Foreign eyes offer new view of the Long March

Eighty years after the end of the Red Army's epic expedition, the Long March is still capable of stirring the hearts of millions. Four expat reporters retraced part of the route this year to offer their view. Here’s their perspective. [ Read more ]

By Greg Michael Fountain, UK

It's hard to imagine now what it must have been like to be a Red Army soldier on the Long March.

Two years of effort, struggle and sacrifice ultimately succeeded in allowing the armies of the Communist Party of China to make their grand plan of a strategic shift a reality.

But the victory came at a terrible cost, with barely more than a quarter of those who began the march making it to the end.

I was invited to retrace the steps of those soldiers through Sichuan province, and as I was whisked along in one of four air-conditioned buses on smooth, modern highways, through tunnels and over bridges, it was easy to underestimate what was required of them 80 years ago.

Even as I looked out, on our first day, across the river at Anshun, where those tired soldiers - already eight months into their journey - had packed themselves into ancient boats to cross the raging torrent, I found it hard to visualize how much they must have suffered for their cause.

But suffer they did, especially at this point in the mass tactical shift, because although they ultimately succeeded in traversing the province, Sichuan proved costly to the army, both in terms of time and lives.

Countless hundreds died from the exertion required and the battles they fought as they passed through the rough, unforgiving terrain to be reunited with their comrades - so many, in fact, that an authoritative figure for the death toll doesn't exist, even now.

It's thought that at least 370 soldiers from Sichuan's Aba prefecture were killed, yet the army beat on - circling through the mountains and striking further north to the relative safety in Northwest China.

It was only on the third day of our trip, following in the footsteps of those brave soldiers, that some small part of the suffering they endured finally came home to me.

We had been driving for almost two hours through a cold September morning up a steep, winding mountain track that was eaten away by landslips from below and strewn with boulders from above. As we climbed ever higher, the clouds descended around us until all that could be seen ahead or to the side was a blanket of white.

When we finally reached the summit of Jiajin Mountain, 4,114 meters above sea level, we clambered out of our bus into the thin air. Snow dusted the ground, and it was only thanks to a thick, woolen sweater and some short, sharp blasts on a can of supplemental oxygen that I was able to avoid feeling dizzy.

It was at this moment, in the bitter cold, that I first began to truly appreciate what those Red Army troops went through.

In all, those tens of thousands of soldiers crossed dozens of mountain ranges like this one to reach their final destination.

And as I stood looking out across the windswept peaks, the torment they had endured was finally revealed to me.

What a relief it must have been, I thought, for those troops to finally reach the grassland that rounded off our trip.

Their determination, heroism and courage formed the basis of the modern China we know today.

And just as in the West, where we remember the many who gave their lives in both World Wars to ensure that future generations would not live under tyranny, China rightly remembers its heroes of the Long March, whose bitter struggles would ultimately help build a better tomorrow.

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By Faisal Kidwai, India

Even today, the Long march route is grueling. During a visit to Guizhou province, Indian reporter Faisal Kidwai found that the Long March is defined by the selfless spirit of the participants, even in the face of daunting difficulties. After their two-year struggle, barely a quarter of the 200,000 soldiers who began the trek made it to the end.

"Most of China, especially the western part, was underdeveloped 80 years ago. To put it mildly, the infrastructure was not world class and the army wasn't the strong force it is today. Finding even essential items was not easy. Given all those factors, it's truly remarkable that such people volunteered to face the sacrifices, suffering and heartaches just for love of their country," Kidwai said.

Kidwai also observed the historical changes in Guizhou guided by the Long March spirit Guizhou has long been described as "not three feet of flat land, not three days without rain, not a family with three silver coins".

It's time to bury the last description.

Today the province is posting double-digit growth, with its GDP in 2015 crossing the one-trillion-yuan mark. It now has airports that connect to all parts of the country, a high-speed rail network and gleaming highways. From a place that not long didn't even have a decent highway; it's now driving on the information superhighway.

The economic turnaround is just one part of the story. By far the most interesting chapter – and the one that will change the landscape of this mountainous province – is its natural beauty.

Whether it's the colorful culture of Miao ethnic group, famous for its hair buns, or Dong ethnic group, known for its unique dresses, or Huangguoshu Waterfall, the largest waterfalls in the country, Guizhou is still unspoiled and unexplored.

With more Chinese traveling than ever before, the province, which has spicier food than the more famous Sichuan cuisine, is poised to see its tourism industry grow.

Weng'an exemplifies Guizhou's transformation from underdeveloped to fastest growing province.

The population of the whole county is 530,000 and it welcomed more than 600,000 tourists in just past nine months. For a relatively unknown place, that's an impressive number.

Huang Guilin, the head of Weng'an county, told chinadaily.com.cn that with four expressways, link to the high-speed rail network and proximity to province's capital Guiyang, just an hour drive from the county, it is easier than ever before for trade and business.

He added that to become more profitable all the companies in the county have reduced costs significantly.

As China marks the 80th anniversary of the Long March, the county expects the number to only increase. One of the sites to see the role Weng'an played in the daring expedition is Houchang Museum. Located 13 km from the county center, it houses several historical relics, has a stone forest and a lake nearby and eye-catching statues in front of it.

