By 1934, the Chinese civil war had been going for seven years. The Nationalists of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang had the upper hand, and were besieging Communist enclaves. Holed up in one, the Jianxi Soviet, was Mao Zedong.
In October 1934, Mao, along with some 85,000 troops and 15,000 support personnel, broke through the Nationalist ranks, and headed north and west to safer areas, thousands of miles away, where the Communists could regroup.
They would have to cross 24 rivers and 18 mountain ranges. They were harried not only by Nationalist armies, but also by the various warlords, whose territory they had to cross. Thousands died from disease and starvation; many more deserted.
But almost exactly a year later, on 20 October 1935, and after marching some 4,000 miles (accurate figures are hard to come by – Mao himself reckoned on 8,000 miles, which the Chinese government states is “a historic fact and not open to doubt”), the column arrived at the foot of the Great Wall of China
Estimates of how many survived vary, but few put it at more than 8,000.
Militarily, it was a failure. But news of the feat spread, and it served as a powerful propaganda tool. The Communists were joined by volunteers, ready to enlist to fight the Nationalists and the Japanese.
Mao wrote that the long march had “proclaimed to the world that the Red Army is an army of heroes, while the imperialists and their running dogs, Chiang Kai-shek and his like, are impotent.”
The Long March was the longest continuous march an army is known to have made. It cemented Mao’s position as the undisputed leader of China’s Communists, and contributed to his mythical status among the Chinese people.
Ten years later, Mao was proclaimed Chairman of the People’s Republic of China – he would remain in charge until his death in 1976.