Soong Mei-ling spent fully ten years being educated in the United States, more than any of her siblings. The vivacious nineteen-year-old who returned to China at last in 1917 made a dramatic contrast to the pudgy little girl who had left. Mei-ling had grown into a beauty to rival her sister Ching-ling, with an endless reservoir of easy charm at her command. She threw herself into the glittering Shanghai social scene with gusto, moving with the usual Soong adroitness back and forth between the city’s Western and Chinese halves.

Unlike her sisters, she chose to remain unmarried until she was almost 30, a very unusual — some might say almost scandalous — choice in the China of that time. The correspondence she kept up with her old American school friends reveals an earnest if over-privileged young woman, able to lament the miserable plight of the Chinese working classes in one paragraph, then complain about how hard it is to find good “help” in the household these days in the next. When not playing the belle of many a Shanghai ball, she took on non-taxing volunteer projects, like teaching Sunday school and raising money for the local YWCA. (“I go to the managers of the banks personally and look them in the eye, and literally the money rolls in!”)

She was still living this comfortable existence in 1927, when the Communists in Shanghai, inflamed by the imminent prospect of revolution, rose up and paralyzed the city. Like the rest of Shanghai’s bourgeoisie, she sheltered inside the palatial Soong home until Chiang Kai-shek’s army arrived to rescue her.

Three weeks later, her savior Chiang, whom Mei-ling had gotten to know at a number of social gatherings over the course of recent years, asked Mei-ling’s brother-in-law H.H. Kung whether a marriage to her might be a possibility. When Kung’s wife Soong Ai-ling asked the prospective bride for her opinion on the question, she expressed enthusiasm. So, Ai-ling, who concealed beneath the façade of a meek Chinese housewife a savvy and ruthlessness that put her husband to shame, took over the negotiations, overruling her mother, who opposed the marriage because Chiang was not a Christian.

Ai-ling drove a hard bargain. In return for the family’s blessing of the marriage, Chiang must make her own husband Kung the minister of industry and commerce in his new government, and must give the post of finance minister to her brother T.V Soong. Thus all of the government’s money would flow through the hands of — or, as it would later be alleged, into the hands of — the Soongs. Chiang readily agreed to these conditions. It is likely that he tacitly agreed as well during these discussions to convert to Christianity as soon as enough time had passed to make his spiritual rebirth seem sincere.

There was just one fly in the ointment: Chiang Kai-shek, whose romantic life to this point had been complicated to say the least, already had a wife, a quiet young woman named Chen Jieru. And alas, Mei-ling was not so forgiving of bigamy as her sister Ching-ling had been when the latter had agreed to marry Sun Yat-sen: she told Chiang in no uncertain terms that her Christian faith would not allow her to share him with another woman. So, Chiang carefully explained to Jieru that an alliance with the Soongs was “my only way to achieve my plans to unite China. I ask you now to help me.” Specifically, he asked her to “step aside for five years,” to agree to a temporary divorce during which he would pay for her “to study in America. By the time you return, the government will have become a reality and we can resume our life together. Our love will be the same. I swear to that. You know I love no other woman but you.” Jieru reluctantly agreed, whereupon he was lavish in his praise: “Oh, you are such a good wife! Chinese history will one day record your sacrifice for our country!”

After the divorce that Chiang assured her was to be only a brief interruption in their lifelong commitment to one another, Chen Jieru sailed for the United States. Upon reaching her final destination of New York City, she was shocked to read the following missive in The New York Times:

Political enemies are blamed by Chiang Kai-shek for what he denounces as false reports concerning the young woman in the United States who is said to be his wife. “The reports concerning this young woman who recently went to America,” he said, “were circulated widely in order to discredit not only me but my proposed marriage to Miss Soong. I have set free two concubines. I was surprised to learn that one of them is in America as my wife.”

When Chen Jieru went to the Chinese consulate to collect the first payment of her stipend, she was brusquely turned away. The truth was now plain as day: Chiang had sent her to a foreign country and then cut off her only means of support, presumably with the full knowledge and complicity of the Soong siblings. The casual heartlessness of this act is well-nigh breathtaking; one can only assume that Chiang intended for her to die on the mean streets of New York and be out of his hair forever. The poor woman nearly obliged him by committing suicide, but she was deterred by a kindly stranger who happened along just as she was about to jump into the Hudson River. She eventually found ways of supporting herself, and had saved up enough money by 1933 to return to China, where she worked quietly as an English tutor, knowing all too well the risks involved in going public with her story.

