Published: 12:18, June 10, 2021 | Updated: 12:24, June 10, 2021
PDF View
Luding bridge provides a crossing point in history
By Huang Zhiling in Chengdu

One of the most important maneuvers of the Long March still has great resonance for tourists and locals

Visitors walk across Luding Bridge in Luding county, Sichuan province. (WANG HUABIN / FOR CHINA DAILY)

When Sun Guangjun explained that Red Army soldiers had marched a grueling 120 kilometers in a single day in May 1935 to reach the west bank of Luding Bridge on the Dadu River by 6 am the following morning, the visitors were astounded by the words of the Red Army history expert.

Xiao Bao, one of two visitors who spoke with Sun during a recent visit to the bridge in Luding county, Ganzi Tibetan autonomous prefecture, Sichuan province, said: "It seemed like a 'mission impossible'. I wondered if the soldiers had been divine troops descending from Heaven, like in a legend."

With an enterprising spirit, similar to that of the Red Army soldiers, I said goodbye to hardship and ushered in a comfortable lifestyle

Yao Xiangui, resident of Luding county, Sichuan province

Seizure of the bridge on May 29, 1935, became a famous incident in a story filled with heroes, because its planks had been removed by Kuomintang troops. They had converged on the river's east bank to cut off the troops of the Red Army, a predecessor of the People's Liberation Army, leaving just 13 iron chains.

Despite that, the Red Army soldiers crossed the bridge, suffering only a few deaths from their 22-strong force.

Mao Zedong met Edgar Snow, the first Western journalist to introduce Red China to the world, in Yan'an, in the northwestern province of Shaanxi in 1936.

At their first meeting, Mao said the Red Army's crossing of the Dadu River had been the most important event of the Long March (1934-36). If the maneuver had failed, the Red Army might have been wiped out, Mao told Snow, a writer from the United States.

At the time, China was engaged in the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-45). After cooperation between the Kuomintang and the Communist Party of China broke down, the Kuomintang started a campaign to "cleanse" the CPC. That led the Central Red Army to embark on the Long March, which finally saw the troops arrive in Shaanxi in October 1935.

Located in Shaanxi's north, Yan'an, the CPC's base, was surrounded by the Kuomintang's military and information blockade. The world knew little about the CPC and the Red Army except for the unflattering image propagated by the Kuomintang.

With the help of Soong Ching Ling, widow of Sun Yat-sen, Snow arrived in Yan'an on July 13, 1936. He spoke with Mao and over 100 Red Army commanders, interviewed soldiers on the front line and engaged extensively with local people. Snow's reports gave a vastly different picture to the one presented by the Kuomintang.

In October 1937, his newly published Red Star Over China became an instant hit in London, with more than 100,000 copies sold in just a few weeks and it was still a much sought-after item following three additional printings.

Every Chinese learns about the importance of Luding Bridge from history books at a very young age. Eighty-six years ago, the bridge was crucial to the survival of the CPC-led Red Army during the Long March, which began in Ruijin in East China's Jiangxi province, where the Provisional Central Government of the Soviet Republic of China had been established in 1931.

The central Soviet area had to be abandoned in 1934 after the Red Army failed to break through a yearlong blockade launched by Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek, who built blockhouses with machine guns to close all routes out of the area.

Despite that, the Red Army managed to find a way out. Initially, the evacuation of 86,000 people was a difficult operation. Disorganized and ill-equipped, the first leg of the Long March was accomplished at an enormous cost, with the Red Army fighting every inch of the way.

The Red Army was left with just 33,500 troops after fighting 400,000 Kuomintang soldiers in late November and early December 1934 at the Battle of the Xiangjiang River, which lies on the border of Central China's Hunan province and the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region in the south.

Historians say the failures were the result of dissent within the Red Army's central command, but note that the turning point of the Long March emerged in Southwest China's Guizhou province, where the troops recuperated and moved on from setbacks to victories.

An important site

Guizhou was an important site during the Long March. From September 1934 to April 1936, the Red Army trekked across more than 60 cities, counties and districts in the province, leaving behind a rich trail of history and Red tourism resources.

From January 15 to 17, 1935, the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee convened the Zunyi Conference in Zunyi, Guizhou, to solve the Party's most urgent organizational and military problems.

