Mao’s lost children: Sun Shuyun’s search for survivors of the Long March

Sun Shuyun – The Guardian

: In 1934, hundreds of thousands of
communists were driven from southern China by nationalists fighting
against a socialist state. Only a fifth of them survived the 8,000-
mile ‘Long March’. Sun Shuyun set out in search of the handful of
surviving veterans
Wang Quanyuan woke up on a bright morning in May feeling a moment of
happiness. She had spent a rare night with her new officer husband.
Outside the wooden house, their temporary village billet in Sichuan
province, she could see a blue lake surrounded by fields of barley with
tall, snowy mountains rising up behind; where she came from there was
snow and to her it looked like sugar. It was 1935, the second year of
Long March. Wang’s marriage was to prove unequal to the adversities
Had she known, she might have been torn between the desire to seal
union more tightly by having her husband’s child, and the fear of
pregnant – one of the greatest fears among women on the epic march
The day her period came, a few weeks later, “I felt as if a millstone
been lifted from my neck. I promptly climbed up a mulberry tree and got
wad of leaves. Standing there, I wanted to shout to the world, ‘I’m not
pregnant! I’m not pregnant!'” The women, she said, “dreaded pregnancy
than the plague”.
Recalling those times, Wang, now 91, still had a look of pain on her
gentle face, when I tracked her down at the start of my journey
the Long March. This was the 8,000-mile trek by the fledgling Communist
party and its armed forces that was to become the founding legend of
communist China, a symbol of endurance and courage. Only a fifth of the
200,000 marchers survived the ordeal that began in 1934, when the Red
Armies had to leave their bases in southern China – where Mao Zedong
been the leader of a short-lived communist government – to escape
annihilation by Chiang Kai Shek’s nationalist forces. Of the 40,000 who
reached the march’s end two years later in China’s barren north-west
the communists regrouped, fewer than 500 are believed to be alive
and they are in their 80s and 90s.
Setting out to follow the route they took, I wanted to find out about
realities behind the legend, searching out survivors and unlocking
stories. Born in China in the 1960s, I had been raised, like millions
young Chinese in the decades after the revolution, on heroic tales of
journey. Make light of our difficulties, we were told, and “think of
Long Marchers”.
Over 10 months, travelling mainly by bus and train through areas little
changed to this day, I found 40 of the march veterans. Talking to them,
learned that their suffering, and what they overcame, was actually much
greater than we had been told, especially among the women. Some of the
realities they described also sit uneasily with the myth – none more
perhaps, than the fate of the children of the Long March: the children
left behind, children given over for hurried adoption after being born
along the way, the young taken on as recruits and sometimes abandoned
they could not keep up.
The march comprised different armed columns, following differing
Wang was one of just 30 women chosen to join 86,000 men on the march in
Mao’s First Army. Six of these women were pregnant at the start of the
march; they had to be carried on stretchers. “Imagine having a stomach
twice as big as a water melon,” Wang recalled. “How could one fight the
enemy? It was a joke.” These pregnant women could not be left behind
because they were the wives of senior party leaders, including Mao’s
He Zizhen. You could say that the others, unmarried women such as Wang
her comrades, were brought along to deflect criticism that leaders’
were getting special treatment when the army’s rule was not to take
Wang saw one woman go into labour while marching, with the baby’s head
dangling out. Another had a difficult birth with Chiang’s troops in hot
pursuit, and bombs dropping like rain. As if afraid of the violent
the baby refused to come out. A whole regiment of the rearguard was
ordered to put up a fierce fight for more than two hours and lost a
men. After all their pain, however, the women were not allowed to keep
their babies. It was the rule with the First Army: a crying baby could
endanger the troops. The tiny boy whose arrival cost a dozen soldiers’s
lives was left on a bed of straw in the abandoned house where he was
The same rule applied when He Zizhen gave birth in the early spring of
1935. It was the third time she was forced to abandon a child. Her
child with Mao, a girl, was given to a peasant woman when she and Mao
to flee their guerrilla base. Next came Little Mao, who looked very
like his father, hence the nickname. He was two years old when the
Army began the march. No one could bring small children along, not even
He Zizhen wept before leaving Little Mao in the care of her sister, who
was married to Mao’s brother. Mao did not even say goodbye to his son.
could not know that six months later his brother would be killed in
battle, taking with him the secret of the location to which he had
the boy for safety; he had not even told his wife. He Zizhen could
bring herself to do the unthinkable again, only four months after she
torn herself away from Little Mao.
