Documentary filmmaker Shuyun interviews aged veterans about their struggles against the Nationalists, the weather, the terrain and each other as she retraces the two-year, 8,000-mile trek that “remains the enduring emblem of China.”
The mythic stature of the Long March is a given for the author, a Beijing native who now divides her time between that city and London. Throughout her remarkable text, she recites songs she learned in childhood, alludes to commemorative films she saw and recalls lessons her teachers taught her about the hardships endured by Mao and his fellow communists during their exodus from southern bases overrun by Nationalist troops to China’s barren Yellow Plateau in the northwest. In 2004, 70 years after the Long March began, Shuyun decided to follow in the Marchers’ footsteps. Traveling by car, bus, train and on foot, she found survivors whose stories cracked open the carapace of a myth still assiduously nourished by museums and curators. Bright-eyed idealists did not flow in torrents toward the Red Army, whose vicious recruiting practices were more reminiscent of the press gangs once employed by the British Royal Navy. The slightest hint of disloyalty meant death in a fighting force racked by brutal purges. Shuyun begins each chapter with an account of a particular moment during the March, told from the point-of-view of a participant she interviewed, then paints the background, supplies the details and records her impressions on visiting the sites today. Much is disturbing. The Red Army stole vast stores of food and supplies from local people; in one instance, it brutally attacked a monastery. Soldiers suffered from starvation, disease, frostbite and wounds; as they crossed rivers, the waters ran red with their blood. The author emerges from her odyssey with a deepened admiration for the Marchers, who managed to survive not just their enemies but also their leaders.
Splendidly researched and craftily written.