Chiang Kai-shek and Soong Mei-ling were married on December 1, 1927, an event that made the front page of The New York Times. It is all too tempting to view the pairing of the charisma vacuum Chiang with the effortlessly charming Mei-ling as purely transactional. If so, however, they covered their tracks better than any pair of conspirators in history; one can scour every word of the voluminous correspondence, personal journals, and official testaments they left behind without finding a single confession that theirs was ever anything but a love match. Chiang’s diary entries from the time of their brief courtship are those of a besotted lover rather than a political schemer: “I can’t help thinking about Mei-ling.” Even Soong Ching-ling, Chiang’s implacable political opponent as well as an earlier target of his romantic ardor, conceded ten years after the wedding that “it wasn’t love at the beginning, but I think it is now. Mei-ling is sincerely in love with Chiang, and he with her.” Which isn’t to say, of course, that there wasn’t more than a small degree of opportunism involved as well, in the beginning and throughout the marriage. Count it as a reminder that all human relationships are complex, and marriages perhaps most of all; they are seldom all one thing.

A similar haze hangs around Chiang’s conversion to Christianity, which took the form of a very public baptism in 1930. His acceptance of the faith brought with it a welter of practical benefits: it cemented his relationship with Mei-ling and her family and made him an even more attractive leader for China in the eyes of the West. And yet his diary entries from the time between 1927 and 1930 never reveal anything but an honest grappling with the religion and its implications, and at last an honest acceptance of Jesus Christ. That Chiang’s underlings were continuing to torture and kill his political enemies with abandon at the same time he was promising to turn the other cheek is just another of the contradictions of this strange man. Chiang’s conversion did mollify Ni Kwei-tseng, the Soong siblings’ mother; she died in 1931, satisfied that all of her daughters had found Christian men in the end.

By the time he became a Christian, Chiang had been the premier of a nominally united Republic of China for two years. He had moved the capital from Beijing, the city which had held that honor since 1403, to Nanjing, in the heart of his own base of power. The name Beijing literally means “Northern Capital,” which was no longer appropriate; Chiang therefore renamed the city Beiping, or “Northern Peace.”

Yet his position was stronger on paper than it was in reality. Never in his tenure as head of state would he have anything like the whole of Inner China under his firm control, to say nothing of the hinterlands of Outer China. The warlords had not gone away; their power waxed in conjunction with that of the national government’s waning as one moved further away from Nanjing. Whenever Chiang tried to impose taxes on the warlords and to force them to give up their private armies, they responded with violence. “Although it would appear that Chiang and his party had succeeded in unifying China,” writes Soong Mei-ling’s biographer Hannah Pakula, “it seems that no sooner was he able to quell one rebellion than one or two others broke out in its place.” A constant low-intensity civil war became a fact of life, sapping the government’s ability to do much of anything to improve the sorry lots of most ordinary Chinese — assuming Chiang even wanted to do so, which is by no means sure. Certainly nobody in his government was seriously discussing democracy. On the contrary: Chiang was the very definition of a military dictator. He spent most of his time with his armies in the field, jumping from hot spot to hot spot. He openly admired the military culture of Japan in which he had cut his teeth as a soldier, as he did Italy’s Fascist regime and Germany’s burgeoning Nazi Party, and he attempted to mold his military command and even parts of China’s civilian bureaucracy in their image. His preferred title, for example, by which he was soon uncritically known throughout the West, was not “Premier” but the fascistic sobriquet “Generalissimo.”

Soong Mei-ling and/or Chiang Kai-shek appeared on the cover of Time magazine for the first of eleven times in 1931. Time’s publisher Henry Luce, arguably the most influential single figure in American journalism during the 1930s and 1940s, was a great supporter of Chiang’s government and of “Madame Chiang” personally, to the extent that he frequently rewrote his reporters’ coverage of them when he deemed it to be insufficiently laudatory. (Public Domain)

On September 18, 1931, a restless Japan repaid Chiang’s admiration by attacking his country: it invaded Manchuria, by far the richest region of Outer China, the homeland of the former Qing dynasty. Chiang did absolutely nothing to defend it, trotting out for the first time a line which even his most loyal supporters would get heartily sick of in the years to come: he said that he had to complete the task of bringing all of Inner China under his control before he could hope to defeat any external enemies. Instead of exhorting the people of Manchuria to resist the invaders, he told them only to “maintain a dignified calm.” Instead of leading an army northward to repel the Japanese, he lodged an appeal with the toothless League of Nations, which could only hem and haw and prepare a report stating the obvious. When the condemnatory report came out, Japan settled the issue to its own satisfaction by resigning from the League, and sent a fleet sailing into Shanghai’s harbor. With Japan threatening to launch a two-pronged invasion of Inner China, beginning in Shanghai and Beiping, Chiang signed a treaty that formally ceded Manchuria to Japan in return for a stop to the depredations. Japan established a puppet state known as Manchukuo there, and dug up Puyi — the last Qing emperor, whom General Yuan had elected to spare as a six-year-old — to become its quisling “emperor.” For the first time in hundreds of years, the section of the Great Wall that ran north of Beiping marked the true border of the nation of China.

Chiang’s central problem as a leader — quite possibly the one thing that prevented him from joining Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco on the checkered rolls of full-fledged mid-twentieth-century fascists — was his lack of personal charisma. He had none of those other leaders’ ability to whip a crowd into a frenzy, none of their talent for convincing their citizenry that black was white. He had enjoyed only a brief instant of real popularity in China, when his revolutionary armies first began to march in 1927. His merciless purge of the Communists and other potential dissidents shortly thereafter laid bare the real nature of his regime for anyone who didn’t have a vested interest in believing otherwise. “The Nanjing government was quite simply a Trojan horse, painted in bright colors by the Soong clan,” writes Sterling Seagrave. “In its belly were hidden the generals, secret policemen, and gang leaders who actually wielded power in China.” The West may have been fooled, but the Chinese, who had to deal with Chiang’s thugs every day, were not; they soon had no more love for the leader of their new republic than they had had for the Qing. Chiang himself was the most convincing argument the Communists had for their alternative vision of China’s future.

For, much to Chiang’s dismay, the Communists had not quite been wiped out by his previous efforts. They had, however, transformed themselves in order to survive. The Communist Party of China that had been founded in Shanghai in 1921 had been an urban league; this was only appropriate given Karl Marx’s doctrines, which made industrialization a necessary prerequisite to a communist revolution. But the few Communist diehards who survived Chiang’s purges of 1927 did so by fleeing the cities. They had no choice but to rebuild their movement among the peasants in the countryside, which entailed embracing a degree of, shall we say, flexibility when it came to Marx’s predictions about the inevitable course of history. Their communist revolution would have to be a revolt of the rural peasantry rather than the urban proletariat. This distinction may seem subtle, but it is hugely important to the way that Chinese communism evolved in comparison to its Soviet counterpart. Although Russia too was a largely agrarian country at the time of its revolution, and thus not yet ready for full-fledged communism by a strict reading of Marx, that revolution did at least spring from the most developed part of the country. But the Soviet brand of communism failed in China already in the 1920s; from the 1930s on, communism in China would entail a different set of interpretations of and emendations to Marx’s theories.

This communism was an altogether rougher-hewn affair, less given to intellectual debate and fonder of robust action. It found its personification in Mao Zedong, who was not yet the movement’s unchallenged leader but was superseding one by one his more orthodox and cautious compatriots under the pressure of events on the ground — events to which he often seemed to be the only man equipped to respond. Although he had once been a schoolteacher, Mao was by nature more inclined to crack heads than to crack open Das Kapital. Confining his teaching of doctrine to the fortune-cookie aphorisms that would years later be collected in his famous Little Red Book, he focused on the practicalities of keeping his fellow Communists alive in a China where both Chiang Kai-shek and the many semi-autonomous warlords wanted them dead. He used time-tested methods of guerrilla warfare to keep the slower-footed conventional armies that were arrayed against him perpetually off-balance; hit-and-run raiders caused chaos and destruction in their ranks, then melted away into the countryside before the stodgy enemy generals could bring the brunt of their forces to bear. He couched his approach to warfare in a verse that took its inspiration from Sun Tzu instead of Karl Marx.

When the enemy advances, we retreat.
When the enemy rests, we harass him.
When the enemy avoids battle, we attack.
When the enemy retreats, we advance.

By 1931, his efforts had allowed the same Communist Party that had been left for dead just four years before to seize control of a territory of about 15,000 square miles (40,000 square kilometers) in Jiangxi, a landlocked province rich in agriculture and population that lies between Guangzhou and Nanjing. With many admirers of the Soviet Union still to be found in their upper ranks, the Communists gave this territory the grandiose name of the Chinese Soviet Republic, and ran it as a separate nation unto itself within the borders of Chiang Kai-shek’s China, with a population of several million.

Still, Chiang had many more square miles and people than the Communists under his control. Outside observers therefore often wondered at the way the Communists unnerved him, distracting him constantly from a hundred other pressing problems. In truth, though, his palpable fear of them was not unfounded. As a military dictator who did not enjoy the broad support of the people, he had good reason to worry about the populist appeal the Communists commanded through their call for radical collectivist egalitarianism and their promise to remake from top to bottom a sclerotic social structure that had kept the vast majority of China’s citizens poor and powerless for generations. Chiang, the Communists said with considerable justification, had betrayed the ideals of Sun Yat-sen just as baldly as had the would-be Emperor Yuan before him; the Communists alone were true heirs to the great man’s legacy.

If such sentiments were allowed to spread unchecked throughout the land, the results could be very grim indeed for Chiang. Small wonder, then, that he placed the Communists at the very top of his hierarchy of threats, followed by the restive warlords and only after them by the Japanese. The last two were groups that he could understand, who wanted to do, broadly speaking, the same thing that he was already doing: to rule over a Chinese society that was structured more or less the same way it had always been. The Communists, on the other hand, were as alien to his sensibilities as people from Mars. Their novelty alone made them profoundly dangerous in the eyes of a dyed-in-the-wool conservative like him.

Even as many of his own advisors were begging him to do something about the loss of Manchuria, Chiang’s overriding preoccupation therefore became the crushing of this Chinese Soviet Republic in his midst. He launched a series of furious assaults on it with the cream of his military. The Communists resisted bravely and smartly, using all of the tactics Mao Zedong had taught them, and turned Chiang’s armies back several times. But their defensive position was a difficult one to say the least; their flat, landlocked territory was surrounded on all sides by that of their enemy, who could attack from any or all directions at once. Chiang arrayed more and more soldiers against them with each successive attack. The sheer weight of their numbers and their superior equipment had to tell at some point. For not only did the attackers outnumber the defenders by three to one or more, but they were supported by heavy artillery and tanks, while the Communists couldn’t even find enough rifles for all of their troops. Ironically, much of the equipment Chiang was now using against the Communists had been supplied to him by the Soviet Union, even as he was now employing military advisors sent over from the newly installed Nazi government in Germany, international communism’s sworn enemy. By the middle of 1934, the breaking point was at hand. It seemed only a matter of time now before Chiang’s armies squeezed the Communists to death.

Mao, the never-say-die leader they could always turn to in times of crisis, proposed that they make a last-ditch attempt to break out of the tightening noose and start over again in more congenial territory. The so-called “Long March” that followed is the centerpiece of modern Chinese Communist Party mythology, an epic escape by the faithful from certain extinction, in the mold of the Jewish exodus from Egypt. Indeed, the diction of the survivors’ tales, as endlessly reprinted and disseminated by the Communist Party in later decades, is almost Biblical, with Mao Zedong in the role of Moses.

We ourselves did not know, at the beginning, that we were actually on the Long March, and that it was going to be such a big thing. All we knew is that we were getting out of the bases; we were surrounded and being choked, a million men against us, tanks, airplanes, defeat after defeat. In that September of 1934 when we began to get away, we broke through one cordon of encirclement, then a second, then a third, and we marched through late autumn and early winter, westward, always westward, with the rain soaking us to the skin, and the wind in our faces, and we headed toward Sichuan province. But we had so much equipment with us, trains of stores, and even bedding and furniture, all sorts of things, and this slowed us down. We were very visible, a long slow caravan. Every day we were attacked, front and back and on both sides by Kuomintang armies and by local warlords’ armies. We fought them and defeated them and went on, but every time many of us died.

Comrade Mao made us throw away all the useless things we carried with us. All of them we threw away, and traveled light and swift and clean. Thus we survived the hard, long journey. We trusted Mao Zedong.

