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.”)