CHAPTER 10 "In Search of the Grey Dragon: the Long March North"
After the GMD had forced the CPC and the Red Army out of their base area in Jiangxi the nationalists thought that the communist movement was finally overcome.
January 1935 found the communist HQ at Zunyi in Guizhou. Short says it was at this time that Mao first attained "a dominant position in the Party." The loss of the base area and retreat of the Red Army had finally convinced a majority of the top leaders that Mao's ideas had been right all along and it was a mistake to have excluded him from military affairs for so long.
When the Red army halted at Zunyi it was about 30,000 strong-- having lost 50,000 men in the three months since the base area was abandoned. Morale wasn't exactly high.
By Spring of 1935 Short says, the Red Army was once again the "Zhu-Mao Army." Chiang was breathing down the Red Army's neck and by deft strategy Mao was able to extricate the army from certain destruction, escape across the Upper Yangtze, and find a safe haven in the town of Huili in Sichuan (May, 1935).
The army had been reduced to 20,00 men but Mao had saved it and from then on he was never challenged again by the military leaders or the Party leaders with the army.
We have been talking about this army unit as if it were the only communist army in the field. That really wasn't the case. This unit was officially called the First Front Army. We have concentrated on it because it was the one associated with Mao. But in the north of Sichuan was the Fourth Front Army led by Zhang Guotao (1897-1979 in Canada: defected to GMD in 1938).
The March to the West now became the Long March as Mao's forces set off from Huili to link up with Zhang Guotao. But Chiang's forces were now in hot pursuit. To escape the Red Army made a forced march to a town called Luding on the Dadu River which was in flood. The only way to cross the river was at this town.
The town was taken by assault and the Red Army crossed over to the east bank of the Dadu River and thus, once again, escaped from Chiang's forces. Short says this battle and crossing became legendary. "Failure would have meant the Red Army's annihilation."
After heroic efforts Mao's troops finally linked up with the Fourth Front Army (June, 1935). Now the problem was, who is going to run the show: Mao or Zhang? Mao wanted to go north to Ganzu, Zhang wanted to go west. The PB worked out compromises that seemed to settle the rivalry in Mao's favor and the combined armies started moving north. But, Short says, "The stage was slowly being set for what Mao would call, years later, 'the darkest moment of my life.'"
The biggest problem in going north was getting through a large swampy grassland. Mao's group, after much suffering, made it through, but Zhang and his Fourth Front Army turned back and headed south. So the Red Army (First Front Army) was on its own again. It now had only 10,000 troops left.
On September 21, 1935 the army reached Hadapu, in Gansu, and they learned that there was a communist controlled area in nearby Shensi province. The army decided to march east towards Shensi. The Long March finally ended when they reached Wuqi in Shensi (October, 1935). Many had perished, the army was now down to 5000. And, Short writes, in this area "Mao would spend the next twelve years."
Meanwhile, Japan had intensified its conquests in China. Chiang and the GMD did not seem to be doing enough to oppose the Japanese. Mao was also thinking about Japan and the struggle that would have to be waged against it. Short quotes a poem he wrote around this time:
High on the crest of Liupan Mountain,
Our banners flap idly in the western breeze.
Today we hold fast the long cord,
When shall we bind the Grey Dragon [Japan]?
In December 1935 the PB met at Wayaobu in the new base area and devised a new political action plan, abandoning the leftism of the Returned Students for more pragmatic policies. This was in line with the Comintern's new policies of the united front.
The new policies were designed to appeal to a broader mass of the Chinese people. "The 'Workers', Peasants' and Soldiers' Soviet Republic,'" Short says, "would be renamed 'the Soviet People's Republic', to signify that all citizens had a place in it."
Instead of a "closed door" policy towards other classes, an "open door" policy would be implemented. Mao said "Closed doorism just 'drives the fish into deep waters and the sparrows into the thickets', and it will drive the millions upon millions of the masses ... over to the enemy's side."
Now Mao entered into a semi "United Front" with a nearby GMD army led by Zhang Xueliang (1901-2001) the Young Marshal, he was in his 30s: the North-East Army. This alliance was possible because Mao convinced Zhang that they should be fighting the Japanese invaders, not each other. Zhang would not openly defy Chiang but would help the Red Army as best he could.
This allowed Mao to go on a military expedition to recruit more troops. He was able to get his army back up to 20,000 men. But "Zhang Guotao was still in Sichuan, and the bulk of the Red Army was with him."
In the summer of 1936 Zhang's Fourth Front Army was joined by another Red Army unit, the Second Front Army which had formed in 1935 in Hunan. Zhang did not want to unite with Mao's forces. He even set up a rival CPC leadership and expected Mao and the PB that was with him to be subservient to his new leadership.
Unfortunately for Zhang, Chiang's forces caught up with him and he was pulverized. He finally gave in to the legitimate PB and brought what was left of his army North to merge with Mao's First Front Army. (December 1936). But Zhang was finished as a major leader.
While on the one hand, Mao had been dealing with Zhang, on the other he and the CPC had also been trying to get Chiang to agree to an anti- Japanese front. Throughout China, as well as within the GMD, people were objecting to Chiang's policy of "internal pacification first, resistance to Japan second."
Short points out that by April 1936, Mao was pushing a new line: Japan and Chiang were no longer equal enemies. Mao now maintained, as quoted by Short, "Our stand is to oppose Japan and stop the civil war. Opposing Chiang Kai-shek is secondary."
In June 1936 the Red Army had to give up Wayaobu and retreat to Bao'an, an even more remote area. For the rest of 1936, the CPC agitated for united resistance to Japan. In December Chaing gave his answer. It was to be a Sixth Encirclement effort to wipe out the Red Army.
Zhang Xueliang pleaded with Chiang to allow the North-East Army to fight Japan instead. Chiang, now with his HQ in Xian in Shanxi province, said no. Then, the unthinkable happened. Zhang used his men to arrest Chiang and hold him prisoner at the HQ of the North-East Army.
The CPC thought Chiang should be put on trial for starting the civil war and for not fighting the Japanese. But this was not Zhang's plan. He only wanted to get Chiang to drop the civil war and unite all the patriotic forces (including the communists) against Japan.
Meanwhile, in Chiang's capital, Nanjing, the sentiment was for a peaceful solution. Zhou Enlai was sent to Xian to explain the CPC's position to Zhang: a trial and the establishment of a big unified anti-Japanese base in the north east, and a united front government in Nanjing.
Eventually a deal was cut for a united front between the CPC, Chiang, Zhang and the government in Nanjing. But it was illusory. Zhang went back to Nanjing with Chiang (he ended up in prison and then house arrest from which he was only freed in his 90's in Taiwan).
Back in Nanjing, Chiang resumed his plans to wipe out the Red Army. He only abandoned those plans in July 1937 when the Japanese attacked in force, taking Beijing, and attacking Shanghai. Events forced Chiang to cooperate with the CPC.
The Red Army got a new name: "Eighth Route Army of the [GMD] National Revolutionary Army." The party "was back on centre stage," legal, and, Short says, "For Mao, the highroad to power was open." Mao was now 43 years old.
Next Up: CHAPTER 11 "Yan'an Interlude: the Philosopher is King"
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association.