When the province of Sichuan proved to offer them no respite from their enemies, the Communists kept marching, turning north this time, passing across the Qinling Mountains. As Mao himself would later write, they marched “across the longest and deepest and most dangerous rivers of China, across some of its highest and most hazardous mountain passes, through the country of fierce aborigines, through the empty grasslands, through cold and through intense heat, through wind and snow and rainstorm.” He decided it was safe to stop only when they had reached the town of Yan’an in the central Northern Inner Chinese province of Shaanxi, a region whose rugged geography, lack of roads, and distance from Chiang’s capital afforded the measure of protection he had been seeking. One year and three days had passed since the Communists had set out; they had covered almost 6000 miles (9650 kilometers) on foot in that time, their numbers dwindling along the way from 90,000 to 20,000. Once again Chiang had come within a hair’s breadth of exterminating them, but once again he had failed to finish the job. And once again they would give him cause in the future to sorely regret that failure.

While Mao and his fellow travelers were battling for their lives, Soong Ching-ling was back in her family home in Shanghai, having given up on drumming up opposition to Chiang’s regime abroad but still possessed of political convictions that were starkly different from those of her siblings. She continued to speak out loudly against the dictator her sister had so recently married, and spoke more and more warmly of the Communists, to whom she began forwarding some of her share of the family fortune — the same fortune that the rest of her family was mixing nonchalantly with the public revenues of China and using to fund the very armies that were attacking the Communists. Needless to say, having the hallowed Sun Yat-sen’s widow in such obdurate and public opposition to him was devastating to Chiang’s efforts to be seen as the great man’s moral successor. Anyone else who had dared to speak out in such a way near the very heart of his power base would doubtless have met a quick end. But Ching-ling was untouchable; the rest of the Soongs would never have countenanced a move against their sister.

Soong Ching-Ling struck many as a woman of contradictions. Despite the increasing radicalism of her rhetoric, she herself continued to live a decidedly bourgeois lifestyle not very far removed from the one enjoyed by her siblings. Her living room became one of Shanghai’s more eminent salons, with people like George Bernard Shaw and Lin Yutang passing regularly through her doors. Her modes of dress and decorating were the height of Western fashion, and she often preferred to converse in English even when among Chinese friends; her very best friends called her Suzy, the nickname she had picked up during her university days in the United States. Her relations with her siblings as well were cordial on a personal level; their opposing political views seldom disturbed the equanimity of their afternoon teas, even as armies were clashing and men were dying in the thousands elsewhere in the country over those same differences of opinion.

Ching-ling grew close to a journalist named Edgar Snow, a young American of no definite political bent, a fact which in itself differentiated him from most of his peers, who were solidly in Chiang’s camp. Snow seems to have fallen half in love with Ching-ling, who was now more poised but no less beautiful than the girl who had captivated Sun Yat-sen to such an extent twenty years before that he had been willing to throw over his best friend in order to have her. Snow lavished her with praise in writing: “a radiant personality [and] an extraordinary woman, warmly human, indisputably sincere, intellectually brilliant, a hater of deceit and hypocrisy, but magnanimous as Gandhi.” Ching-ling encouraged him to venture into places where Chiang’s handlers did not want him to go, to seek out the aspects of life in Chiang’s China that they did not wish him to report. This he did, virtually alone among his peers. He came away deeply disturbed by the poverty, suffering, and brutality he witnessed. Under the influence of such experiences and of Ching-ling herself, his politics drifted steadily leftward. Soon after the Long March was finished, he told her that he would like to visit the Communists in their new enclave in the North. She used her connections to make it happen.

Edgar Snow’s trek into the unknown left from Beiping in June of 1936. Whatever other failings may have marked him, he was without doubt a very brave man. The Communists were known to the West at that time only through the propaganda put out by Chiang Kai-shek’s government, which cast them as inhuman reprobates of the worst possible stripe. Snow might just as well have set off alone to visit some mythical band of cannibals. He carried with him a list of burning questions worthy of any intrepid anthropologist.

How did the Reds dress? Eat? Play? Love? Work? What were their marriage laws? Were women “nationalized,” as Kuomintang publicists asserted? What was a Chinese Red factory? A Red dramatic society? How did they organize their economy? What about public health, recreation, education, Red culture?

