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June 21, 2011

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Cradle of the Revolution

IN 1927 exhausted Communist fighters took refuge in the Jinggang Mountains where Mao Zedong set up his first revolutionary base. The area is a pilgrimage site. Yao Minji pays a visit.

At 10pm, 51-year-old Wu Jiafa, a native of the Jinggang Mountains, walks straight to his well-maintained Hyundai passenger car in the spacious parking lot, as he has been doing every day for the past two years. He wears a light blue costume and hat, replicas of the simple uniforms worn by the Chinese Red Army (later the People's Liberation Army of China) in the late 1920s.

Just as Wu starts the engine, another local in the same army costume walks by with a cow, followed by four more "soldiers" on two motorcycles, one leading a horse, and dozens more on foot. They're all about to return home, going along a well-built road illuminated with artistic torch-shaped street lamps.

During his 30-minute drive home to Nashan Town in Jiangxi Province, Wu passes more Red Army "soldiers," as if he has traveled back in time to the late 1920s, when their grandfathers wandered and fought in the same mountains (certainly there were no paved roads and street lamps back then) with Mao Zedong and Zhu De against the Kuomintang (KMT) and local warlords.

Wu, together with more than 600 local farmers, take this road almost every evening, after finishing their 70-minute show "Jinggang Mountains," a grand-scale outdoor play taking full advantage of the tiered mountains, modern lighting and special effects technology to recreate the dramatic events in the area in the 1920s and 1930s.

The production shows how peasants welcomed Mao and Zhu into the mountains, joined their newly established Chinese Red Army, fought against the KMT and warlords, and several years later left their families in tears to join what would become known as the Long March (1934-1936).

There is no professional actor in the entire show. None of the famous Party or army leaders are represented.

Most actors are descendents of Red Army soldiers from nearby towns who hold day jobs as taxi drivers, tour guides, small restaurant owners, souvenir shop owners and other tourism-related jobs. For each performance, they get 17 yuan (US$ 2.60), earning more than 400 yuan every month.

"It's great to make pocket money while adding a great attraction to local tourism," says Wu, a retired factory worker who now drives a tourist taxi.

"And a great side effect is that I lost about 15 kilograms after starting in the show, since I have to keep running for the whole 70 minutes in the mountains every night," he adds.

Like all the others, Wu grew up hearing the stories of his granduncle, one of thousands of peasants who joined the Red Army and left home. Many of them were killed during the arduous Long March and battles along the way. They never made it back to the beautiful Jinggang Mountains.

The farmers received a year of training before the show premiered in October 2008. Every day they had basic military drills so they would feel even closer to their ancestors.

"Wearing the costume and playing a soldier, I have come to have a better understanding of my great grandfather, who left with the army in 1934 and never made it back home," says Zhang Jiatian, a 32-year-old farmer from Maoping Town.

"If he could see today's mountains and how we live now, he would probably not regret having left my great grandmother behind. After all, he left to fight for a better future for us and here we are," he says.

Red Army cradle

The Jinggang Mountains is a household name in China, commonly called the birthplace of the Chinese Red Army.

In 1927, the KMT suddenly turned against the Communist Party after a six-year collaboration and started massacring Communists nationwide. Many Communists were forced underground while others joined uprisings all over the country.

Mao Zedong, a former school teacher in Hunan Province and then a party leader in Hunan and Jiangxi provinces, led the Autumn Harvest Uprising in hopes of taking Changsha, capital city of Hunan.

The troops, mainly poor workers and peasants, were defeated by the far more numerous, better trained and equipped forces of the KMT. Relentlessly pursued by the KMT, they could hardly find a spot to rest for a few hours.

Mao led the remaining soldiers, less than 1,000, into the Jinggang Mountains, an area of around 1,300 square kilometers along the remote border of Jiangxi and Hunan provinces.

Since ancient times, the poor and rugged area has always been a refuge of bandits, far from the reach of government.

In 1927, the two most powerful bandits were Wang Zuo, who controlled the upper mountains, and Yuan Wencai, who controlled the foothills. Together they commanded a few hundred outlaws.

Mao used his charisma and offered hundreds of guns, prized by the bandits, to persuade them to let the remnants of the Communist fighting force take refuge and rest to fight another day.

Mao would remain in Jinggang Mountains for 28 months, the troops left in 1930 and 1931, and more peasants left in 1934 for the Long March.

It was in the Jinggang Mountains that Mao explored and analyzed the reasons for the unsuccessful uprisings all over the country and developed the foundations of his military tactics and political ideas.

Prior to that time, the mainstream thinking of the rebels had been to first to occupy the KMT-controlled cities, but they were beaten back by troops and unable to gain a foothold. The premise had been that the suffering urban proletariat, as Marx said, was ripe for revolution and would rise up to join the arriving Communists rebels.

Mao proposed a radical idea - rural-based revolution, starting with peasants who had relatively more freedom, but who suffered more from the KMT and local warlords than urban workers.

Carrying out these ideas, Mao founded the first peasant soviet (a regional council) in the Jinggang Mountains, and was strongly supported by both bandits and peasants.

