In Peking last September, China’s supreme leader, Deng Xiaoping, pensioned off the surviving generals of the Long March. Fifty years after their epic exploit, these old soldiers finally agreed to fade away. Deng must hope that the legend has now been laid to rest, and that China can enter a new era in which the potent myths of the past will no longer distort thought and action in the present or in planning for the future.
In October 1935, the battered remnants of the Chinese Red Army reached the loess lands of north China after an eight-thousand-mile odyssey that started as a retreat under the onslaughts of Chiang Kai-shek’s encirclement campaigns. Eighty-six thousand Communist soldiers left the Soviet base in the Southern province of Kiangsi in October 1934; a battle-hardened force of only four thousand survived the trek through south and west China and arrived in Shensi province a year later. But in those twelve months a powerful new weapon had been created. It would be used skillfully by the new Chinese Communist leader who emerged on the march, Mao Zedong.
For Mao, always responsive to feats of martial glory, the Long March was incontrovertible proof of the superiority of men over weapons, and more broadly of the power of the human will. As he gradually rebuilt the Red Army and the Communist party in his image during the years that followed, he infused both with the basically un-Marxist idea that they could determine their own future no matter what the objective difficulties.
The Long March and the later victory of the People’s Liberation Army over the initially far superior forces of Chiang Kai-shek had two important consequences for the People’s Republic of China. It confirmed Mao in the belief that mind could and should prevail over matter, that heart and will could move mountains. The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were the most monumental of the disasters that resulted from this philosophy. The other consequence was that China’s military leaders occupied positions of great power and influence within the Communist party.
In October 1955, Mao conferred the title of marshal on China’s ten most successful commanders, all but one of whom had been on the Long March twenty years earlier. At the Party’s Eighth Congress a year later, seven of them, including all the commanders of the great field armies that had swept Chiang’s forces from the mainland, were elected to the ruling Politburo. By the Twelfth Congress in 1982, all China’s marshals and an equivalent number of generals had served on the Politburo. Soviet generals never achieved comparable political recognition; indeed, such a degree of military influence is probably unprecedented in any twentieth-century regime run by civilians. Only in the perspective of Chinese history does it seem more comprehensible.
In the dying decades of the Chinese dynasties, emperors often had to strengthen the imperial forces in attempts to suppress widespread peasant uprisings. After a dynasty fell, it …