"Tell my family I'm dead." So begins Professor He Hui's epic tome poem dedicated to memory of those who died and endured the Long March, the famous and decisive military maneuver that helped rally and inspire a Communist-led peasant-worker underclass that fought on for another 15 years until the founding of New China.
"The stories of hardship and suffering during the Long March might seem unbelievable but that's because they are. When you look at the historical events it's almost impossible for us today to imagine what they went through," says He, who spent six years writing the 200,000-character ode, The Epic of the Long March, which in book form is almost five centimeters thick.
Likens It to Homer’s Iliad
Rather than a straightforward narrative, He's book is written in short verses that use rhyme and simple language that roll off the tongue to lend emotion and brevity to the events he describes.
It was a desperate and terrible time when the Long March began in the south of China in 1934. The country was in civil war, and upheaval and lawlessness had reigned for more than a decade. Desperately poor peasants and workers who were treated no better than Europe's medieval surfs had little hope, little to eat and no apparent future.
Inspired by the ideal of equality for all, the elimination of an ancient rigid class system and a corrupt government, along with a shared dream of creating a new, sovereign nation, tens of thousands of peasants rallied under Communist leaders such as Mao Zedong.
At the beginning the Red Army struggled against the ruling Kuomingtang party or KMT which was better armed and more mechanized. Poorly equipped and ill-fed, but with little to lose, the Red Army's 80,000-strong First Division re-grouped after a number of losing battles and began its year-long march northward in October 1934.
Author He says he's been fascinated by the Long March since his parents bought him books on the subject when he was a boy. Now being a 34-year-old and busy associate professor of advertising at the Communication University of China, he's spilled out years of pent up empathy for the long marchers who walked barefoot over snowcapped mountains and boiled their leather belts for sustenance.
He likens his work to Homer's Iliad, but says he was inspired by Edgar Snow's famous, and the controversial book in the West -- "Red Star Over China". In his book, Snow challenged his readers to "one day write the full epic of this expedition."
That's exactly what motivated He. "The epic poem is the best form of literature to tell the story of the Long March, which in some sense is a lingering tragedy for the country, a tragedy that prepared the nation to rise through sacrifice."
Along the route that cut through the heart of China's inland, the First Division not only lost thousands of members to the forces of nature, they fought fierce and brutal battles against the Kuomintang. At the battle of Xiangjiang River more than 30,000 of the First Division's members perished.
Despite the terrible odds on survival and as a testament to the desperate living conditions in the countryside, the Red Army picked up many new recruits from the towns and villages it passed. The young men and women, who abandoned family and farm, fortified the resolve of the leadership, which in turn bolstered the courage of the rank and file.
Often Moved to Tears
The tales of wartime deeds, both sad and heroic, by generals and peasants are detailed in He's prose. "When I read the personal stories of the Long March, my heart is filled with emotion and I'm often moved to tears," said the author, his strong and resonating voice cracking after reading a particularly moving passage.
He used more than 40 books and personal diaries as reference material and for inspiration. While he acknowledges that some of the stories have over the decades been turned into legend and folklore, the events, sacrifices and heroism happened.
"Some foreigners doubt the Long March but if they were to read more they would come to understand that it is a real story."
By at the time when they had reached their destination in Shaanxi Province in northwest China, 12,000 kilometers after their first steps, the peasant Long Marchers had turned into hardened, battle-tested soldiers. The First Division after suffering tens of thousands of casualties arrived with just 7,000 members.
The news of the First Division's success helped rally the troops of the Second and Fourth Divisions of the Red Army, which started the second leg of the Long March. The soldiers of those divisions also trekked north to Shaanxi facing similar trauma and tragedy.
The maneuver paid off in the end as the united divisions of the Red Army formed a powerful fighting force. Backed by this new-found might the Communist leaders were able to negotiate a truce and partnership with the KMT in 1936. This in turn allowed the Red Army to fight and defeat the Japanese who had invaded from the north committing unspeakable brutality on the civilian population.
Indomitable Spirit of Humanity
The Long March is still considered as an essential part of modern Chinese history, which continues to be taught in schools to inspire and inform people of the roots of their nation, and the sacrifices that allow the country to modernize.
He says the Long March has left an indelible mark on the soul of the nation that must not be forgotten. "The Long March was a great event that still imposes significant influence over the country and is worthy of remembrance. The heroes must be remembered," says the author who wrote the book on his own time and initiative.
After 16,820 lines of verse He's poem reveals the author's sentiment that all of the world's lost soldiers who fought for a collective good deserve glory and honor. Reflecting on the hardships and determination of the Long Marchers He's last line reads: "The indomitable spirit of humanity will never diminish as it casts a light as bright as the sun and the moon."
(Xinhua News Agency September 4, 2006)