In October 1934, during a civil war, embattled Chinese Communists broke through Nationalist enemy lines and began an epic flight from their encircled headquarters in southwest China. Known as the Long March, the trek lasted a year and covered some 4,000 miles (or more, by some estimates). The Long March marked the emergence of Mao Zedong (1893-1976) as the undisputed leader of the Chinese Communists.

Long March: Background

Civil war in China between the Nationalists and the Communists broke out in 1927. In 1931, Communist leader Mao Zedong was elected chairman of the newly established Soviet Republic of China, based in Jiangxi province in the southeast. Between 1930 and 1934, the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) launched a series of five encirclement campaigns against the Chinese Soviet Republic. Under the leadership of Mao, the Communists employed guerrilla tactics to successfully resist the first four campaigns, but in the fifth, Chiang raised a huge force and built fortifications around the Communist positions. Mao was removed as chairman, and the new Communist leadership employed more conventional warfare tactics, and its Red army was decimated.

Did you know? The Communist Party of China, founded in 1921, is the world’s largest political party.

Long March Begins: October 16, 1934

With defeat imminent, the Communists decided to break out of the encirclement at its weakest points, and the Long March began on October 16, 1934. Secrecy and other tactics confused the Nationalists, and it was several weeks before they realized that the main body of the Red army had fled. The retreating force initially consisted of more than 85,000 troops, by some estimates, and thousands of accompanying personnel. Weapons and supplies were borne on men’s backs or in horse-drawn carts, and the line of marchers stretched for miles. The Communists generally marched at night, and when the enemy was not near, a long column of torches could be seen snaking over valleys and hills into the distance.

Mao began to regain his influence, and in January, during a meeting of party leaders in the captured city of Zunyi, he re-emerged as a top military and political leader. He then changed strategy, breaking his force into several columns that would take varying paths to confuse the enemy. And the destination would now be Shaanxi province, in the northwestern region of the country, where the Communists hoped to fight the Japanese invaders and earn the respect of China’s masses.

Long March Ends: October 20, 1935

After enduring starvation, aerial bombardment and almost daily skirmishes with Nationalist forces, Mao halted his columns in northern Shaanxi on October 20, 1935, where they met other Red army troops. The Long March was over. By some estimates, 8,000 or fewer marchers completed the journey, which covered more than 4,000 miles and crossed 24 rivers and 18 mountain ranges.

The Long March marked the emergence of Mao Zedong as the undisputed leader of the Chinese Communists. Learning of the Communists’ heroism and determination in the Long March, thousands of young Chinese traveled to Shaanxi to enlist in Mao’s Red army. After fighting the Japanese for a decade, the Chinese Civil War resumed soon after the end of World War II (1939-45). In 1949, the Nationalists were defeated, and Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic of China. He served as head of the Communist Party of China until his death in 1976.