Mao also started to realize the importance of better-organized and trained armed troops, hence, he restructured the fighters and co-founded the Chinese Red Army (with Zhu De), forerunner of the People's Liberation Army.

It was from that time in 1927 that a Party unit was set up in every single basic unit of the army. Party leaders announced that the Party was in supreme command of the army, even the highest generals. The same is true today.

This establishment of party structure throughout the army greatly helped promote Communist ideas and faith to every foot soldier and every officer.

Similarly, in the future the Party would go on to establish Party units in every single structure of the state, down to the most remote villages. For example, in today's Jinggang Mountains, every administrative village has a Party unit, with a handful to a dozen Party members.

Mao also took full advantage of the mountain terrain and established his famous tactics of guerilla warfare by small, mobile groups repeatedly attacking and weakening a larger enemy.

There Mao married He Zizhen, who was sent to work with him by bandit leader Yuan.

The peasant soviet in the Jinggang Mountains soon became so famous that other troops and peasants from nearby areas all went to join. At its peak in 1930, the soviet had more than 500,000 soldiers. The model of the peasant soviet was soon adopted by Communists all over the country to start rural-based revolution.

Tourist driver Wu is one of thousands of farmers who live a far better life than their grandfathers could have dreamed. Driving tourists between the airport and Ciping Town, Wu makes about 5,000 yuan (US$772) per month, not counting his income from the evening performances.

He has traveled to Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore with his family and plans to go to Europe when they save more money. Wu also plans to open a restaurant in the town next year.

Like Wu, most farmers earn well above the average income (officially 2,000 yuan in 2009), not bad considering the remote and rugged location. It's all due to the national passion for revolutionary tourism, or red tourism, which started from Mao.

Spiritual home

The 28 months he spent training and fighting in the Jinggang Mountains were so memorable and significant that Mao revisited the area in 1965, 16 years after the Communist Party defeated the KMT and less than a year before the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976) started.

Since then, the mountains have become a spiritual home for Party members. Five core ideas were developed there: revolutionary faith, absolute loyalty to the Party, close contact with ordinary people, focus on practicality; and commitment to struggle through hard times.

Following Mao's example, numerous Party and national leaders revisited the mountains, their travel providing impetus to build good roads and a railway. It was one of the first remote areas to enjoy such infrastructure.

Visiting the mountains, a pilgrimage of sorts, has become a tradition for the Party's top leaders, including Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Hu toured for three times and spent the Chinese Lunar New Year in January 2009 with descendants of Red Army soldiers in the mountains.

Wu Jianzhong, a lucky villager from Xiaping Town in the Jinggang Mountains, received Hu during his visit, and opened a restaurant and hotel afterward. Now, he has become a famous local millionaire.

The area, which bears the footprints of Party leaders, has become a popular tourist destination, especially for those tracing history. But the area is also scenic and unpolluted; the local food is delicious.

In 1982, when China had just started to develop tourism, the Jinggang Mountains were given priority and became one of the first tourist destinations. In 2010, it welcomed more than 4.5 million visitors, generating revenue of more than 3.3 million yuan.

Even during the "cultural revolution," when general tourism was not promoted, the area was one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations (along with Shaoshan in Hunan Province, Mao's hometown; and Yan'an in Shaanxi Province, center of the Communist Party after the Long March and before 1949). It welcomed thousands of Red Guards every day; on a peak day, more than 30,000 Red Guards arrived.

"When we came in 1969, it was really different - no restaurants, no toilets, no cars, no hotels," recalls 56-year-old Zhou Xiuqin, a Shanghai native. "At first, we slept outdoors and had to cross the mountains for hours to see the former residence of Chairman Mao, There was barely anything left."

Today it has been rebuilt and the trip now takes only 10 minutes by tourist bus.

Zhou was one of thousands of young people from Shanghai who were sent to help in the development and construction of the Jinggang Mountains during the "cultural revolution." She returned to Shanghai in 1974 and hadn't seen it since. "It's really comforting to see the place is so prosperous now," she says.

Zhou is among thousands of daily tourists who come for "cadre training" organized by government or state-affiliated companies and institutions. They represent more than half the tourists.

Zhou and her group rent baggy powder blue uniforms for their entire trip of two to four days. At 6am daily, before starting the day, Zhou and her 21 colleagues assemble before a towering (four-story) white statue of Chairman Mao.

There, holding a red banner bearing a platoon number, they take a pledge to the Communist Party to make a diligent pilgrimage, learn from the footsteps of great leaders and put what they have learned to practical use.

Then they sing "The East Is Red."

Army uniforms can be rented by tourists at almost all the key sights. Most people wear their jeans and running shoes over a baggy jacket.

Then they tour the historic sites and later join seminars held by "teaching teams of Red Army Descendants," including grandsons and granddaughters of the bandits.

At night they hold a karaoke competition of Red Army songs.

Due to the development of tourism, many farmers have lost their land, but local policies have ensured that each family that has lost land to development receives one work quota in the local tourism company, in addition to regular compensation and housing.

In 1949, the average local annual income per capita was 19.7 yuan, it increased to 62 yuan in 1978, and 2,000 yuan in 2009, not bad for such a remote area.


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