The conference established Mao's leading position in the CPC and the Red Army, and saved them at an extremely dangerous juncture. Disagreements were resolved and a new sense of purpose began to animate the Long March, transforming it from a tactical withdrawal into a call to arms against the Japanese invasion.

Japan's incursion into Manchuria in 1931 heralded the start of the 14-year war of resistance. However, Chiang Kai-shek initially attempted to wipe out the Red Army before turning his attention to driving the invaders out of China.

Under the command of Mao, the Red Army crossed the Chishui River in Guizhou's Xishui county four times from January to May 1935, escaping encirclement by more than 400,000 Kuomintang troops.

It was one of the Red Army's most brilliant moves during the Long March, and a great example of the disadvantaged gaining the upper hand.

With brilliant maneuvers throwing the Kuomintang troops off the scent, the Red Army advanced, doubled back, wheeled around and resumed its forward thrust. In May 1935, it reached the Sichuan border.

The route passed through the region of the Yi ethnic group-Sichuan boasts China's largest Yi habitat-who were persuaded to grant the troops safe passage through their mountainous homeland by Red Army commander Liu Bocheng.

Liu, a Sichuan native, convinced the Yi chieftain that the Red Army wanted to coexist peacefully with, not oppress, ethnic groups. He swore blood brotherhood with the chieftain, sealing his oath in the tribal tradition by drinking chicken's blood.

The next hurdle for the Red Army was the Dadu. Crossing it was to be the single most critical action of the Long March.

Leaving the Yi area, the Red Army soldiers seized the Kuomintang-controlled Anshunchang Ferry in Shimian county, Sichuan, and found four boats.

Obstacles overcome

Chiang Kai-shek had hoped that Anshunchang would be where the Red Army would repeat the tragedy of Shi Dakai (1831-63), one of the best generals in the Taiping Rebellion (1851-64), which almost toppled the Qing (1644-1911), China's last feudal dynasty.

In May 1863, Shi and his soldiers reached Anshunchang after entering Sichuan from neighboring Yunnan province.

Due to the sudden surge in the level of the Dadu because of a rainstorm, Shi and his men were stranded on the river's south side. To save his soldiers from certain death, Shi went to the Qing military camp, pledging to sacrifice his own life.

Though the Qing military allowed 4,000 Taiping soldiers to walk free, some 2,000 were killed and Shi was sent to Chengdu, the provincial capital, where he was sentenced to death.

A monument on Chunxi Road, Chengdu's busiest commercial street, stands at the site where Shi suffered the cruelest feudal form of capital punishment, with his body being dismembered by thousands of cuts.

When the Red Army came to the Dadu on the same month 72 years later, the current was very swift and the process of ferrying the soldiers in four boats was too slow.

Mao convened a meeting where it was decided to seize the Kuomintang-controlled Luding Bridge 160 kilometers away.

When the Red Army soldiers reached the west bank of the bridge, they discovered that the planks had been removed and Kuomintang troops were converging on the east bank.

"Victory is life, defeat is certain death," Red Army General Peng Dehuai said.

The Red Army controlled a temple on the west bank, which is much higher than the east bank. Under the cover of fire from cannons and machine guns at the temple, 22 soldiers clung to the iron chains of the bridge, laying planks on it, despite coming under intense machine-gun fire from Kuomintang troops on the other side, said Sun, the historian and a former chairman of the Luding county committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

Though several injured soldiers fell into the fast-flowing river, the others crawled along the planks they had laid, shooting and launching a torrent of grenades until they finally took control of the east bank.

Today, people only know the names of four of the soldiers. Many of the others lost their lives in subsequent battles, Sun said.

Twenty-two pillars stand in the Luding Bridge Memorial Museum in honor of the 22 brave men. Only four of them are engraved with names, while 18 remain blank, their identities unknown forever.

Less than a minute's walk from Luding Bridge Square, the center of the county seat, is the east bank of the bridge, which was built in 1706 during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor (1654-1722). The words "Luding Bridge" can be seen at the entrance in the emperor's calligraphic style.

In olden times, as the only way to cross the Dadu, the bridge was an important link on the ancient Tea Horse Road for porters who carried tea to Tibetan-inhabited areas, and the holes drilled and fitted with poles that they used for support can still be seen on its west bank.

The 81-km-long Luding county section of the river now has 23 footbridges, 19 road bridges and four cable suspension bridges. The convenient transportation infrastructure means it only takes three hours to drive from Luding Bridge to Anshunchang.