Modern Chinese history

Personal thoughts on the Long March tour

Modern Chinese history

Michael Sherringham is a director of the Meridian Society and was the tour leader of the recent Meridian/SACU tour to China. (map on page 8) He had previously visited many of the places associated with the Long March on earlier visits and also when he worked in China teaching English during the 1970s. The article first appeared in China Eye magazine 2013.

Here, I was in Yan'an once again, forty years after my first visit with a SACU group. I had proposed the theme of our Meridian tour to China as “In the Footsteps of the Long March”, a trip down memory lane in more than one way. This was indeed an ambitious route, even along the latter part of the historic trek made by the Red Army from around the Chengdu area in Sichuan to Yan'an, where the Communists, led by Mao Zedong, Zhu De and Zhou Enlai ended up in late 1936. It included the much proclaimed crossing of Luding Bridge, which was described as a crucial battle and critical point in overcoming the attacks by the Guomindang troops under Chiang Kaishek. We didn't follow every step of the Red Army when they climbed up the Snowy Mountain peaks in western Sichuan to avoid Nationalist or indeed hostile local harassment. While they took the highland route, we followed the valleys and then, further north, over the passes to the grasslands after the town of Songpan.

We had read of the disasters encountered by the Red Army troops who were debilitated by freezing conditions in the mountains and then by swampy cesspools in the marshlands, where many sunk exhausted into the bogs or were sniped at by hostile tribesmen when they emerged on the plains. We skirted around these hazards in our coach, climbing over the plateau where the first snowfall of winter transformed the landscape into a picturesque tableau.

This western region of Sichuan is the Tibetan cultural area, with a devout Buddhist population following the age-old traditions of monastic life, praying daily in well-maintained (or rebuilt) monasteries with their prayer wheels and incense burning, mumbling incantations to Buddha and the Dalai Lama, while dressing in local costumes and head-gear. Their apparently well-built and opulent-looking houses are adorned with Buddhist signs and their markets seem to be flourishing, although it looks as if they live on subsistence farming with their small vegetable plots and yaks, cattle and ponies.

As the Tibetan population live in autonomous regions, they are not bound by family size restrictions, and, as one taxi driver in the mountain region of Huanglong told me, have six or so children per family. The road infrastructure is financed by the Chinese state, which enhances their business and marketing opportunities, as well as facilitating schooling. Still, you can see the school children walking back from school along new highways, while they must also wend their way along mountain paths. My taxi driver sends all his children to middle school, whereas his generation had only primary schooling and never dreamt of leaving their village. We stopped for lunch in one new village, just rebuilt in traditional style, where the old villagers were now rehoused in much improved facilities, notwithstanding that this was obviously set up to be a tourist attraction in which we were told we were the first foreign visitors.

But on with our own 'pilgrimage', which took us to historical sites where the First and Fourth Red Armies met and convened conferences on strategy, leadership and the way forward (how to survive!). Mao's statue was still in prominent evidence in some places, particularly in one small town, where we discovered a museum dedicated to the Long March overlooking a lovely scenic view in the valley. Just a glimpse, as this was not on our itinerary, and the curators just invitingly opened the place up for a few of us to have a quick view. Most of us were generally more excited to stop at street vegetable and fruit stalls, where we stocked up on vital supplies.

Two views of the Yellow River made a deep impression. One was at the big bend of the river, where a tributary flowed into it in the valley below. We arrived after a snowfall, so that the whole vast white landscape spread before us in shimmering sunshine. Fortunately, this was still only a small tourist stop-over, with the village nearby and a monastery with school-children untouched. A couple of our group found themselves at the door of the school and were invited in by the monks who were teaching their child novices, while I scouted round the hamlet with its lazy dogs and pigs. By this time other Chinese tourists were gathering in the coach park, and following in my footsteps taking a donkey-ride led by Tibetan locals earning a buck. It was a sign of things to come, as a string of luxury hotels were just built or under construction along the road to this beauty-spot.

The other view of the Yellow River was along the route to Yan'an, where a great waterfall tumbles from the cliffs in a sudden cascade, which leaves the water the colour of the loess soil from which it originates. Here again the number of Chinese tourists more of less obscured the magnificent views, but leaving there we immediately wound our way up the mountain side to glimpse back at this wonder of nature, which has been the life-blood (and sometimes torrential torment) of Chinese civilisation since its inception. And within minutes we were up on the high plateau which took us to our destination, Yan'an, in a couple of hours.

Yan'an for me, I must say, was a cultural shock. I remembered the first time I visited Yan'an. We had seen the caves in the hillside where Mao Zedong and the other leaders and their brave followers lived in frugal conditions during the period of the anti-Japanese War and until they were forced out in the ensuing civil war with the Guomindang. I had been warned that it had become a tourist attraction, especially for Chinese tourists, during the past few years, so I was prepared for gimmicks such as dressing tourists in Red Army uniforms and getting them to join in the popular songs of the day, whether revolutionary or the traditional folk songs, called yangge. But, in fact, none of this happened. Instead, we were ensconced in the most modern hotels in Yan'an and nearby Wuqi, were the Red Army first settled after the Long March. When we did visit the revolutionary caves, they were now in the midst of a new metropolis, with all the high-rise skyline and bright lights we now are familiar with in China's burgeoning cities. I could hardly recognise these revolutionary 'islands' in a sea of modernity.

The famous symbol of Yan'an the ancient pagoda, was lost in the mist and had to compete with skyscrapers towering over the city. Since that first visit, there were significant changes in presentation too, with the likes of Liu Shaoqi, Lin Biao and Peng Dehuai 'rehabilitated' with their captioned portraits side by side with Mao, Zhou Enlai and Zhude in the historic photographs on view. I remembered there how some of our earlier group had asked why the photos of Liu Shaoqi, Lin Biao and others had 'disappeared'. We now have a more balanced picture of this history, and even Zhang Guotao and Chiang Kai-shek are included in the pantheon, whatever their 'mistakes'. I guess we have to keep our eyes open and be flexible in observing these tides of history. Nostalgia for the past, especially of the simpler style of life, is a more difficult aspect to dismiss.

The general impression from this tour was of a continuing rush of construction to modernise the country and economy and raise the standard of living throughout the country, even in the remoter regions which we visited.

In fact, with all the road-building, housing projects and the construction of a vast infrastructure of highways, airports and railways, it will soon be difficult to envisage 'remote' places and communities any longer. Villages are becoming towns, towns cities and cities mega-cities, as we also witnessed in Chengdu, still a town of mostly two-storey houses with red-shuttered wooden façades in traditional style 40 years ago and now constructing its fourth underground train line. We were lucky to still to be able to travel for two weeks along routes following deep mountain valleys, crossed in places by old wooden rope bridges and over plains, passes and plateaux sparsely populated and as yet relatively unspoilt. The people living in these regions no doubt feel fortunate to be living a more comfortable life with the links with the outside world giving them more opportunities for future generations. At least, most of them!

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2013, reprinted from SACU's China Eye magazine Issue 37, 2013

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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