Biographies & Memoirs


The Long Retreat

IN THE SPRING OF 1927 it all came crashing down. The labor unions in Shanghai were gutted first, in April, by Chiang Kai-shek and his allies among the warlords, who had all grown alarmed over the mounting power of the Communist Party. Working with local secret-society and criminal organizations, and with the open connivance of the Westerners in the international concessions, Chiang ordered a roundup of Communists and labor leaders. Thousands were killed and the Communist movement in the city was almost wiped out. Communist theorists in the Comintern, and Stalin himself, claimed that the terror was a positive development, since it “proved” that the right wing of the Guomindang had shown its counterrevolutionary nature; they insisted, however, that the Chinese Communists continued to work with the “left” wing of the Guomindang, which was based in the industrial tri-city area of Wuhan, inland up the Yangtze. After leaving Changsha, Mao was sent to Wuhan so he could continue working in his capacity as an alternate member of the Guomindang Central Committee; and in an attempt to placate the left Guomindang, the Communist Central Committee ordered Mao to dampen the enthusiasm of the peasant masses he had just been writing so enthusiastically about. By midsummer of 1927, the Wuhan Guomindang leaders had decided to throw in their lot with Chiang Kai-shek and abandon the Communists. At this stage, a new wave of terror and repression of the Communists took place in the Wuhan region, and against the peasant associations there and in Hunan. It was in this grim situation that the Communist Party Central Committee—again reacting to orders from Stalin and the Comintern—ordered Mao to re-fan the flames of peasant insurrection, so as to move the revolution to a higher stage.

Not surprisingly, Mao found the task impossible. In his excited Hunan report of February 1927 he had tallied up a total of 1,367,727 members of the peasant associations in the province of Hunan alone. Now, in August 1927, away from the base area he knew best, and in the midst of massive military repression, Mao could raise only a few thousand followers. Most of them were killed or routed by local militarists after brief campaigns.

One thing that Mao did learn at this time was the importance of having adequate military force to back up one’s political goals. There had been hints of his thinking on this matter before, but it was in a report on August 7, 1927, that he first gave it concrete expression. Mao opened by commenting on the now defunct Guomindang alliance, in terms that unmistakably echoed his feelings about the young Changsha bride whose suicide in 1919 had prompted some of his finest early writing. All of the Communists had been mistaken, he wrote, in thinking “that the Guomindang belonged to others. We did not realize that it was an empty house waiting for people to move in. Later, like a maiden getting into the bridal sedan chair, we reluctantly moved into this empty house, but we never made up our mind to play the host there.” Only when it was too late did the Communist leadership try to get the peasants and workers to join the Nationalists. His Hunan report “had its impact in Hunan,” Mao continued, “but it had no influence whatever on the center. The broad masses inside and outside the Party want revolution, yet the Party’s guidance is not revolutionary; there really is a hint of something counter-revolutionary about it.” Chiang Kai-shek had the right idea—he “rose by grasping the gun.” Now it was time for the Communist Party to do the same: “From now on, we should pay the greatest attention to military affairs. We must know that political power is obtained from the barrel of the gun.”

By mid-September, Mao and what peasant forces he had been able to muster were narrowly surviving in eastern Hunan. He was still hoping to launch an attack on Changsha, as a prelude to wider uprisings throughout Hunan province, though true to his new insight he was also hoping that two regiments of Communist troops might be dispatched to help him. His tone remained optimistic, but the details of his report did not suggest much hope for the success of a major rising against the strong local militarists who now dominated the region. “Preparations” had been made to cut electric power lines and interdict railroad travel in the area, said Mao, but he gave no specifics of what they were. “The peasants of the suburbs” outside Changsha would constitute the “main force,” and they would be supported in turn by the rickshaw pullers in the city, and by “about five hundred wounded soldiers” who were billeted in the city. It was a hopeless scheme and it went nowhere.