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By Tyler Terrance O'Neil, US

Within a few moments of stepping into Shibadong's village lodge, a spry elderly woman in an intricately embroidered dress and turban-like hat makes a beeline for me, grabs my hand, and begins babbling in a language I've never heard before.

Her name is Long Decheng, and she clearly has some things she wants to tell me.

After organizing a translation chain involving fellow China Daily reporter Liu Jing and a local fluent in both Mandarin and Miao dialect, we begin conversing.

Long starts, her statement is translated from Miao, to Mandarin, to English.

"Where are you from?"

"I'm from America."

English, Mandarin, Miao. Long replies. Miao, Mandarin, English.

"You are so tall and handsome."

Looks like Long is quite the flirt.

"Aside from looking beautiful, what do you do in the village?" I ask.

Another round of translation.

"I'm the village greeter, and I'm looking better now than I was a few years ago," she says before ushering us to a picture on the wall. In it she walks hand and hand with President Xi Jinping during his visit to Shibadong in 2013. She says it was not a good time for the community then—the general income was low, many of the buildings were in disrepair, and her son, like so many other men in the village, was unmarried.

Since then, things have dramatically changed for Shibadong, and 76-year-old Long, with, as she says, "a dozen weights lifted from her shoulders," has never looked better.

In 2013, the annual per capita income for a villager in Shibadong was 1,668 yuan ($250). Most engaged in subsistence farming, only selling whatever they had in excess. Many of the young women of the village left to pursue education and better-paying careers, leaving Shibadong with an abundance of bachelors. Generally speaking, the situation was grim.

Xi visited the village in 2013, and it was then that he proposed his targeted poverty alleviation program. Instead of generalized programs, he wanted funds to be carefully applied to tailor-made programs. Huayuan county, where Shibadong is located, was given 100 million yuan to be used for low-interest loans, insurance, compensation for loses, and generally jumpstart new businesses.

The next year, village leaders set a goal to become the "most beautiful village in China." They renovated walkways, designed branding for village products, and began marketing the village as a tourism destination. They encouraged women to spend their free time doing embroidery for an additional 1,000 yuan per year, a huge bolster to these women's previous incomes. The prefecture's online store, which was featured as part of an online game, saw 20 million yuan in sales over two days, says Fu Chengjie, CEO of Pangu E-Commerce.

All of this saw a huge impact on Shibadong. The per capita income increased 115 percent to 3,580 yuan in 2015. Village officials say 261 people from 61 families within the village have been raised out of poverty. The village's industries have become more varied, with online sales of agricultural products, rice liquor, and embroidery providing a large increase in revenue. Tourism has also provided a boost to the village, with as many as 3,000 visitors per weekend.

And what did they do about all those bachelors? As the village improved financially, so did these unmarried men's prospects. They began holding events for singles at the village. Shi Jintong, in charge of the village's poverty program, said seven of Shibadong's bachelors have found wives in the last two years, with one even snagging a college-educated woman from metropolitan Chongqing. The couple is now running a hotel in the village and working to expand its tourism appeal.

And yes, Long Decheng's son also found a wife, much to her delight.

While the impact of Xi's targeted poverty alleviation program is often talked about, it's something altogether different to see it in action and succeeding. The hard work and drive of the village's people, augmented with a bit of funding, has completely changed the future of Shibadong.

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By Adam Hegarty, Australia

Nature can be cruel, or it can be kind. For China's armies, it was both.

The mountainous and rocky terrain that proved hell for tens of thousands of soldiers on the Long March also became a safe haven for others.

Thankfully, I was taken to an area which had provided the latter.

As I sweated my way through a 40 minute hike to the top of Xujiazhai mountain, in Northwest China's Shaanxi province, a few thoughts crossed my mind.

First, the benefits of manmade steps and handrails. Then, the laughter I must have induced among those smart enough to pass me on a cable car.

But most importantly, I wondered what navigating this type of terrain would have been like eighty years ago, for young Long March soldiers swept up in civil war and already suffering through hunger, exhaustion and disease.

Red Army troops traversed 18 mountain ranges - five of them blanketed in thick and unforgiving snow - during the Long March retreat from Jiangxi. Many soldiers collapsed, froze and starved to death during the gruelling trek.

No steps or water breaks for them.

These are the stories I expected to hear as I approached the top of Xujiazhai mountain, which stands about 250km south of Yan'an, where Mao Zedong and his army finally came to.

Instead, I heard an entirely different story: how this mountain actually protected Communist troops, after others just like it claimed the lives of so many.

Along each dangerously-narrow clearing (had it not been for the aforementioned handrails), we were shown crude rock and clay camp sites nestled in the side of the mountain.

It's not every day you pass a hospital and school during a mountain hike.

It's where Red Army troops lived for years; before, during and after the Long March. A strategic position to protect themselves from not only Nationalist forces, but also those of local warlords wanting to regain control of the region.

Shaanxi province would eventually become a unified Red Army base. Soldier numbers grew and the popularity of the Communist Party soared, as peasants learned of the plight suffered by the Long March soldiers.

So, what was more influential? Claiming the lives of soldiers to create the influential Long March story, or protecting Communist soldiers elsewhere?

Either way, it seems China's terrain played its own part in shaping modern China.

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Published: Oct. 17, 2016

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