Modern China's founding legend: heavy on myth?

For China, it's Paul Revere's ride and Washington crossing the Delaware in one.

The Luding Bridge battle is the most famous moment in the Long March, itself the defining legend of modern China. The Red Army is hotly pursued in 1935. Soldiers hoof it 24/7 for 140 miles. They must cross the Dadu River, or be wiped out! But a 300-year-old chain-suspension bridge is closely guarded. So a suicide squad shimmies over the chains, under machine-gun fire, and wipes out the dreaded Nationalist enemy. The Red Army crosses! The China of Mao is saved!

Mao told the story to American chronicler Edgar Snow, who apotheosized it in his 1937 "Red Star over China." Mao's poem about the battle, "Gunfire licked the heavens/ Iron chains rocked," is included in the book and became a Chinese Gettysburg Address, memorized by kids.

Just one problem: A "battle" never quite happened. A skirmish with guards of a local warlord might have occurred. But the machine guns, the Nationalists, the 140 miles, and the chain crawling - today is regarded as mythical. Most likely, no Red soldiers died at Luding. As Gen. Li Jukui wrote 50 years later in a memo never published until last month by author Sun Shuyan in her new book, "Long March:" "This matter was not as complicated as people made it out to be later."

While China's economy has matured rapidly, the official history of modern China remains unrevised. How the truth of the past emerges in China is a subject of great importance and invisible struggle here. Legends like the Long March, the epic two-year survival march around China by the fledgling communists, remain so crucial to the founding concepts of the party that archives on the march are unapproachable and no scholars who want a healthy career will study the area.

Yet Ms. Sun, an Oxford-educated daughter of China who tracked down 40 march survivors, found the real story of China's defining myth to be "far more heroic, and far more tragic, than is known." The endurance, the sacrifices, the heartbreak - especially for women - goes past any official accounting, she finds. But her account won't be published in China, much like the recent tough history of Mao by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday.

Around the globe, history has been shaken, broadened, deconstructed, and reconstructed. But China's triumphal version of its past, taught to 1.3 billion people, remains quaintly untouched. While China complains about Japan airbrushing its World War II brutality, and while China issues three-inch thick versions of its historical claims on Taiwan, huge chunks of China's history over the past 75 years remain censored or unknown. June 1 marks the 40th anniversary of the start of the brutal Cultural Revolution, a spasm of insanity where hundreds of thousands died in nightmarish ideological campaigns. Yet no genuine accounting of that period is allowed. Rather, the policy appears one of hope that the tragedy will fade from memory.

"We are far from accepting the real truth. The most important base for the ruling party ideology is a favorable description of party history," argues Li Datong, dismissed as editor of the magazine Freezing Point for running an essay challenging the tendency to glorify antiforeigner sentiments in China's past. "You start questioning things, who knows where it will lead? You question the Qing Dynasty, modern China, the party history, the Cultural Revolution, 1989 [Tiananmen] ... there is no end to the questioning."

Some China experts say that as the nation rises and becomes more influential in the global arena, a lack of honest history has consequences beyond China's borders. They argue that, just as health issues like SARS or the environment transcend national borders, a population weaned on a false or incomplete version of the past is not good for China or the world.

"Chinese youths don't know that millions died in the 1950s, or that the CCP ordered a famine in Changchun [Jilin province] that caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, far more than died in Nanjing [a Japanese Army massacre]," says Wang Fei-ling, a Chinese-born historian now at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "To head off a repeat of the historical tragedies of many past rising powers ... the Chinese people must not be misled about their own history any longer; there must be a marketplace for competing ideas, open discourse, and judicious reasoning."

Most accepted history on China is conducted by foreign scholars. Yet some new shafts of light are seen in the dark corridors of China's recent past, from the inside. A scattering of scholars are shifting away from a purely "party" view of history, to a "people's view." Independent writers have been moving carefully, talking with eyewitnesses of events like the Great Leap Forward where intellectuals were decimated and killed, and the great famine of the late 1950s - which may have claimed as many as 30 million. Such research is still rare. Still, authors from China can now cross into Hong Kong and purchase an ISBN number for $275 - and finance small press runs of 2,000 to 3,000 copies. Hong Kong, in some ways, has become the memory of mainland China. The papers of Mao's Premier Zhou Enlai were recently published there.

In the early 1970s, as Cultural Revolution terror hit new highs, the infamous "gang of four" forced history to be written as a "class struggle" - as if 4,000 years of Chinese culture had culminated gloriously in the forming of the Communist Party. But today, "social history" of peasant life is under way. Scholars will look at land reform - regarded as the central problem of Chinese history - separately from the party verdict. Historian Yu Xiguang edited "Great Leap Forward, Bitter Days," a sharp look at the crackdown on intellectuals. People's University historian's Gao Wangling study, "On the 'Anti-behavior' of Chinese Peasants," is an unstinting look at how, in a reversal of the official story, peasants in pockets of China murdered landlords on party orders.

But for now, a stone is rolled across the official doorway to the past.

Take the Long March. As a founding narrative, it is rousing: Mao and his followers were forced out of their stronghold in south China by bad military decisions made by a German tactician named Otto Braun, who was foisted onto the Reds by Moscow. Some 200,000 soldiers in three armies wandered like the children of Israel over mountains and rivers, hungry and attacked, backtracking, until only 40,000 survivors arrived at Wuqi in the north two years later. This was the core of a new China.

Today, Long March is like apple pie. It's the name for missiles, military hospitals, and schools. On "Red tourism" vacations, Chinese walk parts of the march. Chinese journalists retrace the footprints of the march, blogging all the way.

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.

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."

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