BEIJING — At the Luding Bridge, the site of the single most celebrated event on China’s Long March, I was the lone foreigner in a group of boisterous, chain-smoking government officials. They reeked of baijiu, a fiery grain alcohol, and hollered to each other so loudly that I couldn’t hear the private tour guide. One of the cadres reached into a battle display to wrest a rifle out of the hands of an inanimate Red Army soldier. “It won’t budge!” he yelled. When I revealed that I was retracing the Long March by motorcycle, the men, who carried designer money pouches, shouted drunken reactions: “Are you sure you’re not Chinese?” cried a burly cadre in a sleek leather jacket. “You must really love Chairman Mao! We should make you a Party member!”
In 1934, an estimated 86,000 soldiers in the Communist Red Army decamped from their Soviet-style base in Jiangxi province in an attempt to escape from Chiang Kai-shek and his encircling Nationalist Army. The desperate retreat, which Mao Zedong later ingeniously labeled the “Long March,” lasted four trying seasons and crossed 11 provinces. Along the way, the marchers traversed snow-capped peaks in their bare feet and used dilapidated wooden rifles—if they were armed at all—to defend themselves against the Nationalists’ machine guns and foreign-supplied arsenal.
Today, the Long March is the closest thing the People’s Republic has to a national creation myth. It was during this trek that Mao solidified his position in the Communist Party leadership, and to this day, in a nod to symbolism, Chinese leaders often announce new policies from key sites along the famous route. For decades, the Long March has been a critical element of the Communist propaganda narrative, providing the Party with a veneer of ruggedness and frugality at a time when its top leaders have become a pampered elite.
This summer, in an attempt to better understand the Long March’s evolving legacy in contemporary China, I retraced the entire route by motorcycle, traveling from Jiangxi province to Yan’an, the Shaanxi city that served as the Communist headquarters from 1936 to 1948. As I rode my motorcycle across the countryside, stopping at every village, city, and site associated with the march, I found evidence of a myth in decline: new, cavernous Long March museums devoid of visitors; memorials crumbling from neglect, weeds sprouting from their bases; and, most strikingly, the complete disengagement—even disdain—of China’s youth.
This disinterest comes in spite of massive propaganda efforts in recent years, and especially since President Xi Jinping took office a year ago, to promote the Communist values that the Long March embodies. Xi has proclaimed a “Chinese dream”—one of national strength and prosperity—and he has visited key sites along the Long March to preach this message, often alluding to the Party’s early “glory days” in order to convey a sense of Communist revival.
But the Chinese people themselves seem to be forging their own dream—marching ahead into the future as Mr. Xi reaches into the past.
In early June, I began my journey in Ruijin, Jiangxi, the Communist power base throughout the early 1930s and the starting point of the Long March. With a population of roughly 600,000, Ruijin resembles the more than 2,000 other county-level cities in China. Motorcycle taxis lined People’s Boulevard and hundreds of shopkeepers hawked everything from knock-off Nikes to sink faucets.
But a short ride out of town revealed an alternate universe of Communist relics and monuments, including a multitude of Chairman Mao statues: fat Maos and thin ones; a buff Mao digging a well, and a young, handsome Mao speaking at a rally. I stopped counting at nine.
My favorite discovery was a nearly 100-foot-tall sculpture of a Communist Party emblem—a blazing red star with a globe bursting from the center—in a large square across from a row of Chinese characters that read: “May the spirit of the Chinese Soviet forever shine bright.” A five-minute walk from the city center, the square was empty when I visited on a warm Saturday afternoon.
Well, mostly empty: I spotted a teenage couple that had chosen the site as a place to canoodle in secret. Adolescent dating is still frowned upon in China and prohibited in schools. The couple blushed and stared at the pavement as I walked by their shaded nook, somewhere between the characters meaning “forever” and “shine.”
From Ruijin, I rode about 500 miles westward into Guangxi province, traveling past the factories of coastal Guangdong and the jagged mountain chains of southern Hunan province. For decades, Chinese history textbooks have insisted that the Long March covered 8,000 miles, but the figure, like many things in history, is more fable than fact—it derives from a rough estimate made by Chairman Mao more than 70 years ago. (The actual figure is between 3,700 and 5,000 miles, and in total my trip covered just under 5,000 miles.) Only recently have historians—both in China and abroad—begun calling certain chapters of the march into question, bridging the chasm between the Party-bred legend and the historical truth.
Many Chinese, for example, are still unaware that Mao spent the first several months of the Long March consigned to the Party’s periphery, a punishment for having excessively cracked down on political opponents while in Jiangxi. But, in a stroke of luck, this demotion allowed him to escape culpability for one of the Red Army’s most catastrophic defeats—the Battle of the Xiang River, where the Communists were nearly thwarted by superior, U.S.-supplied Nationalist forces. A memorial dedicated to the battle, erected on the banks of the Xiang River in Guangxi, claims that 50,000 Red Army soldiers were “sacrificed”; recent scholarship on the march suggests that at least half of them actually deserted.
As the Red Army fled from the Xiang River deeper into China’s interior, Mao connived behind the scenes (as he so often did), forging connections in preparation for an important meeting in Zunyi, where he masterfully orchestrated his own political rise. Today, museum exhibits in this area refer to Mao’s increased prominence as the “turning point” of the Long March and, thus, the Chinese revolution.
