The crossing of the Dadu River by the Red Army in 1935 during the 6,000-mile Long March was a seminal myth for Chinese communists, but that was what it was; a myth. The bridge over the Dadu River was built in the 18th century in Sichuan province. It was part of an imperial road connecting Chengdu with Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.
It was an impressive suspension bridge, 101 metres long and more than three metres wide, made of thick iron chains with planking to cover the gaps between the chains. The river itself is a formidable natural obstacle. It runs between towering cliffs. In May, when the communist force including Mao Zedong arrived, it was in full flood, swollen with melting Himalayan snows. Wading or swimming across was impossible.
Long March myth
This allegedly-bloody crossing was central to the legend of the Long March. A version was given to the journalist Edgar Snow in 1936. He called it ‘the most critical single incident of the Long March’. According to Snow half the wooden planks had been removed by the Nationalists and the Communists were faced with bare chains until about half-way across the river.
At the other, northern, end, wrote Snow, was an enemy machine-gun nest and behind that was a regiment of Nationalist troops. Men were shot and fell into the river, he said, and then the remaining planks were set on fire with paraffin. ‘By then about 20 Reds were moving forward on their hands and knees, tossing grenade after grenade into the enemy machine-gun nest.’
Way was open
The problem with this version of events is that it isn’t true. No planks had been removed, there was no machine-gun nest and the nearest Nationalist troops were kilometres away. And there were no casualties. Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek wanted the Communists to move north. He had left a passage open for the troops because he wanted to bottle up all the Red Army groups into one area. Nationalist troops had been in the town at one end of the bridge, but had been moved out shortly before the Communists arrived.
The Communists claimed the bridge had been defended by a nationalist regiment commanded by Li Quan-shan, yet cables to and from that regiment put it a long way off, in a place called Hualinping. The fact that Nationalist troops were not there was mentioned in a report by the governor of the region on June 3.
A local woman – aged 93 when interviewed in 1997 – remembers the crossing. Her family ran a bean curd shop right by the bridge on the side held by the Red Army. Red soldiers were billeted in her house. She recalled the Communists firing sporadically, but no fire coming back from the northern side. Some planks may have been missing but the bridge was not down to bare chains. That happened when Mao’s government made a propaganda film about the crossing. And the curator of the museum at the bridge denied in 1983 that the bridge had ever been set on fire.
The Red Army crossed the bridge without a single casualty. The vanguard of 22 men was supposed to have crossed the bridge in an act of suicidal bravery. But at celebrations on June 2, all 22 were alive and well and were rewarded for their work. No soldier was even wounded. Chou En-lai’s bodyguard told how Chou had gone to check on any losses. The commander of the unit that had taken the bridge, Yang Cheng-wu, told him there had been no deaths.
And to top it all off, in 1982 China’s leader Den Xiao-ping, who had been at the crossing, said the official version was made up. Former US National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski had described the incident to him as ‘a great feat of arms’. Deng had smiled and said that that was the way it was presented in Communist propaganda. He said it was a very easy military operation. ‘The other side were just some troops of the warlord who were armed with old muskets and it really wasn’t that much of a feat, but we felt we had to dramatize it,’ he said.
The Communist regime needed heroes, and Mao needed positive publicity, so the myth lives on.
- Mao, The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday