Going back to Yunnan and the Golden Sands River recently reminded me that I too am a Long March ‘ veteran. ‘
In 1990 and 1991 I retraced what I thought to be the most important sections of the Long March.
It was a name that I’d always been fascinated by, and I came to know of personally at a very early age, perhaps when I was about 15.
In our family bookcase we had a set of 10 encyclopedias. One volume had an year calendar running January 1 to December 31, and it listed the most important events on 365 days in history. I was curious to learn what had happened in history on my birthday, October 16. It listed that ‘the Long March of the Chinese Red Army commenced’.
After my Great Wall adventure of 1987, in which I began to learn a little about the vastness of ancient China, I began to think that a look at the Long March would be a fitting sequel: from a ‘great’ Journey in China to a notoriously ‘long’ journey. Moreover, if I walked, I would certainly get blisters on my feet but it would be headache free - perhaps a politically pain free opportunity to get to know the foundations of modern China.
All I now needed was an event that made my proposed journey imperative. Something like an anniversary. But it was 1989, the 55th anniversary of the March, and that wasn’t a very well rounded figure to convince a London publisher to part with a book advance to get me on my way.
The answer actually was just waiting to be re-discovered.....
The year before, in 1988, just before my marriage with Wu Qi, she went back to her family home to pack for her new life. We were soon to go to the UK, and she had to decide what to take with her, what to leave in her parents’ home, and what to throw away.
I was fascinated to see the bric-a-brac that emerged from dust covered suitcases. One of the most fascinating was a large brown envelope of red badges that were all adorned with the God of China’s image.
All Chinese are wore them in the revolution against culture of the mid Sixties onwards.
I noted they were like the postage stamps that I collected as as boy, but they focussed in one man, and what he did, where and when.
Some showed buildings or bridges, others marked meetings or May Days, and one had the numbers 1893 12 26 upon it. Yes, you’ve guessed who!
If I added a century onto this date, then 1993 would mark the centenary of the birth of the man that founded modern China, and then became its all powerful God.
I told my publisher and then liked the time hook and bought the book idea.
So actually, one of the main reasons we came back to China in 1990 was for me to tackle the Great March.
My route was guided by this red badges, so much so that in my book there wound be a chapter called “A Route of Badges”.
I set off from Ruijin in Jiangxi Province during the exact week that the Marchers left in mid October of 1934. Other key sections that I targeted were Zunyi in Guizhou where He took power, the army’s crossing of the Golden Sands River, their crossing of the Grasslands, the Great Snowy Mountains, their battle at the Luding iron-chained bridge and eventually their teaching of Wuqi on Shaanbei to establish a new base area.
But unlike my following of the the ruins of the Great Wall, which to some extent was a huge way marked route across Northern China, following the route of the Long March was entirely different. There was no physical marker. I was just tracking from place to place, on the home if meeting an army veteran or a local who eyewitnessed the army’s passage back in 1934 or 1935.
The results of my efforts in 1990 and 1991 were excellent, but in some way incomplete.
To improve my experience and understanding I decided to widen the scope of my look back at the March by trying to get to grips with the events and people that led to the LM taking place, and more importantly getting a grasp of what the LM eventually led to - the foundation of the PRC.
To this end, in 1992 and 93 my net of revolutionary travels and researches led me to all the places where significant episodes of His life were lived, and died. Cradle to mausoleum travels, literally, from Shaoshan to Tiananmen Square.
Exactly 25 years ago I published my second book Marching with Mao : A Biographical Journey in London.
Certainly, one of the journey’s highlights was my trek to the Golden Sands River.
My experience of this section of my own March are retold in a chapter of the book called ‘ Victory and Punishment at Jiaopingdu’, which is both a summary of a local’s experience there in 1935 - and an odd outcome of my own experience there in 1991.
A quarter of a century has flown by since I wrote the chapter, which began to drift back into my mind as Yang Xiao suggested that we should drive north from Lijiang to the First Big Bend on the Yangzi River.
Our drive there took about 90 minutes across the mountains, which I estimated would be about the distance I had walked 25 years ago - perhaps 100 or so kilometers in a few days.
According to my book, I first took a bus from Kunming to Luquan. From there I set off on foot towards Jiaopingdu, a renown crossing point on the Golden Sands River due to the presence of a ferry service operated by a family surnamed Zhang.
After a day’s road Marching I reached Sayingpan. As I asked the way to Jiaopingdu, a farmer in a small crowd responded that he was heading for that village, en route to going home to his town of Huili, north of the river in Sichuan.
His name was Zhang Chanyuan. To reach Huili by bus was expensive and circuitous. So he was walking there. His small bundle of luggage was tied with rope into a makeshift backpack.
The entire trail to Jiaopingdu tuned out to be along a zigzagging dirt road. In many places, those traveling on foot before us has made short-cuts tracks where cart traffic could not go. It was said for be 55 kms to Jiaopingdu, a distance we covered in the day by shuffling along at quite a pace with only brief stops for drinks or the exchange of words.
I’m glad that even in this days of penny-pinching photography that I did spend a few exposures of my films, some color, some black and white, to take ‘Sichuan Zhang’s’ photo.
And as soon as we reached the tiny riverside hamlet in the river gorge we headed straight to the ferryman’s home. Within three minutes of entering the settlement I was talking to one of the brothers who ferried the Red Army soldiers across the River.
Their family insisted that I would stay the night. Tomorrow, they said, there wind be plenty of time to talk about 1935.
But I knew what to do in closed areas. Take photos ASAP and make notes ASAP. I’m fading light I took a photo of Zhang lighting his pipe. And before dinner I tried to ask him about the Marchers and their crossing of the river.
The problem was that my Mandarin was much better than his - he spoke a local dialect. The family was very keen for him to Tell me his story, so they arranged for a young man in the village to write it down! Perfect!
The young man wrote down Zhang’s historic story on a few sheets of paper.
It was late when we decided it was time to sleep.
I soon dozed off. But not for long.
Someone was calling, asking me to wake up. Everyone spoke loudly because the roar of the river had made most people partly deaf.
I hurried down the stairs and saw a police officer.
Haha, the same old story. Tongues had been wagging and the arrival of a foreigner had percolated to the local cop shop.
It was, like all the many trespass I closed area that I have endured, a pretty miserable affair. But it was one with a difference.
As usual, the Chinese inquisition. Name, age, occupation, reason for traveling here, and citizenship.
To the last question I was sif corse British.
They came a tough one.
‘Ni shi shenme minzu’ he asked.
I did explain that we had no national minorities in Britain, and we were all British. But he insisted on me answering so he found fill the gap in his form.
It was late and I was tired.
‘What’s your nationality’ I asked.
He replied ‘’Hanzu, of course’
I pondered for a second.
“Then I’m the same as you, Hanzu’ I replied.
He wrote it down. And he seemed to be happy with my decision.
We said goodnight.
Next morning the police arrested me and took me, as I was expecting, to the nearest open town.