In early October, Mao, completely trapped on the border between Hunan and Jiangxi provinces, with nowhere else to go, began discussions with two veteran secret-society leaders who had created their own protected base area about a hundred miles south in the border mountain ranges of Jinggangshan. By late October 1927, the three men had worked out an agreement, and Mao marched south with his remaining peasant forces to join them in their mountain lair. The retreat meant that Mao lost contact with Yang Kaihui and their children. They had just had their third child, another boy, whom they named Anlong. Through one of his younger brothers, however, Mao was able to stay in touch with other Communist leaders in southern Jiangxi, some of whom later brought their own surviving forces to join him at Jinggangshan.

The following year of 1928 marked yet another turning point in Mao’s life. He was now cut off from virtually all the sources of authority and all normal career tracks that he had experienced before. He had lost his Party titles from both the Communists and the Guomindang, and a member of the Hunan Communist Party provincial committee who made his way into the Jinggang mountains in March even told Mao—wrongly, it turned out—that Mao had been deprived of his Party membership. He was with peasants, but few of those he was with can have come from his home region of Xiangxiang or Xiangtan, and the harsh mountain terrain was indescribably different from the lusher valley rice-growing regions in which he grew up. His secret-society allies may have had some Communist sympathies, but the rules with which they ran their mountain world were their own. When Mao was forced, on Party orders, to lead some of his troops down into the plains, they suffered serious reverses and he soon pulled back to his mountain base. On at least one occasion he flatly rejected an order that he make another such military sortie. In a brief report of May 1928 to the Jiangxi provincial committee, Mao gave his “permanent mailing address” as being care of the secret-society leaders in the border mountain region—there was no other way to reach him.

In that same report, Mao mentioned that he and his forces were using the Jiangxi county town of Yongxin as their new “center,” and as a base for organizing “insurrections” in the neighboring counties. They needed such a base to bring some order to their motley forces—Mao described his followers as being “a mass of ten thousand messy people with very poor discipline”—and also to develop Party organization, raise money, and make clothes. Yongxin had been a rural revolutionary center since April 1927, when a Communist government was established there. Among well-known local radicals elected to the revolutionary county committee were three younger members of the prominent scholarly and landlord He family, two sisters and a brother, who had all joined the Communist Party the year before, when the Northern Expedition forces were seeking to reunify China. Later the He family joined up with the bandits in Jinggangshan. One of the sisters, He Zizhen, now nineteen, and as famous for her looks as for her spirit, met Mao in the mountains. Mao was thirty-four, lean from privation, rich with experience from his organizational work among the peasantry, and a storehouse of knowledge about Communist and Guomindang Party leaders. He was now living to the fullest—if not entirely by his own choice—that heroic wandering knight-errant life of which he had written to Yang Kaihui in his poem of 1923. Apparently his memories of his wife and small children were fading; in any case, he was trapped in the mountains by opposing armies and had no way of getting to Changsha, nor had Yang Kaihui any way of leaving home and coming to the mountains to join him. A poem Yang Kaihui wrote to Mao in October 1928 reflected her sorrow and frustration at their separation, and at the impossibility of getting messages through to him. She hoped that he had adequate winter clothes, and worried over a foot injury he had sustained before going up into the mountains. She worried, too, over his sleeping far away, uncherished and alone. But by the time she wrote her poem, He Zizhen and Mao were lovers, and their first child was born in 1929.

Contradictory instructions from the Party center and from the Hunan provincial network continued to reach Mao, and the poverty of the Jinggangshan region, its instability, and the shifting numbers of not always reliable troops, made consistent policy difficult. But in the mountains Mao followed an extremely radical policy, one fully attuned both to the insights he had gathered in examining peasant violence in Hunan and to those aspects of Comintern policy that emphasized peasant extremism (as they often but not invariably did). The “land law” of Jinggangshan, as promulgated by Mao in December 1928, stipulated that all land should be confiscated from the wealthy, with most of it being distributed directly to the individual peasants, some tilled in common, and some kept for “model farms.” After the land redistribution, except for the old, the very young, and the sick, “the rest of the population must be compelled to work.” (So had Lord Shang ordered for the subjects of Qin, twenty-five hundred years before, as Mao had written in his first surviving schoolboy essay.) Hillsides with edible-oil plants were to be divided among the peasants, but the revolutionary government would control all bamboo forests. A flat land tax of 15 percent would be levied in most cases. Members of the Red Army would get the same land distributions as other peasants, but in their case the revolutionary government would hire laborers to work the land for the soldiers on duty. Problems among the troops, however, were omnipresent and almost overwhelming. There was no cold-weather clothing, no drugs or medicines to treat the wounded, almost no money for food, and very little arms or ammunition. It was only through the spirit of “democracy”—sharing the hardships equally, across all levels—that the situation could be maintained. Guerrilla action against the enemy was the most successful—to attack only when in superior strength and to avoid needless “dispersion” of the troops at all costs.

