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Hikers: China’s ‘Long March’ Was Shorter

November 6, 2003 GMT

SHANGHAI, China (AP) _ They slogged across rugged terrain for a year, fleeing Nationalist forces and forming the cornerstone of Chinese communist legend _ the ``Long March″ that turned Mao Zedong’s guerrillas into folk heroes of the masses they would soon command.

Now, seven decades after the grueling trek, two Britons who retraced the march’s route on foot are committing political heresy. Their conclusion: The journey was 2,500 miles shorter than the distance of 6,200 miles claimed by the Communist Party.

Ed Jocelyn and Andy McEwen said their findings showed the journey _ during which Mao cemented his rule over the party that took control of China in 1949 _ was 3,700 miles long.

``It was still a remarkable achievement in endurance and courage,″ Jocelyn told The Associated Press on Wednesday. ``The fact that it’s shorter than originally believed doesn’t diminish that in any way.″

Not a chance, say communist traditionalists.

``How could they possibly know the exact route and distance well enough to revise the figure?″ said retired party historian Liu Binyan. ``What kind of exact map could they have had?″

Jocelyn, 35, and McEwen, 37, completed their journey Monday after 384 days; the original march reportedly took 369 or 370 days. The two, who have worked as editors for English publications in Beijing, based their estimate on timed walks, maps and distance markers. Jocelyn has a doctorate in history while McEwen worked as features editor at the Trentonian newspaper in the U.S. state of New Jersey.

History books often say the 1934-35 Long March covered 6,200 miles; some accounts say it was as long as 8,000 miles.

``Some will get upset at what they see as an attack on a central myth of the revolution,″ McEwen acknowledged by mobile telephone from near Yan’an, where Mao’s forces settled in western China following the march.

Fleeing the forces of Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, Mao and his Red Army followers trudged through some of China’s poorest, most remote areas, from Jiangxi province in the southeast to Shaanxi in the north.

Conditions were harsh. Of the roughly 80,000 men _ and 35 women _ who began, only between 8,000 and 9,000 survived.

``The Long March is the first of its kind,″ Mao wrote in late 1935. ``It is a manifesto, a propaganda force, a seeding machine.″


Calculating the march route’s length has long been difficult. Under continual attack from Chiang’s ground and air forces, the communist Red Army often broke up into different columns, dispersed over wide areas, backtracked, crossed the same rivers repeatedly or just got lost.

For Jocelyn and McEwen, maps of the route and references to points traveled sometimes proved wrong. Villagers along the way often corrected them.

Without any known accurate measurements, Mao and the communists may have chosen 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles) because it was a round number that boldly defined the scale of the event, Jocelyn said. Chinese governments have a history of using numbers in that manner.

``Issues of myth and reality were on our minds the whole time,″ Jocelyn said.

McEwen said the men were astonished by the freedom they enjoyed during their trek. Many areas they passed through were closed to outsiders after the 1949 revolution.

However, he said the pair were detained four times by suspicious local authorities and once held overnight and bused from the area the next day. They got sick, were bitten by dogs and had health problems. But people along the way were welcoming, the men said.

Jocelyn said the pair hopes to exhibit photographs and souvenirs to remind Chinese of their history.

The travelers also met a woman they were told might be a long-lost daughter of Mao. They said Xiong Huazhi, 68, was born at about the same time and place as a daughter reportedly born to Mao and his third wife, He Zizhen.

Mao’s child was left with a family in Sichuan province as the Red Army fled. Xiong’s family and neighbors told the Britons that she was Mao’s daughter.

After 1949, searchers sent to find Mao’s lost child came back empty-handed. Mao died in 1976 not knowing his offspring’s fate. He Zizhen bore Mao five children; the sole survivor, Li Min, is believed to live in Beijing.

McEwen and Jocelyn, meanwhile, can expect more resistance. Gao Zhiyin, a spokesman for the Yan’an Foreign Affairs Department, dismissed their findings and wants to argue the matter face to face.

``Can they change history?″ Gao said. ``The whole world acknowledges these facts.″