When she was asked to give the girl a name, she shook her head: she
doubted she would see her again. Wrapped in a jacket, the baby was
to an old lady, the only person who had not fled on hearing the Red
was coming. At first she refused, saying she had no milk and could not
possibly look after the child. But when she saw the handful of silver
dollars and a few bowls of opium offered as payment, she changed her
Years later, He Zizhen was still tormented by her decision: “I did not
even get a good look at my baby. I wasn’t even clear where exactly she
In June 1935, the First Army was reunited with another column, the
Army, in Sichuan. The handful of First Army women, including Wang
Quanyuan, were surprised – there were thousands of Fourth Army women,
a women’s regiment, which Wang was later to command. Opium was the main
reason: in Sichuan, every family grew opium, and most of the men were
addicts. Often children were too: when they cried or were sick, their
parents would give them a sniff to quiet them. Women smoked, but not
nearly as much as men, so the Fourth Army had no choice but to recruit
Strict rules prohibiting ordinary soldiers from mixing with the women’s
unit did protect these women, but not from the enemy. Later on, many in
the women’s regiment were captured and raped by Muslim warlords’ forces
the north-west. Wu Qingxiang, aged 82 when I met her, still shuddered
recall what she had been through as a 12-year-old member of a
propaganda troupe. “After they took us, we heard them saying, ‘The Red
bandits really look after their women well. Every single one of them
was a
virgin.'” Another regiment veteran and rape victim, Feng Yuxiang, who
lives in a village not far from Wu’s, told me the same story. I could
imagine them in some dark corner trembling after their ordeal, hearing
those words.
In the Fourth Army, female soldiers were able to bring their children
husbands from the start – they would have been lost without them. Some
had their entire families, because had they stayed behind they might
been killed by government troops. The older children were taken on as
orderlies, messengers, health assistants and buglers. “When you saw men
with children on their backs, or babies peeping out from the horses’
panniers, you wondered if we were really an army,” said Ma Haidiche, a
commander in the women’s regiment, now in her early 90s and living in a
Muslim town in Gansu province in the country’s far north-west.
She remembered a mother walking in front and holding a boy in one hand,
bed roll in the other; behind her a girl had her younger brother tied
her back. A few days later, she saw the mother again, but not the
children. “Perhaps she gave them away. Then her children were lucky,”
said quietly, because soon they were to enter the grassland in the far
west of Sichuan where they had no food, and there were no villages
local people might take in abandoned children. What little food they
was kept for the soldiers. Even so, large numbers of female troops in
unit died. “So many times, I was too hungry to stand up,” she said.
was easier than life. It was so tempting, just one breath away.” Still
was shocked to see a woman drown her baby in a swamp, unable to bear
child’s hungry cries.
He Jiesheng, the daughter newly born to He Long, commander of the
Army, was luckier. Her father took her with him because he could not
a family to take the three-week-old infant. Carrying her was hard work.
Her mother said: “My baby was heavier than a machine gun! If I were a
I would rather carry a gun. At least I could fight if the enemy caught
with us.” He Long tried to help carry her, but the child was so hungry
would burrow into his chest, looking for her mother’s breast. Luckily,
Long discovered that fish were plentiful – the Tibetan peoples who
in the Sichuan grassland did not eat them. The baby girl survived, the
youngest person to complete the two-year March. Now aged about 70 and
living in Beijing, she can look back on a life that saw her become one
the few female generals in the Chinese army.