After traversing the mountains of Guizhou and Yunnan, I rode north toward the site of the Luding Bridge battle, where a small group of Red Army soldiers are said to have outfought a Nationalist brigade and three regiments, securing passage across the strategically important Dadu River. This was the signature event of the entire march: Under heavy enemy fire, Communist soldiers are alleged to have crawled across the bare iron chains of the ancient bridge, whose planks had been removed by the Nationalists. (What actually happened at Luding may have been far more mundane: Years later, Chinese leader and Long March veteran Deng Xiaoping reportedly told former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski that, “In fact, it was a very easy military operation … but we felt we had to dramatize it.”)
One of the perks of Communist Party membership today is that the government sponsors educational field trips for its more than 85 million members, many of which involve visits to “red tourism” sites and are often followed by baijiu-filled banquets. After the inebriated cadres left the museum in Luding, slurred questions echoing behind them (“Are you sure you’re not Chinese?”), the tour guide, a young woman named Yang Yi with dyed reddish hair, told me that roughly 90 percent of the museum’s visitors are part of government field trips. “These visitors are almost all older men who have been forced to visit the museum to fulfill their Communist Party responsibilities. They never ask questions.”
At the summit of Liupan Mountain in the Ningxia region, where Mao is said to have coined the name “Long March,” I found a sprawling museum that was empty except for a 67-year-old military veteran and his adolescent granddaughter. Like most Chinese red tourism sites, the final exhibition room featured pictures of famous Party leaders visiting the venue. “You see these photos,” the veteran told his granddaughter, “they prove that history is still important.” Sporting earphones and absorbed with her smartphone, it was unclear whether she even heard him.
Riding east, the scenery increasingly came to resemble the dry loess cliffs that are common in Yan’an, the endpoint of the Long March. More than 30 million Chinese still live in caves that are dug into such cliffs. Throughout my journey, I boarded with local families or slept in discount rooms in village hotels, but as I approached Yan’an, I took shelter in these cave-like dwellings. Reinforced with brick masonry and dug deep into the bases of mountains, the lodgings offered a respite from the summer sun. In Red Star Over China, the classic 1937 account of life in Yan’an, U.S. journalist Edgar Snow remarked that the city’s Red Army University “was probably the world’s only seat of ‘higher learning’ whose classrooms were bombproof caves, with chairs and desks of stone and brick, and blackboards and walls of limestone and clay.”
Chinese often refer to Yan’an as the “Revolutionary Holy Land” and some even described it to me as the “Jerusalem of the East.” In spite of the hype, Yan’an looked like the other Chinese cities that I passed through on my trip: a crowded downtown intersection featured KFCs and a Pizza Hut, and vehicles zigzagged to the tune of drill-work and car horns. The air was dusty, and the river, which once flowed through the city center, had been reduced to a dry creek bed.
At the Date Garden, the Party’s temporary headquarters when they reached Yan’an in 1935, I came upon a group of several hundred Chinese soldiers on a Party field trip, a handful of whom were solemnly pledging allegiance to the Communist Party, a requisite ritual to gain Party membership. The pledge begins with unremarkable promises to “Serve the Chinese people,” but then escalates to vows like “Never reveal the Party’s secrets.” Soldiers shooed me away as the new Communist devotees made their final promise: “Never betray the Party.”
Among the Chinese people whom I met on the road, my Long March project usually elicited one of two responses, depending on age. Older people tended to express admiration for my trip. For many of them, the journey was so entwined with the nationalist propaganda of their upbringings that they automatically interpreted my trip as a form of heroism. They lauded my “patriotic spirit” and sometimes even offered to treat me to dinner. I initially objected to being mistaken for a Mao fanatic, but soon learned to be quiet and enjoy the free food.
Young people, on the other hand, seemed baffled by my desire to investigate the Long March. “Why would you ever want to retrace the Long March?” Wang Zengfeng, a college student whom I met in western Sichuan, asked me. “Don’t you have better things to do with your time?” For Wang and his peers, members of the post-1980s generation that came of age under the influence of the Internet and Hollywood blockbusters, life has been about forging new roads— finding a privileged seat on China’s breakneck economic bandwagon.
In early December, months after I completed my journey, China Newsweek, a popular Chinese-language weekly magazine, published a three-page expose on me entitled “An American’s Chinese ‘Long March.’” I was struck by how open and candid the journalist was during our interview—we discussed many of the more controversial chapters of the march, as well as Mao’s legacy, which is being reexamined in the aftermath of the 120th anniversary of the chairman’s birth on December 26, 2013. But the final piece was sterile and uncritical of the Communist Party’s account, passing me off as a Mao enthusiast. At one point, the author even compared me to Norman Bethune, the Canadian doctor who treated Mao Zedong in the 1930s and died on the battlefield, sacrificing himself, according to Chinese Party histories, “for the Communist revolution.”
The day that the China Newsweek article came out, I stopped at a newsstand near my house to pick up a copy. Right after I located the piece—which featured a full-page picture of me on my motorcycle—I heard the young vendor ask, “Is that really you?” I looked up and nodded.
“You’re really weird,” he chuckled, and shook his head. “Even us Chinese don’t believe that stuff.”