I write this from the bustling city of Yan’an in northeast Shaanxi Province in China. But in 1937, Yan’an was a small village. The Yan River cuts this land into a washboard resembling the mountain ridges of eastern Kentucky or Tennessee. It is not easily penetrated by a standard army with tanks and heavy artillery. That is why the remnants of the Red Army arrived here at the end of their Long March. Yan’an became the command center for the guerrilla warfare that eventually overthrew the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek.
What strikes you are the arched fronts of homes cut into hillsides, called "yao dong" in Chinese. This is the "loess plateau" where the deep yellow soil is a windblown silt that erodes to drain into the Yellow River. These rooms cut into hillsides also provided some protection from Japanese bombardment. I have spent two days touring the many museums and caves that housed the command and communications centers, and even schools and a university for the Anti-Japanese troops and families.
Readers will recognize the names Mao Tse-Tung and Chou En-lai. But here as well are the living quarters, broadcast equipment and printing presses used by their top generals. But what brought me here was Agnes Smedley’s biography of General Chu Teh. Ignored in our history books, Chu Teh was so central to the success of the Red Army that for many illiterate peasants there was one great legendary liberator rumored to be named Chu Mao.
Agnes Smedley was a journalist, born into a poor farm family in Missouri, whose family moved to Colorado where her father worked in the mines. The contrast between the rich mine barons and the poor miners including her father–a "Grapes of Wrath" life—gave Smedley the compassion to understand the plight of the Chinese peasants and a justified hatred of the tyrannical rich.
She ended up reporting in China in 1929 and soon was working for the Chinese Red Cross Medical Corps. When she arrived here in Yan’an, General Chu Teh agreed to let her write his biography. It was in these cave houses that she took notes whenever he was not at the battlefront or in behind-the-enemy-line bases. Her biography The Great Road covers Chu Teh’s life up until 1946. Old China was still a feudal system, where the one percent made up of landlords, industrialists and militarists kept the ninety-nine percent in endless indentured service and virtual slavery through taxes and tyranny.
From Chu’s earliest military work, he held the attitude that surrendering troops should be given the opportunity to learn and join the peasant’s side. And this was what the Revolutionary Army was built on, including many women soldiers, who were treated as property under Old China. Labeled "re-education," this became the source of the People’s Army. Those who were captured and did not wish to switch sides were often allowed to go home, sometimes with a travel allowance and note of safe passage. This contrast between Chu’s troops and the cruelness of Nationalist and warlord troops would in the end result in their victory in 1949.
Early in World War II, military and State Department officials including General Evans Carlson, John Stewart Service and John Paton Davies came to Yan’an and understood the difference between freeing Chinese from servitude and the Nationalists who were defending the old order, not attacking the Japanese, and preserving their troops to fight Chu and Mao. General "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell understood the situation clearly as well—and he was soon fired.
Unfortunately, the decision was in the hands of Patrick Hurley. Michael Burleigh, a Distinguished Research Professor in Modern History, writes: "U.S. policy was not well served by its Ambassador to China from late 1944 onwards...Patrick Hurley, a drunken idiot given to Choctaw war cries. Oblivious of China's delicate protocols, he referred to Chiang as 'Mr. Shek' and Mao Zedong as 'Moose Dung'...."
Unfortunately, the United States supported a war on the side of the rich and politically powerful rather than for the benefit of the common people. Other correspondents had come to Yan’an as well and truthfully reported back to the West in books: Gunter Stein’s Challenge of Red China, Israel Epsteins’s The Unfinished Revolution in China, and Harrison Forman’s Report from Red China. Foremost of all, journalist Edgar Snow, born in Kansas City, wrote from Yan’an of the real situation in 1937 in his best-selling Red Star Over China.
Had the United States followed the analysis of its State Department specialists and the many journalists who described in detail the work of Chu Teh and the army at Yan’an, our relations with China today might be as friendly as our relationships with other allies.