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Modern China's founding legend: heavy on myth?

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The March story was codified in "Red Star Over China," which became a best-seller in London before being translated into Chinese. Of the 12 Long March books on sale today at the giant Wangfujing shop here all are variations of Snow's version. (A publisher at the bookstore told the Monitor he estimated that 20 percent of the Long March volumes were true. Other historians in Beijing estimate about "50 percent" of party history is true.) Snow's volume is an achievement for a young writer who went behind enemy lines. But it is Mao's version. Author Robert Elegant, who knew both Mao and Snow, told the Monitor last month that much of Snow's famous work was "dictated" by the future chairman at these sessions. Sun herself says Snow became Mao's greatest propagandist, albeit unintentionally.

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As with most new accounts, Sun relies on sources disallowed in China - a diary kept by a Protestant missionary named Rudolph Bosshardt, for example. Mr. Bosshardt marched with the Reds for 560 days after being kidnapped and held for $10,000 ransom. Kidnapping by the Reds was common, something that shocked Sun. (Bosshardt's "The Restraining Hand," written after his release, is the best day-by-day account, Sun finds, of the march: the lack of shoes, the hopes, the endurance, the execution of the kidnapped, the disease, the hunger, the meals of duck and goat. His account is not part of official history.)

Sun's work is part an attempt to bring sense to her own family history, as well as China's. Her grandfather was a landlord persecuted by the Reds; her grandmother drowned herself in a river, out of grief. Her father was an Army officer deeply committed to communist China, and who constantly tried to reverse the negative party verdict on his own family. He died a broken man, Sun says, who soured on the party.

Sun's history, published in English by HarperCollins and unavailable in China, quietly stands the official Long March on its head. She shows that rates of desertion were high. Peasants didn't want to join. Women were forced to give birth and leave the babies behind. She points out that Chinese never learn the real causes for the march: partly it was that three separate purges by Mao of more than 10,000 (predating Stalin's purges, a little-known fact) caused locals to distrust and hate the Reds. The communists were forced to leave the Jiangxi stronghold. Once on the march, they were consistently cornered by the Nationalist Army, then let go. As Gao Wangling points out, "most serious historians today understand that Chiang Kai-shek could have annihilated the communists, but kept them alive as a bargaining chip with Moscow."

Yet the idealism of the Reds, many of whom joined the march to be released from bad marriages and near slavery, inspired Sun. "I think the marchers accomplished so much more than we are told. The obstacles they overcame were so much greater. They could easily have run away, and they didn't."

Sun cites Bosshardt's lifelong appreciation for the marchers, despite the fact that they kidnapped him and that, "Christianity is about love, and communism is about hate, in the sense that if you disagree, you are killed," she says. "But Bosshardt recognized that we go through life and we want to feel something bigger than ourselves. He thought the communists had that in them. They and he were both young, both passionate about what they were doing. He was inspired by what the communists did."