A hastily assembled pontoon bridge carried a battered Communist army across the river at Daoxian, in China's Hunan Province, in the early stages of a headlong retreat from Nationalist attack that turned into the epic Long March of 1934 to 1936.
That bit of history was on the mind of British photographer Adam Woolfitt when he stood by the river bank last year as part of an international team producing a book marking the 50th anniversary of the 6,000-mile march, which took the Communist forces to a secure base and laid the foundation for modern-day China.
"He said to his guide, 'I understand this is where the army crossed . . . on a pontoon bridge,' " Mary-Dawn Earley, project director for "China: The Long March," said during a recent interview in Los Angeles. "And his guide said, 'Yes, would you like to see it?' "
Earley laughed as she visualized the scene: "Adam's standing there at the river, looking out, and there's no sign of a pontoon bridge."
But the guide, pointing out some small boats that would serve as pontoons, suggested that they break for lunch. The bridge could be in place when they returned.
"Certainly," Woolfitt recorded later in his diary, "this is the first time I have had a bridge built for me in an hour!"
The project in which Woolfitt took part--a joint venture between Hong Kong-based Intercontinental Publishing Corp. and the China National Publishing Industry Trading Corp.--produced a 320-page oversized volume, published in six languages, that provides a concise history of the Long March and a view of life today along its remote route.
At a Sept. 26 reception in Peking held to mark publication of the book, Chinese Vice Premier Li Peng, according to a report by the official New China News Agency, declared that "the album would surely produce a great impact in China and the world as a whole."
The reception helped kick off a month of celebrations and rallies in China commemorating the October, 1936, gathering of all major Communist forces in the relative safety of northwest China.
The Long March "reaches far beyond time and national boundary," Yang Shangkun, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission and a Long March veteran, declared to 6,000 people at an Oct. 22 rally in the Great Hall of the People in Peking, according to the New China News Agency. "It is an unparalleled monument to the heroic possibilities of humankind."
In providing the book's historical narrative, British writer Anthony Lawrence focuses on the yearlong march begun by a group of 80,000 people, including Mao Tse-tung, that broke out of encirclement by the Nationalist armies of Chiang Kai-shek in October, 1934. Suffering heavy losses along the way, this First Front Army, as it was called, fought and marched from its original base in a mountainous area of southern China through 11 provinces to the remote northwest. The struggles of other Communist armies that set out from different bases and joined Mao's forces in 1936 are covered more briefly.
Although Mao was an important leader, he was not part of the top command when the Long March began. He rose to preeminence during the epic journey, especially at a key meeting held in the town of Zunyi while the Communist forces were battling their way west across southern China.
Under Mao's leadership, the First Front Army continued west, crossing a major tributary of the Yangtze River, then raced hundreds of miles north to the Dadu River. There, in the most celebrated incident of the march, Communist soldiers fought their way across the historic 230-year-old swinging bridge at Luding, made of 13 thick iron chains and wooden planks. The Nationalist defenders had stripped off the wooden planks for about 80 yards from the south bank, leaving only the iron chains swaying over the river, which Mao's men crossed in the face of machine gun fire.
Once past the Dadu River, the marchers' fiercest enemy was nature--the Great Snowy Mountains and then the marshy Great Grasslands. Of the 80,000 who set out with Mao, only a few thousand reached the journey's end in northern Shaanxi Province, which then served as Communist headquarters for more than a decade.
Historic photographs, some never before published, and romanticized paintings of Long March scenes illustrate this portion of the book.
The section on today's China, which comprises most of the volume, includes about 350 color prints, with captions, and brief descriptions by Lawrence of the different regions that the marchers passed through.
The pictures were produced by a team of 20 photographers that included five Chinese citizens and 15 others from around the world, many with international reputations. Earley assigned each photographer, accompanied by a support team, to a different section of the Long March route for about 10 days of shooting in September, 1985.