Still marching through history

Sun Xiaochen(China Daily) | Updated: 2016-10-24 07:56

Still marching through history
Antony Harrold (second right), a 13-year-old dual British-Polish national, takes a photo at an exhibition in Beijing earlier this month to commemorate the Long March.Wang Zhuangfei / China Daily

Eighty years after its conclusion, the legacy of the Chinese Red Army's Long March continues to transcend borders and influence people across the world. Sun Xiaochen reports.

This month, as China commemorates the 80th anniversary of the Long March-a strategic military shift against the forces of the Nationalists - the epic trek still resonates with non-Chinese observers, who acknowledge the effort, determination and sacrifices made by Mao Zedong's army against almost overwhelming odds.

In October 1934, about 200,000 Red Army officers and soldiers of the Communist Party of China set out on a 12,500-km expedition to break through the encircling Nationalist troops.

During its two-year odyssey, the Red Army fought more than 600 battles against better-armed forces and traversed hundreds of raging rivers, precipitous mountains and dangerous swamps before arriving at Yan'an in the northwestern province of Shaanxi, where it laid the foundations for victory in the civil war.

Still marching through history

After learning about the maneuver through literature from the late 1930s, generations of interested foreigners have retraced the route, studied archival material and handed down stories about the expedition.

Discovering China's soul

In 2005, David Ben Uziel spent five months following in the marchers' footsteps, visiting almost every major town and village on the route from Jiangxi province to Shaanxi. The 81-year-old Israeli national describes his own trek as a journey to rediscover the soul of China.

"The same question was repeated in every county and village I visited: 'Why would a 70-year-old foreigner want to retrace the Long March?' My answer was that I wanted to find the soul of China. People looked at me and asked 'What is the soul of China?' I said it's the leadership," said the former lieutenant colonel in the Israeli army.

"All the soldiers of the Red Army who fought, starved and froze, yet continued to walk the Long March are the foundations upon which China was united," said Uziel, who gave a speech in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Sept 20, to promote knowledge of the Long March among his compatriots.

Like many older people, Uziel was inspired by Red Star over China, the famous account of the Long March written by Edgar Snow, a journalist from the United States who spent months with the Red Army and conducted extensive interviews with Party leaders Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai in Yan'an in 1936.

Retracing the route across the dangerous terrain of West China helped Uziel put the sacrifice of the Red Army leaders and soldiers into perspective.

"The Long March was unique because of the conditions, which were so cruel. The Red Army's secret weapon was the soldiers' and the leaders' personal examples (of sacrifice for each other)," he said.

According to a documentary broadcast by China Central Television, the Red Army had to march about 37 km and fight at least one battle every day, while every kilometer gained saw the deaths of three marchers on average, as a result of combat injuries, illness or sheer fatigue.

Rebirth of a nation

Even after eight decades, the archives, sculptures and relics, such as pistols and blankets, displayed at numerous museums along the route can still take visitors back in time.

When he visited a museum dedicated to the Long March in Yan'an earlier this year, John Ross, an economic researcher with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China in Beijing, was impressed by the living history on display.

He said reviewing the indelible history of the event through exhibits, such as Mao's chess table and the caves where the soldiers avoided Nationalist air raids, offer intriguing ways of better understanding modern China.

"It's fascinating to see all those details on show at the museum, because when you have a better sense of how people struggled and lived, you have more feeling for what shaped them," said Ross, who worked as an economic and business policy advisor to London mayor Ken Livingstone during his term in office.

"It was one of the most important events in China's history. The rebirth of China was only possible because of the people who made the Long March, which was an incredible sacrifice that allowed modern China to come into being. It's impossible to understand the real dynamic in China without studying that period of history."

New insights

Although the archived materials may seem too weighty to appeal to young people, a TV adaption of Red Star over China, which is currently being screened in China, has provided a new generation with an entertaining way of commemorating the epic journey.

The 30-episode-long adaptation tells the story of Snow's experiences in China before, during and after the Long March, while depicting military and political history during the civil war.

Matthew Knowles, an actor from the US who played Brigadier General Evans Carlson of the US Marine Corps, said working on the series gave him the opportunity to learn about his character, who was a friend of Snow, and also helped him gain insights into the Long March and Chinese culture.

"Through doing the research and the acting as I actually experienced it, it was a lot different," said Knowles, who has been developing a career in China since 2013, when he accepted an offer to study drama at the Beijing Film Academy.

Knowles, who learned to speak and read Chinese during two years as a volunteer teacher in Guizhou, one of 14 provinces the Red Army crossed during the Long March, studied archival material about Carlson in Chinese and English, plus works about important historical events and meetings.

"Every line in the script had something I had to research to figure out what really happened. There is so much history in that one event. It gave me a different perspective of how huge an event it was, one that changed the history of China," he said.

"The Long March is a huge part of Chinese culture, and it has shaped China in the last 80 years. The more you understand it and the history of communism in China, the more you understand the collective will of the people and why the country runs the way it does."

Zhao Xinying contributed to the story.

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Still marching through history 
Edgar Snow (right), a journalist from the United States, conducts interviews in Shaanxi province in 1936.Xinhua News Agency


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