The Red Army also had large numbers of young recruits, the Little Red
Devils, most in their early teens. No one is sure of their number. Wang
thought it was 5,000 or 6,000 out of 100,000 in the Fourth Army, and
roughly the same number in the First Army. Li Wenying was 14 at the
of the march. She had been sold as child bride, and found herself
with a cruel mother-in-law. Like so many Little Red Devils, she joined
for a square meal and some pork now and then. “When I was small, we saw
pigs running about, but never knew what they tasted like. Only the
landlords could afford it.”
Following the Long March route, I came across a report in an archive in
Sichuan. It was compiled by Nationalist officials, detailing Red Army
stragglers abandoned in their particular county. My heart ached as I
down the list, so young, half of them in their early teens, the
only nine years old. In the remote Sichuan grassland, I found one of
Sangluo, now an old man in his mid-80s. He was 13 when he joined He
army far to the east in Hunan province, but in the grassland he could
keep up with the marchers. One morning when he woke up, the troops were
gone. They had left behind more than a thousand sick and wounded, and
young. “I screamed and screamed. The Red Army was like my parents. How
could they abandon me just like that?”
His youth saved him: the Tibetan families of the grassland relished a
or took pity on the children. He was taken in by a lama, whose mother
looked after him. Isolated for most of his life on the pasture with no
other Han Chinese, he can no longer speak Chinese, nor remember his
village. The man before me looked completely Tibetan, his wrinkled face
the same dark red as his robe, his fingers bent from the rheumatoid
arthritis that plagues the nomads. He was grateful for his life: most
those abandoned with him died of hunger or were killed by the local
people. As I said goodbye, I asked him whether he felt Chinese or
He replied, “Does it matter?”
What of the children who were never taken on the march, left behind
their parents set off? They fared no better. When nationalist troops
the communist bases, they butchered communist sympathisers and
mutilated or hacked to bits the children entrusted to these people’s
Once the families looking after left-behind children knew what was
some sold them off, or went into hiding. Yet others became attached to
children in their care and could not face losing them when their
returned, so they moved elsewhere. As a result, very few of the Red
marchers ever saw their children again.
As soon as the communists came to power in 1949, He Zizhen, by then no
longer Mao’s wife, and her sister and brother tried to find all three
Mao’s abandoned children. Her sister was killed in a car accident with
boy supposed to be Little Mao, although the child had been claimed by
another veteran. Her brother thought he had found the eldest daughter,
then another Little Mao. He Zizhen rushed to Nanjing to see the boy,
was convinced he was her lost son because of his oily ears and armpit
odour, which she said were common to all five of her children with Mao.
But this little boy was also claimed by someone else, with the blessing
the party. Rather than lose the boy, He Zizhen decided to share him
the parents who claimed him, keeping in close touch and showering him
love and gifts. But she never got over the thought that he was her only
surviving son with Mao, even though Mao had long given up on both of
The anguish of pain and loss kept her in and out of mental hospital for
the rest of her life. Decades later, the search went on: in November
two young men from Britain made headlines by announcing to the world
they might have found Mao’s long-lost daughter from the march. The only
way to prove her identity would be by testing the DNA of Mao’s one
surviving daughter. But she has refused to collaborate. There have been
many claimants that perhaps the pain of loss can never be healed, for
Mao’s family and for all the other marchers.
And what of Wang? Children were on her mind all her life. But like two-
thirds of the women survivors I talked to, the conditions on the march

the perpetual hunger, the freezing cold in the mountains, the incessant
marching over rough terrain – made her infertile. She adopted seven
orphans, but one after another they deserted her, saying she was not
all their mother. Her only comfort is that two of them married each
and continue to live with her, caring for her in her old age. She
regretted being unable to bear children herself; but her last words to
were: “It was a small price to pay for the revolution”
The Long March by Sun Shuyun is published this week by HarperCollins at
?20. To order a copy for ?18 with free UK p&p go to or call 0870 836 0875

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