The Jinggangshan period of Mao’s life ended in January 1929, when he decided to find a new base area with greater resources and less constant pressure from militarist or Guomindang counterattacks. Mao’s final decision was to move to a new base area in the border zone between eastern Jiangxi and western Fujian provinces. Down from the mountains, Mao found himself once again subject to pressures from the Party leadership and assaulted for the survival policies he had followed. One particularly sharp injunction told Mao to “leave the army” and report to Shanghai for instructions. Mao prevaricated, and in an unambiguous response to the Party center told them it would be a serious mistake “to fear the development of the power of the peasants lest it outstrip the workers’ leadership and become detrimental to the revolution.” A series of crucial Party meetings were held in western Fujian (Mao had still not gone to Shanghai, as instructed), and Mao’s positions on the rural revolution and the role of military force came under fierce criticism.

Mao was ill at this time, once again; this does not seem to have been a “diplomatic” illness, as on occasions in his past, but a debilitating combination of poor food, exhaustion, and malaria. It was also at this time, in Fujian, that their first child, a baby girl, was born to Mao and He Zizhen. Mao’s illness continued through November, and it was in that month that he wrote a brief letter to his schoolmate and friend Li Lisan, now a powerful member of the Politburo and soon to be head of the Party. “I have been ill for three months,” wrote Mao, “and although I am better now, my spirits are not yet fully recovered.” One explanation for this flatness, Mao went on, was that despite the company of He Zizhen he missed his first wife and children: “I often think of Kaihui, Anying, and the others, and would like to communicate with them, but I don’t know their mailing address.” Mao asked Li Lisan to seek out Mao Zemin, his younger brother, in Shanghai, and to get Yang Kaihui’s address, so that Mao could write to her.

There is no surviving letter from Mao to Yang Kaihui, so we do not know if he ever wrote. What we do know is that shifts in Communist policy, under what came to be called the “Li Lisan Line” of renewed assaults on cities, led in October 1930 to a Communist assault on Changsha, where Yang Kaihui was living privately with the three small children and their nanny. The Communist attack was a failure, and in the mopping-up operations conducted by the Guomindang militarists that followed, one of the Guomindang generals heard of Yang Kaihui’s presence in the city and of her relationship with Mao. He arrested and interrogated her, and when she refused to renounce Mao, had her shot. The three children and their nanny were bailed out by friends and sent back to Shanghai, where the children were enrolled in a kindergarten. After the school closed down, they lived hand-to-mouth for years. The youngest one died, but in 1936 the Communist Party located Anying and Anqing, by then in their early teens, and they were sent to the Soviet Union for safety. Mao was reunited with them only in 1946.

The new base area that the Communists finally established, on the Fujian border with Jiangxi, was known as the Jiangxi Soviet, and it was here that Mao spent most of the next five years. The Jiangxi base area, though far larger than Jinggangshan, was also more vulnerable to attack. For virtually the entire period between 1930 and 1934 it was subjected to repeated assaults by Chiang Kai-shek, who was determined to obliterate this main symbol of Communist survival. As had been the case during the period between 1924 and 1927, Mao was again part of a larger political world, with its own rhythms and imperatives, one that sometimes followed the logic of local circumstances and at other times responded to the dictates of the Comintern. Mao was in partial political eclipse much of this time, though another of his meticulous local examinations—his third after Hunan and Jinggangshan—was devoted to exploring the precise nature of rural life in the Jiangxi county of Xunwu, and constitutes one of the major documents of Communist social analysis for this period. In this report Mao assembled information not only on land relations and class structures in Xunwu, but also telegraph and postal services, the flow of business products (both local and foreign), butchers and wine sellers, herbal medicines and tobacco use, lodging houses and barbershops, the wearing of jewelry, the numbers of prostitutes and their clients, literacy rates, and the handling of adultery.

