October 16, 2002 will mark the 68th anniversary of the Red Army’s heroic Long March. This major strategic redeployment started in 1934 and reached the revolutionary base area in northern Shaanxi in 1935. The Red Army passed through eleven provinces and covered an amazing 6000 miles.
It is on this historic date that two Englishmen Andrew McEwen and Ed Jocelyn will embark on an expedition to follow the full route of the Red Army. They plan to leave from Yudu in Jiangxi Province in southeast China and finally arrive in Wuqizhen, Shaanxi Province in northern China on October 19 of the following year. They will cover what are now eight provinces and two autonomous regions. No foreigner has ever travelled the entire route on foot except for Otto Braun, the German military advisor who accompanied the Red Army on the Long March.
On a hot and stuffy afternoon, the two adventurous Englishmen sat down in Starbucks in downtown Beijing for an interview with reporters from www.china.org.cn.
Dressing in a light blue shirt, Jocelyn was carrying a huge rucksack weighing 20 kilograms. He cheerfully told the reporters that walking with such heavy loads is just part of their daily training in order to be physically well prepared for their own impending “long march.”
McEwen and Jocelyn have known each other for 10 years. They studied together in Essex University in the UK. They came to Beijing in 1997 to work as English language polishers with several local newspapers and magazines. But they quit recently to devote every minute to their preparations for their “long march.”
Jocelyn who has a Ph.D. in history said, “Before I came to China I had heard the expression Long March but had no real idea what it was about because there is so very little material on it available in Western countries. Since I first read about it I have been much intrigued. It is like an exciting adventure story. Later on, I met a young Australian who told me what he knew about the Long March. When he was 11 years old, he had read the book Red Star over China by Edgar Snow and had become totally obsessed by it. It tells of an amazing saga rich in inspiration and heroism. By reading history books and watching films and old documentaries we got to know more about it. The more we studied, the more we felt we needed to walk the route ourselves to understand what happened in the past and to see what is happening there right now.”
The idea of following in the footsteps of the Red Army first occurred when they were travelling in southwest China’s Guizhou Province. “At that time, we found that we were actually in a place where the real historical events had unfolded all these decades ago. That greatly increased our interest and gave us the idea of going to see other places the Red Army had passed through. It is an exciting idea because it is difficult even now to travel in these areas since the roads are so poor. If you are really interested in history, you can get a strong sense of what events were actually like by visiting the places where they happened,” said Jocelyn.
Recalling memories of his unforgettable experiences in Guizhou, Jocelyn said, “This is something you just can’t get from books, TV shows or movies. These very young soldiers, men and women, joined the Red Army to look for a new life and for freedom. Some of those who took part in this great historical event are still alive today. They are living history. We want to speak to them and get to know about the people who have done these things. We want to learn about their lives and to try and bring their incredible experiences alive, to experience what they experienced.”
When asked if language would be a major barrier especially with the different dialects, McEwen answered confidently in fluent Chinese, “Language will not be a problem for us. We have already talked with some veterans of the Red Army and have travelled in many provinces in China. We can communicate quite well with local people and have always found them friendly and hospitable.”
“In winter, we will be in Guizhou. It won’t be very cold, just uncomfortable. It will likely rain all the time, rather like being home in England, ” said Jocelyn with a smile when asked how they would cope with the winter days of their trek.
According to McEwen, they will keep a diary and photograph as much as possible of what they see and discover on their “long march” of some 368 days. They will e-mail their stories back to Jia Qi, their assistant in Beijing who is in charge of logistical support for their great journey. McEwen has set up a special website www.longmarch2002.com. It will be regularly updated with their stories.
As the day of their departure draws near, Jocelyn and McEwen are busy preparing all the necessary equipment. “Compared with the Red Army, our expedition today is much easier in almost every aspect. We have no enemies to fight so the only battle is with ourselves,” said McEwen.
They have tried to take account of all the possible difficulties they might encounter. Most of the time, they will be in the countryside so they are ready for the wilds with tent, sleeping bag, mat, first aid kit, clothing, food and water purification equipment. They will also have modern communications equipment such as a satellite telephone in case they lose their way or get stranded in some deserted place. They will take a palmtop for sending their stories back.
They plan to walk 40 kilometers each day carrying loads of 20 to 25 kg. They will change their equipment from time to time at predetermined points en route as the seasons change.
They have also been busy contacting local governments in the hope of securing the very necessary support they will need on their journey such as local guides when crossing high mountains or swamps.
“Sixty-eight years have past since the Red Army's epic Long March and much has changed in China. We may not always be able to retrace the precise route followed by the Red Army but we can ensure each stop will be exactly the same,” said Jocelyn. “Yes, and the most important thing is the experience regardless of how long it takes,” added McEwen.
According to Jocelyn, they intend to compare their present day trek with the days of the Long March. They will then be able to comment on what they see and feel about the changes that have happened in China since then, “We will be happy if our version of the long march helps us share our interest in this history with others," he said.
What do their family members think about their journey? Jocelyn said his mother has bought a book on the Long March and has been reading it with great interest knowing her son is going to follow in the footsteps of the Red Army. “She sounded worried yesterday when she called me to ask “are you sure you want to do this?” My reply was “Yes.”
McEwen said, “We have many reasons for doing the march. But initially, it came from a fascination in the story. At a personal level there is also the challenge of finding out what our limits are. So doing the walk will be an incredible adventure and the mental challenge will be enormous. However, the main reason we want to do it is simply to see these places. The Long March has a very important place in China’s history. It is an amazing epic tale. It is the stuff of myth and legend. It is so very difficult to visualise these great events. So that’s why we are going to do it, maybe one day when I close my eyes I will see the real Long March.”
The Long March was a 6,000 mile heroic trek made by the Chinese Communists. It resulted in the relocation of the Communist revolutionary base from southeast China to Yan’an in the northwest.
In 1934, the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek threatened to encircle and crush the Communist forces in Hunan. Despite constant harassment by Nationalist troops and the armies of provincial warlords, the Red Army arrived at its new home in the north in October 1935. They had overcome many natural obstacles such as towering mountain ranges and turbulent rivers.
Between October 1934 and October 1935, the Red Army traversed 11 provinces, many larger than most European countries. Once they marched for ten days through uninhabited territory with no food or water. Many thousands died in combat or from starvation and disease.
During the early stages of this strategic retreat, Mao Zedong became supreme commander of the Party. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, many of the veterans of the Long March went on to become the leaders of the new China.
(china.org.cn by staff reporter Wang Qian, September 3, 2002)