Sun, Mar 12, 2006 - Page 19 News List

Backs to the wall: China shows its real face

By Jonathan Fenby  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

By Sun Shuyun
320 pages
Harper Collins

For successive Chinese regimes -- imperial, republican and communist -- history has been a political weapon, fashioned and circulated in a manner that serves the purposes of the rulers. Objective truth and inquiry are positively dangerous. As a poster from the Cultural Revolution might have put it:

denounce your predecessors, sing your own praises, raise up conve-nient icons, ignore troubling facts.

This, inevitably, leads to outbursts of countervailing iconoclasm from those outside the system, in which the official version is ruthlessly swept aside in one-dimensional denunciation. Though Sun Shuyun and Julia Lovell are revisionists, both tread a more subtle, layered course in their excellent books on two of China's major icons, the Long March of 1934 and the Great Wall.

The first is the founding story of the communist regime, a poem to communism as the French writer, Sinologue and politician Alain Peyrefitte put it. The second is a national symbol recognized round the world. Together, they epitomize what the rulers of the world's most populous nation would like their country to be: strong, self-reliant and resolute.

As the two authors show, the truth behind the myth is a lot more complex than the facile icono-graphy that surrounds their subjects. Both books are valuable not only in setting out a convincing account of reality, but also in showing how and why the official version was built -- and the tensions that this has caused for those who know what actually happened.

As with Dunkirk, the Long March was spun from a defeat into a triumph and so can be dismissed as another Maoist whopper. Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's recent biography of Mao Zedong (毛澤東)posits that the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) leader Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石), let the Red Army escape as part of a deal with Stalin, though it was, rather, local warlords who stood aside so as not to give Chiang a pretext to send his soldiers into their domains.

Sun Shuyun has done an impressive job of on-the-ground reporting, interweaving the memories of survivors to build up the narrative as the communists leave their base in Jiangxi province, undergo a devastating attack and wander through mountains, jungles, grasslands and swamps before reaching the caves in the northern country.

There they stayed until their army won the civil war that took China for communism in 1949.

Mao makes appearances at key points, but this is a book built up from the evidence of the foot soldiers of the revolution. Though some survivors remain true believers and few regret having participated, the tone of their vivid, often touching, memories strikes a different chord from the one-note heroism faithfully retailed so often by Western writers.

In the end desertions cost the communists more troops than deaths in battle.

The role of women is brought out strongly; their privations along the route were even worse than those of the male soldiers.

Groundbreaking reporting on female fighters leads to a dramatic account of a doomed post-March expedition to the west of China that fell victim to Mao's machinations and ended with the Red Army women captured, raped and forced into warlord concubinage.

For whichever party has been in power, the line on the Great Wall has been an unconquerable barrier 2,000 years old and more than 6,437km long.

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