonstrate that this human undertaking has no parallel. In it there is a little, perhaps, of the exodus of the Jews, a little of Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps, of Napoleon’s march on Moscow, and, to my surprise, some echoes of America’s winning of the West, the great cavalcade over mountain and prairie.
But no comparison fits. The Long March is sui generis. Its heroism has fired the dreams of a nation of 1.1 billion people and set China moving toward a destiny no man can yet divine.“