Who were these warriors who had fought so long, so fiercely, so courageously, and — as admitted by observers of every color, and privately among Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s own followers — on the whole so invincibly? What made them fight like that? What held them up? What was the revolutionary basis of their movement? What were the hopes and aims and dreams that had made of them incredibly stubborn warriors — incredible compared with the history of compromise that is China — who had endured hundreds of battles, blockade, salt shortage, famine, disease, epidemic, and finally the Long March of 6000 miles, in which they crossed twelve provinces of China, broke through thousands of Kuomintang troops, and triumphantly emerged at last into a new base in the northwest?

Who were their leaders? Were they educated men with a fervent belief in an ideal, an ideology, and a doctrine? Social prophets, or mere ignorant peasants blindly fighting for an existence? What kind of man was Mao Zedong, number one “Red bandit”on Nanjing’s list, for whose capture, dead or alive, Chiang Kai-shek offered a reward of a quarter of a million silver dollars? What went on inside that high-priced Oriental head?

Snow was carefully managed throughout the four months he spent living among the Communists so as to return to the outside world with exactly the picture they wished him to have of them in his own head. It surely helped that he could understand only the most rudimentary smattering of Chinese, meaning his translators could make every conversation he overheard into whatever they wished it to be. He returned to Beiping in October of 1936, a little disheveled but otherwise none the worse for wear, with his notes for the East Asian journalistic scoop of the decade nestled snugly in his knapsack. His book Red Star Over China was published early the following year.

In it, Snow describes a band of hardy, clean-living souls with “cheerful smiles” and “kindly eyes,” who are one and all committed body and soul to a righteous cause, who burst into songs at the drop of a hat like characters from a Disney film, who, if they get rough now and then, have been regrettably forced into it by circumstances beyond their control. Men and women, he claims, share the labors and the rewards of daily life equally. “We could not exist if the people did not support us,” he was told by one officer. “We are nothing but the fist of the people beating their oppressors!” Snow calls the Communists “direct, frank, simple, undevious, and scientific-minded,” and calls himself “completely at ease in their company,” to the point that, when the time came to depart, “I felt that I was not going home, but leaving it.” He describes a “democratic socialism” in Yan-an that “carried within [itself] the necessity of its triumph.”

Mao Zedong in Yan’an. (Public Domain)

But the most enduring part of Snow’s book is its portrait of the 42-year-old Mao Zedong himself, with whom he spent hours in private conversation — but for his translator, of course. He doesn’t shirk from mentioning Mao’s “coarse and vulgar” side, which the leader seemed to positively revel in as one more weapon of class warfare; Snow tells how Mao would sometimes open his pants and pinch lice from his crotch while they spoke, how he was slovenly in appearance and often pungent in aroma, how he burped and farted his way through high-level strategy meetings. Nevertheless, the depiction as a whole verges on the hagiographic. One would hardly imagine this Mao becoming the centerpiece of one of the most notorious cults of personality of the twentieth century, much less one of the most prolific mass-murderers of a century that knew far too many of them. What signs there are become clear only in retrospect.

Mao seemed to me a very interesting and complex man. He had the simplicity and naturalness of the Chinese peasant, with a lively sense of humor and a love of rustic laughter. His laughter was even active on the subject of himself — a boyish sort of laughter which never in the least shook his inner faith in his purpose. He was plain-speaking and plain-living. Yet he combined curious qualities of naïveté with wit and worldly sophistication.

He appeared to be quite free from symptoms of megalomania, but he had a deep sense of personal dignity, and something about him suggested a power of ruthless decision when he deemed it necessary. I never saw him angry, but I heard from others that on occasions he had been roused to an intense and withering fury. At such times his command of irony and invective was said to be classic and lethal.

There seemed to be nothing in him that might be called religious feeling. He was a humanist in a fundamental sense; he believed in man’s ability to solve man’s problems. I thought he had probably on the whole been a moderating influence on the Communist movement where life and death were concerned.

While it may be overly harsh to label Edgar Snow a mere “useful idiot” in the classic propagandist sense, there is no question that his reportage is all too credulous in many areas. He never delves deeply into how this whistle-while-you-work society the Communists parade before him manages the disputes that must arise in its ranks from time to time, and never asks how people who have never held an election get away with calling themselves “democratic socialists.”