Mao’s career and Party standing fluctuated violently during these years. Much of the time, as titular “chairman” of the provisional Soviet area government, he was the signatory of major Party documents and the convener of meetings, which now had to deal not only with land, labor, and the problem of the militarists, but also with the emerging menace of Japan, which had attacked Shanghai in early 1932 and had taken over the whole of Manchuria. Anti-Japanese nationalism was a potent factor in the Communist Party’s recruitment drives, particularly among the patriotic students. But especially after the senior Communist leadership were forced to abandon Shanghai because of the unrelenting Guomindang police pressure there, and moved to the Jiangxi Soviet, Mao found himself on the sidelines, or else had his recommendations completely overruled. On one occasion he was removed from a committee chairmanship in the middle of a meeting.

On several occasions during this period, Mao took “sick leave,” as he had in the past. Undoubtedly, some of these absences were political ones, and others were more in the nature of compassionate leave—as when He Zizhen had their second child in 1932, which was delivered in a Fujian hospital by a Communist doctor who had once worked with Mao in Jinggangshan. This child, a boy, they named Anhong. Mao and He Zizhen had left their first child, a daughter, with a rural couple in Fujian, so that she would be safe from the fighting, but she died as an infant. Their third child, born in 1933, seems also to have died in infancy. Mao had health problems, too. The malaria that had troubled him before returned for a while, and in late 1932 he was diagnosed as having tuberculosis, and spent several months in a Fujian sanatorium in the Soviet area before the disease was checked. On various occasions, too, he retreated to isolated scenic sites in the hills with He Zizhen; “bodyguards” were assigned to accompany them, though whether the guards were meant to protect them in case of enemy attack, or constituted a thinly veiled type of house arrest ordered by Mao’s rivals within the Communist Party, is not clear. From April to October 1934, though Mao was technically still chairman of the border region government, he and He Zizhen lived together with their baby son in a hillside temple in what was described as “almost complete isolation.”

During this period, the attacks from Chiang Kai-shek’s forces became so relentless that the Communist Party leadership decided, secretly, that they would have to abandon their base. Mao was not involved in the planning of this all-important event in Chinese Communist history, the first step in what was later to be called “the Long March.” He and his wife joined the great column of some 86,000 fleeing Communist troops and supporters only as it passed near their residence on October 18. About 15,000 Communist troops had been ordered to stay behind in the Soviet, to protect the approximately 10,000 sick or wounded soldiers who could not make the march and to guard the civilian population as well as they could. Mao insisted to Party leaders that He Zizhen—who was once again pregnant—be allowed to make the march with him. There was only a handful of other women on the march, mainly the wives or companions of senior Party leaders, but the couple were not allowed to take their two-year-old son, Anhong, with them. So they entrusted him to Mao’s younger brother Mao Zetan, who was among those staying with the rearguard group. When Zetan in turn had to go away on combat duty, he left the two-year-old with one of his bodyguards. Mao Zetan was subsequently killed in the fighting—in 1935—and the boy was never heard of again.

The Long March, later presented as a great achievement in Communist history, was a nightmare of death and pain while it was in progress. The huge column was bogged down with equipment, party files, weaponry, communications equipment, and whatever else had been salvaged from Jiangxi to help them in setting up a new base area. A devastating attack by the Guomindang artillery and air force as the slow-moving column was trying to cross the Xiang River in northern Guangxi province, took close to half their number in casualties. But the march continued, even though there was no agreement on exactly where they were heading, or even on which direction they should take. The leaders, however, had reached a tacit understanding that when they reached Zunyi, a prosperous city in Guizhou province, they would pause and take stock.

