Retracing the Long March is a lesson in diversity

Adam Hegarty( | Updated: 2016-09-30 13:56

Fancy a Kindle? Take the Long March quiz

It's difficult to fathom, but the Long March began when 86,000 Red Army soldiers somehow snuck out of the besieged Jiangxi province, with Nationalist leaders being none the wiser.

It's said it took Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek up to three weeks to learn of the retreat - apparently because sentries turned a blind eye, still hedging their bets on who would be victorious in China's bloody civil war.

I share his pain.

Eighty-two years on, finding an army veteran - particularly for a foreigner - is no easy task.

It's quite an important prerequisite when producing a video about the Long March, so you can understand my relief as we're given the chance to speak to a survivor on day one of the six-week media tour.

Ahh, the naivety.

A press conference with 101-year-old Wang Chengdeng begins promisingly enough. A band of adoring local reporters fire questions, as Wang - decked out in a Red Army uniform - eats up the limelight, barely taking a breath as he seemingly recalls his life story.

As it wraps up, I turn to my Chinese colleague. "So was that good stuff?" I ask, all-but-certain of a positive response.

"Haha, no. We can't use any of that," he replies.

I'm confused: "What do you mean? Was there a problem with the shot? Bad audio?"

"No," he tells me. "I couldn't understand a thing he was saying."

It turns out I wasn't the only one. In fact, it takes some work before we find someone who could … to an extent.

Such is the nature of China's swathe of regional dialects.

It may all look the same to a fresh-off-the-plane foreigner, but the places here - and its people - can differ dramatically. Even if they are just a two-hour flight apart.

Fast forward to the last day of the tour, and my luck hasn't improved. Now in Wuqi, in north-west China's Shaanxi province, I'm about to return to Beijing with a video about China's civil war that has too much of me, and little of who matters.

Enter 95-year-old Wang Fang - a soldier who fought in China's war against the Japanese, during which the Communists and Nationalists briefly formed an unlikely alliance amid World War II.

He's here - medal around his neck - for the media tour's closing ceremony. We pounce.

"So … can we use that?" I ask my new Chinese colleague after the interview.

"Yeah we can!" she tells me. "We'll need to check with someone who knows this dialect, though.

"I understood about 30-40 per cent."

And I thought Beijing was hard…


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