But if it is at best incomplete as a work of unbiased journalism, there is no question about Red Star Over China‘s value to the Communists as propaganda. “Red Star created Mao as a national and global political personality before there was such a thing as Maoism,” writes Julia Lovell. A bestseller in the West upon its publication, its impact would be felt all over the world for decades to come.

Unusually for a book originally published in English, Red Star Over China was most influential of all inside China itself. An underground press in Shanghai ran off 50,000 copies of a Chinese edition within months of the English one. These were passed from hand to hand until they had fallen apart, whereupon more copies were printed, despite the best efforts of Chiang Kai-shek to find and stop the presses. As he well recognized, the book was a more potent weapon for Mao than a hundred airplanes or a thousand tanks. Countless mostly young Chinese became committed Communists after reading it. “It pushed me onto the road of resistance and revolution,” remembers one. “Snow and Red Star Over China were torches in the darkness,” says another. “Red Star was a fierce shaft of light, illuminating the way forward for young people struggling in the dark,” says a third. “It told me about the area in China where men and women lived equally; it opened new horizons for me,” says a woman. Thousands upon thousands responded to its call by traveling to Yan’an, pilgrims following their holy book to their own version of Mecca. There they swelled the ranks of Mao’s armies. Small wonder that Snow had half of his ashes interred after his death in 1972 on the grounds of Peking University, with the epitaph “an American friend of the Chinese people.”

Yet Red Star Over China was out of date in one very important way before it even appeared in a Chinese edition. Some weeks prior to that event, the contest of wills between Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong was obscured by an even more urgent existential crisis: having gotten its way with such ease in Manchuria five years earlier, Japan elected to invade Inner China itself.

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(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

12 Comments for "Chapter 19: The Long March"

  • morg

    > That Chiang’s underlings were continuing to torture and kill his political enemies with abandon at the same time he was promising to turn the other cheek is just another of the contradictions of this strange, unknowable man.

    Is this sarcasm, or is Chiang’s behavior (you’ve got a Chaing and a Kai-Scheck in there) really so unrecognizable as that? History is full wherever and whenever you look of people who can most charitably be described as ambitious and more pragmatic than principled. Soong Ching-ling too might not seem so unusual meeting her nominal enemies for tea, nor they her, if you consider that the aristocratic cousins of Europe had gone to war just a generation earlier.

    > Although he had once been a schoolteacher, Mao was by nature more inclined to crack heads than to crack open Das Kapital.

    Concentrating on economics in the circumstances leading up to the Long March would’ve been a great way to get everyone killed post haste; Mao was undeniably one of the greatest military minds humanity has produced and a careful student of Marx’s and Lenin’s understanding of history and how to move it, which he adapted and applied in those circumstances to resounding success. The Little Red Book isn’t a collection of free-floating aphorisms but a compendium of excerpts from more in-depth writings on how he succeeded in and by his adaptation of Marxism and later texts on his theory of how a society can organize itself to a political model compatible with the Marxist economic project. Those sources can be immensely insightful if you are interested for whatever reason in either of those questions, although I don’t believe I’ve read anything about bolts of linen or coats in them.

    Purges, yes, hygienically odious, sure, and for all the good he did on literacy, life expectancy, and other metrics of social welfare he was not much of an ecologist to disastrous consequences. But at least on the latter point it’s kind of funny how deaths due to poverty and want are only a policy failure attributable to a responsible agent in a communist society but are otherwise the ineffable workings of the free market, may we flourish under its benevolent eye.

    • Jimmy Maher

      You’re of course correct that Chiang Kai-shek was not the first nor the last person call himself a Christian with apparent conviction and sincerity and yet to fail to apply his religion’s values to his political life. But that doesn’t mean it’s unworthy of being pointed out. It’s a fallacy in historiography to believe that, because something isn’t unique, it isn’t worthy of notice. Sometimes the fact that something isn’t unique is what makes it so interesting from the perspective of the broader currents of history. That’s to say that Chiang Kai-shek and the Soongs are perhaps most interesting *because* they fit a pattern we’ve seen so often elsewhere, not just in Chinese but in global history.

      I’d say that the phrases “free-floating aphorisms” and “compendium of excerpts” are not actually incompatible with one another. It seems we may have different takes on Mao. That could lead to some worthwhile discussions, but perhaps we should table any arguments about the ethics of (mature) Maoism versus those of a market economy until the era of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

      Thanks for the typo reports!

