PEKING -- Aging veterans of China's legendary Long March gathered Friday in Peking to mark the 50th anniversary of the 6,000-mile journey credited with bringing Mao Tse-tung and communism to power in the world's most populous nation.
The veterans, attending a reception launching a new book on the Long March, included Politburo and Central Military Commission members Yang Shangkun and Yu Qiuli, and Kang Keqing, widow of Marshal Zhu De, leader of the march.
'The Long March was an arduous and difficult time for us,' said one bald, bespectacled veteran in a light gray Mao-style suit. 'Nevertheless, it was the greatest experience of my life because it was a victory for Chairman Mao -- and I was a part of that.'
In October 1934, about 100,000 men and 35 women belonging to the communist Red Army fled southern Jiangxi Province after being surrounded by the Nationalist forces of Gen. Chiang Kai-shek.
At the same time, other Red Army forces south of the Yangtze River also began the long trek northward that was to end in remote northern Shaanxi Province.
Constantly pursued, blocked from the front and attacked from the air, more than half of the Red Army forces were lost in the first three months and only 10 percent of those who started made it to Shaanxi.
In a year, the marchers traversed some of the harshest terrain in China. Passing through 11 provinces, they crossed 18 mountain ranges, forded 24 rivers and faced constant hunger and disease.
The first marchers reached Shaanxi in September 1935. Mao, who emerged as senior leader of the Communist Party during the Long March, arrived one month later and the last groups straggled in during October 1936.
'The greatest achievement of the Long March was the Zunyi Meeting when Chairman Mao was chosen as the new leader,' said Wu Xiuquan, a former vice foreign minister and deputy chief of general staff. 'It was from that moment that we worked toward our final victory.'
Historians credit the Long March with ensuring the Communist Party's survival into World War II and creating an heroic epic for future generations. It also developed the guerrilla warfare skills of the communists and began the consolidation of Mao's leadership that was to last until his death in 1976 -- 27 years after the official founding of the People's Republic in October 1949.
'The young people of today just don't have the strength and determination we had,' Wu said.
'They would need a lot of education to learn the true revolutionary spirit,' said the 78-year-old veteran who marched with Mao's 3rd Army Corps and was later purged in the Cultural Revolution.
Entitled 'China -- The Long March' and published in six languages, including English, the book released Friday is a collection of photographs by 21 Chinese and foreign photographers. The group fanned out along the route of the revolutionary army for 15 days last September to record the achievements of the marchers as well as life in China half a century later.