The “Enlarged Meeting of the Politburo” as it was termed, assembled in Zunyi on January 15, 1935, in a crisis atmosphere. Party policy had clearly been disastrous, and the very survival of the revolutionary movement hung in the balance. It was a time both to apportion blame for what had gone wrong and—more important—decide what to do in the immediate future, and who was to lead the Party in doing it. Present at the meetings were seventeen veteran leaders of the Party, including Mao, one Comintern representative, Otto Braun, one interpreter (for Braun), and a notetaker—the thirty-year-old Deng Xiaoping. In terms of assigning blame, the meeting faulted Braun and two of the Chinese Communist leaders for adopting an overly static defense in the Jiangxi Soviet, one relying often on positional warfare and the construction of blockhouses, rather than on swift deployment and mobile warfare, in which superior Communist strength could have been focused on points of Guomindang weakness. Lack of imagination by the same leaders, the majority concluded, made them miss their chance of linking up with a rebellion of Chiang Kai-shek’s troops that broke out in Fujian during 1933. As to immediate goals, the Party should drop the idea of having a base in Guizhou, and instead should cross the Yangtze River and set up a new base in Sichuan province. In terms of Party leadership, there had indeed been “erroneous leadership,” but there was “not a split in the Party.” The “Group of Three” who had been coordinating the Long March up to this point was abolished, and Mao was named to the Standing Committee of the Politburo and given the additional title of “military assistant.” Otto Braun, the Chinese minutes noted, “totally and firmly rejected the criticism of himself.”

The Zunyi meetings gave a major boost to Mao’s prestige, and it is to this time period that one can date his move toward a commanding position within the Party leadership. But many major problems still had not been resolved. It turned out to be impossible to create the Sichuan base, since Guomindang troops and local militarists kept the Communists from crossing the Yangtze, and after circling aimlessly around Guizhou province for several months, often under fierce enemy attack, they had to swing far down into the south before turning north again along the Tibetan border and heading for their final destination, the sparsely populated northwestern province of Shaanxi. Also, there were still many other major Communist military leaders who were opposed to Mao and saw no reason to risk their own troops for his protection. Some of these commanders not only abandoned Mao and established new base areas of their own, but even lured away some of Mao’s finest commanders, so that Mao’s forces steadily shrank despite his formal rise in Party status. Finally, in personal terms, there were tragedies. He Zizhen was almost killed in a bombing raid and was left badly injured, with shrapnel embedded in her body in more than a dozen places. Though she subsequently gave birth, to a girl, because of the dangers and pressures of the campaign the baby had to be left with a local peasant family. The girl was thereafter never found, and was the fourth of the children He Zizhen had with Mao Zedong that was lost to them.

During the fall of 1935, Mao’s greatly diminished forces endured a hellish march through the swamplands and mountains of Qinghai and Gansu, where their main enemies, apart from grim skirmishes with the local tribespeople, were intense hunger—there was almost no food to be either bought or foraged—the constant damp, and freezing temperatures at night. Many of the remaining 15,000 or so people in the column died of malnutrition, suppurating sores, or by eating poisonous weeds and berries. Only between 7,000 and 8,000 of the column survived, reaching the village of Wayabao in Shaanxi, just south of the Great Wall, in October 1935, and joining forces with some other Communist troops who had already made a base there.

It had been an exhausting and astonishing year since they left Jiangxi, and now Mao had to chart out in his mind a new course for the Communists and for his own career. He was also to be a father again. He Zizhen became pregnant for the fifth time after the March ended, and their daughter Li Min was born in the Shaanxi village of Baoan in the late summer of 1936. “The Maos were proud parents of a new baby girl,” as Edgar Snow, the first Westerner ever to interview Mao, jotted in his notes at that time. As had not been the case with any of He Zizhen’s other children, she and Mao—though separated—were to see Li Min grow up to maturity, marry, and raise two children of her own. Fate granted them at least that measure of continuity.

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