Interview: Harrison Salisbury's son retells untold stories on The Long March

(Xinhua) | Updated: 2016-10-27 09:21

PHILADELPHIA -- "Some day, someone will write the full epic of this exciting expedition," thus wrote Edgar Snow, on his pages of Red Star Over China, a historical account of the birth of Communist Party of China published in 1937.

Snow never had the chance to write about the expedition in its entirety. That went to another American reporter, Harrison Salisbury, with his book titled The Long March: the Untold Story. The book was published in 1985, over 50 years after this turbulent part of history.

"And 30 years later, it is still an in print, it is still read, it is still an incredibly exciting story," said Stephan Salisbury, son of the author, when Xinhua interviewed him in the year commemorating the 80th anniversary of the victory of the Long March.


"My father was interested in China since he was a small boy in Minneapolis Minnesota," Stephan said. At that time, there was one store in the city run by a Chinese immigrant, and it sold Chinese delicacies of all kinds, like candy ginger and caramelized lilac flowers, items that fascinated his father.

"It kind of started a lifelong love affair with things Chinese," said Stephan.

By the time Harrison went to college, he was convinced that he would become a reporter. It was then he had decided that he wanted to travel to China and report on events there. Harrison came of age during the time of the Russian Revolution and the first and second World Wars.

"Anybody who was a reporter and was interested in the war would have to have an interest in the Soviet Union, the Communism, and the revolution," said Stephan. "That was sort of a background interest."

Harrison Salisbury spent nearly 20 years with United Press, and later worked as the New York Times' Moscow bureau chief from 1949-1954. It was during this time that his interest in the Soviet Union and Communism was sparked.

According to Stephan, Harrison knew and admired Edgar Snow, who interviewed Chairman Mao in the caves in Yan' an, the cradle of the Chinese Revolution. Snow wrote in his book that he hoped someone would be able to tell the story of the Long March in detail.

"So my father got that idea, and once he got an idea, he couldn't let go of it, he kept pressing it," said Stephan. "He wrote letter after letter and importuned every official he could get his hands on, that he wanted to come to China, he wanted to take the Long March."

In August 1983, word finally came from Beijing. The door to the Long March was open for Harrison. In March 1984, Harrison and his wife Charlotte flew to Beijing.


From April to June 1984, the Salisbury couple travelled 7,500 miles by foot, by car, by minibus, by jeep, by horse, and by donkey, following the entire route of the Long March.

"He did have a heart problem then, he had a pacemaker," Stephan says, recalling his father's health at the time.

"What he suffered was what many of those in the Red Army suffered during the Long March due to lack of oxygen, over-exertion, dehydration," Stephan said.

"Especially when he was that old, it can take a real toll."

Harrison suffered a heart attack during an 11-mile footpath in the mountains to get to the Golden Sands River, where Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Zhu De miraculously crossed in 1935. Harrison' s heart was beating irregularly; fortunately though, the Chinese he was traveling with were able to get him to a hospital in Chengdu, where he recoverd.

The route of the Long March remained elusive back in the 1980s, and the Salisburys were some of the first foreigners to explore it. Still, they managed to get a round of interviews with surviving senior generals, widows of Party figures, archivists and historians.

"My stepmother was very reluctant to take this trip," said Stephan. "But in the end she said, it was a venture of a lifetime."

And at the end of the trip, Harrison got the story he wanted, all the drama, the heroism, and the treachery, the human aspects of it, all contained in the book.

"I think it is truly an epic," said Stephan of his father' s book. "So I think his lifelong dream of seeking to understand and report on China was completely fulfilled and beautifully so."

"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," Harrison writes in the preface to the book. "It forged the brotherhood that fought Chiang Kai-shek to a standstill and came to power under Mao' s leadership."


The Long March: the Untold Story was published in 1985 during the Reagan years, toward the final years of the Soviet Union and turbulence in the East.

"There could be many different views and many different political forces," recalled Stephan. "So you can' t have one mentality promoted by the government on the one hand, and a reporter that comes in with the very heroic story about the same people on the other."

"The two don't go together."

Still, the book received favorable reviews and was considered one of the great epics of human history.

Harrison had a great influence on his son, who later became a reporter too, with the Philadelphia Inquirer.

"His example is something I can't ignore," said Stephan.

And there were lessons from his father about getting the right story.

"If you persist, and you are open, you are straightforward with people - "this is what I want to do, I want to tell your story, I don't want to impose my story on you ..." Then ultimately, if you are fortunate, they will believe you. You can get the story."


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