Tracing A Father's Steps On China's Long March Red Army soldiers trekked through China on their epic journey nearly 75 years ago. The daughter of an officer, Diane Zhang, follows the route on a quest to learn about the defining moment in her family's and China's history.
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Tracing A Father's Steps On China's Long March

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Tracing A Father's Steps On China's Long March

Tracing A Father's Steps On China's Long March

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, deciphering the political blogosphere, at least a little bit. But first, it's been nearly 75 years since the Long March, that trek by Mao Zedong and his Red Army that gave birth to the People's Republic of China. But even as communism fades, China still wrestles with its past. The resilience and self-sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of marchers has long been considered legend. Elizabeth Arnold has this report about an intrepid Chinese woman, Diane Zhang, the daughter of a Red Army officer who's just completed her own long march in an effort to better understand this history and her father.

ELIZABETH ARNOLD: A steady stream of brightly colored buses lumbers up and around the steep terraces above the Min River. This superhighway was once a dirt path traveled by hundreds of thousands of Red Army soldiers fleeing the nationalist armies of Chiang Kai-shek. They were ill-equipped and outnumbered. One in 10 survived. For generations, the Long March has been a symbol of national character. Now on the road herself, Diane Zhang was taught as a young girl that those who marched were martyrs.

Ms. DIANE ZHANG (Daughter of Red Army Officer): In school they made it, you know, very heroic. It's like only God can do it. And you never thought, you know, your dad, somebody you know.

ARNOLD: Zhang's father, now deceased, was a Long Marcher. He was an officer in the 3rd Red Army Corps, one of the few who survived the entire 6,000-mile trek. His daughter is still struggling to make sense of it.

Ms. ZHANG: You know, my generation was brought up in Cultural Revolution. We don't give a damn to the older generation. You're liars. You painted a perfect world, but look at what the reality is you gave us. And he got into the prison, in your own party's prison. But why are you still doing it?

ARNOLD: Her father was jailed during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, and Zhang couldn't understand his loyalty to the party.

Ms. ZHANG: And here I talk to the real people, the farmers, and find out why my father, who was from a rich family, would drop out of college and join the revolution. It was shocking to me. It's sort of like finding your self-identity.

ARNOLD: Through her father's diaries and letters over the last few years, Zhang has pieced together his journey to retrace his footsteps. I joined her on the Tibetan Plateau as she was trying to cross the great grassland south of the Yellow River, notable for the sheer number of soldiers who perished here from starvation. But any trace of the Long March has given way to capitalism.

Unidentified Man #1: (Chinese language spoken)

ARNOLD: There's no longer any grass. It's been overgrazed by yaks. A road is under construction, and the road crew and the herders block us, demanding money to cross.

(Soundbite of men shouting in Chinese language)

ARNOLD: A few hours and many miles later, Zhang is more welcome in the tiny farming village of Xinmin, where she has discovered a Long March survivor. We find him in a cramped, fly-infested room surrounded by relatives. He's in a threadbare Red Army uniform cinched by a wide leather belt. He pulls the jacket away from his thin frame to reveal a scar.

Mr. YIN JINXUE (Long March Survivor): (Through Translator) Oh, this bone was broken by the bullets.

ARNOLD: Yin Jinxue is 94, and it seems painful for him to even open his eyes. He tells Zhang that it was not the fighting but the hunger that was so hard. Crossing the grassland, he says, they tried to eat their belts.

Mr. YIN: (Through Translator) We boil the water and put a leather band in it and boil it until it is soft, and cut into small pieces, just chewing it.

(Soundbite of a door squeaking)

ARNOLD: While the Long March was a military retreat, it was also a massive propaganda tour. It was the character of the marchers that won the party new followers. Mao's soldiers were told not to harm the peasants, not to confiscate food, and to treat minorities as equals.

(Soundbite of ringing bells and drums being beaten)

ARNOLD: Zhang has been to dozens of monasteries like this one here in Chogee, where according to the local historian, Gway Hwah, the monks all ran away when the Red Army first arrived.

Ms. ZHANG: The reason, she believes, is they were afraid. They heard from the nationalists that the Red Army was the devil. So they ran away. And they also found that the Red Army took all their crops. But they also discovered when they came back that the Red Army left money for food and stuff.

ARNOLD: It was a winning strategy for the party, an effective recruitment tool.

(Soundbite of car engine starting)

ARNOLD: Zhang herself has learned to be both tolerant and persuasive on her journey. Traveling by Jeep on this leg of the trip, she's stopped by landslides almost daily. This time there are two, and the driver says yet again the road is impassible.

Unidentified Driver: Still quite dangerous and also risky. There's a huge - just one huge rock almost have blocked the whole road with plenty of the smaller ones at both sides.

ARNOLD: Tenacious, Zhang insists on getting through. And the next day we cross Lazikou Pass on mules, the only way possible. It's taken years and hundreds of interviews for Zhang to retrace a march that took her father 384 days. But finally, in the historic village of Hadapu, a landmark in Long March history, Zhang comes perhaps the closest to understanding her father's cause.

(Soundbite of Hadapu hubbub)

ARNOLD: Hadapu is a bustling city where Mao and other top commanders finally broke the Red Army out of the mountains, grasslands, and the Tibetan regions. They were greeted with cheers and food. It was in Hadapu that Mao learned from a newspaper there was a Communist force just 250 miles to the north. They would join it and turn retreat into victory, marching into Beijing in 1949, an event as significant to China as the Civil War to America. Hadapu has had high hopes for what some call Red tourism. It's an oasis of history, a town solely dedicated to the memory of the march. There are monuments, plaques, even a store that sells Long March sandals.

Ms. ZHANG: The sign says "Gansu Province, the Red Army Shoes Factory." And he said it's all handmade, it's pretty, and comfortable.

ARNOLD: At the heart of Hadapu is a small museum with portraits of Mao. Smiling students sing Long March songs from a TV screen in the corner. It's run by historian Han Erming, an animated scholar. Zhang is exhausted from weeks of traveling, and just wants a better map. But he has something for her she least expects, a photograph and a scroll with beautiful Chinese characters on it. She's taken aback.

Mr. HAN ERMING (Historian, Hadapu, China): (Chinese language spoken)

Ms. ZHANG: He said this is my father.

ARNOLD: And what does it say there?

Ms. ZHANG: It's something like they experienced all the hardship during the march. And the only thing they will never forget is the family feeling of the people they met on the road who helped.

ARNOLD: On a simple scroll, Zhang Aiping wrote exactly what his own daughter has only recently discovered from those she's met on her journey.

Ms. ZHANG: As soon as they heard I'm a daughter of a Red Army, you know, they just hold my hand. It's some kind of connection. It's amazing.

ARNOLD: While Marxist ideology is no longer the heart of today's China, and controversial new histories try to separate myth from fact, Zhang believes the epic march that shaped communism still lives on in its people. For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Arnold.

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