      • morg

        Right, Chiang’s hypocrisy and lack of scruple is noteworthy, just as are the varying levels of same displayed by Constantine I during and after his conversion to pre-Great Schism Christianity, Vlad Tepes to Catholicism, or Mahmoud Ghazan to Islam. As you say here, it’s hardly that strange or unknowable; the only problem is that in the text itself you call Chiang both those things for carrying on this time-honored tradition, as if he _is_ sui generis and an intractable enigma beyond that.

        Over this series you’ve been recurring frequently to the theme of, to phrase it a little more bluntly than you have, the inscrutable Orient, casting the actions, attitudes, beliefs, and more of the people you’re writing about as fundamentally not just foreign but incomprehensible to you and your expected audience. And this is, at least to this degree, new in this book! I don’t recall even the decadent Ptolemies getting the “we just can’t know” treatment nearly this much or this consistently.

        To be clear, I’m not attempting to call a struggle session here. Orientalism is a long-running problem of Western historiography; the sources you’ve referred to thus far have been predominantly Western; who does not read history carefully and critically, with a watchful eye for those sources’ preconceptions and biases, is liable to repeat them; and nobody bats 1.000.

        • Jimmy Maher

          Not to be too precious about it, but I didn’t actually say this quality was strange or unknowable, or that it made Chiang Kai-shek so all by itself. I rather said that it was one of many contradictory qualities, which in the aggregate make Chiang Kai-shek strange and unknowable. This may seem like fine parsing, but the distinction is, I think, important. I’m certainly not the first person to make such observations about him. I think that’s he’s an unusual case of inscrutably, even from the standpoint of the Westerner peering in from outside the Great Wall. That’s not a word, for example, that I’d apply to Mao Zedong, who strikes me as a more typical example of a “type” in history.

          But I’ll keep your larger point in mind when I go back over this series to create the final version. What I would say for now, however, is that the central metaphor is the Great Wall of China for a reason. Especially in these latter chapters, that encompasses the difficulties that Western outsiders have had in understanding China. I’m a Westerner myself, of course, grounded in the post-Enlightenment values of liberal democracy and the sovereign dignity and worth of the individual; I don’t seek to lecture or hector other cultures that have other values, but neither I do make any apology for my own values. I’d rather present my own struggles to understand Chinese culture honestly on the page, as it were, than adopt an all-knowing facade.

          • Eric Fang

            A more comprehensive response to this series is probably best made in a place other from me than here in a response to a comment, but I want to state that having read this series so far, I have to agree with morg here that I find the overarching theme of this series, using the great wall as a metaphor for some essentializing trait in “Chinese” civilization of keeping foreign influence out, to be historiographical very problematic. I find your honesty and your intentions in writing this series very admirable and your ability with words is unquestionable, but over and over again I see you falling into this trap of trying to grasp some essentializing characteristic out of more than 3000 years of Chinese history, an effort which, as also noted by morg, was not attempted with your ancient Egypt series (for the better IMO). That, I think has not been to the benefit of this series as an introduction to Chinese history.

            The history of any long running region is necessarily complicated, full of contradictions and false turns. Responsible historians today shy away from drawing any essential characteristic out of “Roman” civilization, or even more nebulously, “Western” civilization, and I think the same attitude should be taken when examining “Chinese” civilization, to meet the societies and events without the potential distortions introduced by attempting some unifying theme.

      • Ross

        But at least on the latter point it’s kind of funny how deaths due to poverty and want are only a policy failure attributable to a responsible agent in a communist society but are otherwise the ineffable workings of the free market, may we flourish under its benevolent eye.

        Yeah, folks are quick to point out the millions of deaths attributable to communism but slow to draw the obvious conclusion about which economic philosophy is responsible for all the rest.

  • Doug Orleans

    I think “Ghandi” should be “Gandhi”.

    • Jimmy Maher


  • Will Moczarski

    twenty year before -> years

    • Jimmy Maher


  • Anders

    In the photo caption “Soong Mei-ling and Chiang Kai-shek appeared on the cover of Time magazine for the first of eleven time between them in 1931.”

    -> the first of eleven times

    • Jimmy Maher



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