China's revolutionary spit and polish

The town at the end of the Long March puts an anniversary shine on its memories. Teresa Poole reports from Yanan
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The Independent Online
Revolutionary Yanan never looked this smart in the Great Helmsman's day. But now, as China celebrates the 60th anniversary of the end of the Long March, the guardians of Communist mythology have called in the decorators.

Painters and plasterers are working against the clock to spruce up the former homes used by Chairman Mao Tse-tung. Roofs are being repaired, flagstones laid, gardens replanted and access roads built, in preparation for the senior leaders who might pass through in the coming months.

The Red Army's 6,000-mile retreat from the right-wing forces of the Chinese Kuomintang (KMT) Nationalists is the stuff of Communist legend. Under constant attack, Mao and his followers crossed mountain ranges and wide rivers as they tramped from Jiangxi, in south-east China, to Yanan in the desolate north-western Shaanxi province. Yanan provided a key base for the Chinese Communists and the Red Army throughout the turbulent era from the Long March, which began in 1934, until the Communist victory in 1948.

The 10 per cent of the Red Army which survived the Long March had quickly discovered that Yanan provided an ideal base. What began in October 1934 as a last-ditch retreat from the KMT had become a tactical victory.

The area is now the official "sacred place" of Chinese revolutionary history. And with China's leaders focused on the need to fill an ideological and spiritual vacuum, invoking old revolutionary values of a bygone era is a good bet.

For the past week, the media has marked the anniversary with a daily supply of Red Army veterans. They are often seen being congratulated by President Jiang Zemin, who is thankful for every event which features him as the natural heir to Chairman Mao, and is taking centre stage for this jamboree.

In Peking, the Military Museum is running an exhibition: "The Long March, A Monument Forever". A Long March film is also finishing production, and Tuesday's prime-time television show was Long March - the Heroic Epic, featuring Mao's only grandson, better known to most Chinese for his expansive girth than for his acting.

Lest anyone doubt that the anniversary is a political tool, there is the question of timing. The Long March is normally recorded as starting in October 1934 and ending in October 1935. But a celebration last year would have fallen close to the World Women's Conference in Peking, so the official 60th anniversary was moved to October 1936, when the different packs of Red Army soldiers finally regrouped in Yanan.

For the oldest Yanan residents, the anniversary preparations have stirred dusty memories. Wang Ruzhen, who joined the Red Army in 1934, is 91. In the corner of the sitting room sits his coffin, a gift from his 70-year- old daughter. Mr Wang remembers when the Long Marchers arrived in October 1935. "They were all in grey clothes, but not ragged," he said. The next year, Mao visited Mr Wang's town in the Yanan countryside. "But because Mao spoke with a strong southern accent, I did not understand very much".

Renovations are under way at all the historic sites in the town. At Wangjiaping, the site of an old army headquarters, more than 60 labourers are toiling away, though they seemed unimpressed by the task. Zhang Feiyong, 34, said: "Before I came here, I cooked in a middle school." Was this a better job? "No. And this job is not fixed. If some other work comes up, I will go to that."

The marchers' "cave dwellings", the old revolutionary homes, are in fact in the style of traditional Shaanxi arched rooms, built into the side of the hills like a row of terraced houses. After a bit of paint, the hardships of revolutionary life are swiftly sanitised, to the dismay of one local official. "They didn't have white paint and brick on the ground. I don't think [the renovation] is a good idea. It is too good. We should keep it as it was," he said.

In one corner of Wangjiaping remains a hovel that has been spared the workmen's attention. This is the unmarked former home of Lin Biao, revolutionary hero-turned-traitor whose coup plot was thwarted in 1971. He has been written out of the anniversary script.

Another bit of revolutionary tidying up may be necessary at the monument in the "Date Garden" where Mao made his famous "Serve the People" speech, but where the locals have since set up basketball posts.

Outside the town's museum will be the anniversary's piece de resistance. A huge square has been levelled and a plinth erected in anticipation of the arrival of a large bronze statue of Mao. Strangely, this will be the first Mao statue in "sacred" Yanan. Zhuo Youcai, the general secretary of the Yanan District Administrative Department, said: "We had the idea [for a statue] during the Cultural Revolution, but it did not get approved. After that we did not apply for permission."

There were no events at all to mark the 50th anniversary of the Long March a decade ago. "According to Chinese customs, 60 is more important than 50," mumbled Mr Zhuo.

The truth is that, until recently, Yanan was too poor for such diversions. A good revolutionary base in the mountains does not always make a base for economic reform.

The cost of the Mao statue has mostly been raised through public "donations", like that of Liang Zhibing, a 74-year-old former Red Army soldier, who gave a whole month's pension. And, on the side of his apartment building, is a large red poster to help the fund-raising - naming all the residents and listing the amount of their individual donations.