Last Stands at Luding

Last Stands at Luding VII

The bridge at Luding in Sichuan is perhaps most remembered as the site of a “decisive” conflict between China’s rival Communist and Nationalist forces in 1935 during the famous ‘Long March’.For many years the political rhetoric of the Chinese Communist Party has memorialised this battle in heroic terms which border on the almost mythical, yet in recent years the veracity of some of the finer details of this historic event have been brought into question. One writer (Jung Chang) has even gone so far as to suggest the battle never even took place.[1]Another commentator (Zbigniew Brzezinski) has quoted Chinese Premier, Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997) as saying of the battle: “Well, that’s the way it’s presented in our propaganda. We needed that to express the fighting spirit of our forces. In fact, it was a very easy military operation. There wasn’t really much to it. The other side were just some troops of the warlord who were armed with old muskets and it really wasn’t that much of a feat, but we felt we had to dramatize it.”[2]

I have to admit, the ‘Long March’ and the history of the Communist rise and defeat of the Nationalist Government are a little later than (and so is not really) my direct area of study, but from what I know of the rag-tag political rivalries between the various Republican era Warlords in Sichuan (of which I have read quite a bit) I think there is perhaps more than a grain of truth in this official CCP account when describing the Red Army’s presence at Luding in 1935, it states: “Probably never before had the Sichuanese seen fighters like these – men for whom soldiering was not just a rice bowl, and youths ready to commit suicide to win.” 

And I am sure most of today’s visitors to this chain link bridge, which is said to have originally been built in 1706, will certainly have the heroic story of the Red Army’s exploits in mind as they stand and pose to have their photographs taken on its gently swaying span – with the tumultuous noise of the Dadu River still roaring unceasing and timeless beneath it. Yet, when I visited the bridge in 2010 and posed for my own picture, I had a very different historical episode in mind. A far less well known stand off which happened almost exactly twenty years before the ‘Long March’ reached Luding. 

In 1915, during the constantly shifting turmoil of the Warlord era, Kangding 康定, or Tachienlu as it was then better known (དར་རྩེ་མདོ། Dartsendo, in Tibetan), was endangered by rebel Chinese soldiers. Discontent at harsh conditions and a lack of pay had driven this group of soldiers to mutiny, and, having killed their Commanding Officer, they were now a band of outlaws marauding the countryside, robbing and looting as they went. Eventually they arrived at Tachienlu and laid siege to the unfortunate town.

At the request of General Ch’en Hsia-ling, who was then the appointed Chinese Border Commissioner of the region, Louis King, along with two missionaries, Theo Sørensen and Père Francis Goré, and five delegates of the local Chamber of Commerce, set out as a peacemaking deputation. They were met by the mutinous soldiers and in a heated interview with the rebel leader, Ch’en Pu-san and his men, they established that the rebels would surrender under terms of an unconditional pardon, re-instatement, and the full payment of arrears of pay. The peacemaking delegation thus returned to the town only to be fired upon by the understandably skittish soldiers who were very vigilantly on guard at its gates. Fortunately no one was hurt.

The Commissioner was surprisingly amenable to the rebel’s terms, but, he said, the final decision was ultimately beyond his local power. The matter would have to be referred to a higher authority in Chengdu. Louis King and the two missionaries set out the following morning to meet the rebels once more. Hearing of the Commissioner’s positive response Ch’en Pu-san decided to act immediately and told the peace delegation that he intended to enter the town with his men. Louis cautioned the rebel leader that this would be taken as an act of open hostility and warned that they would be fired upon by the Commissioner’s soldiers as soon as they were in sight of the town. Not – if they were in the company of the British Consul, Ch’en replied! And so, Louis and the two missionaries were taken hostage by the rebels.

A fierce battle duly ensued and eventually under the cover of nightfall the Commissioner and his soldiers withdrew from the town. Tachienlu fell to the rebels, who commenced upon looting the town. Seeing that the rebels were moving further away from their real aim of a pardon, King attempted to reason with Ch’en Pu-san. He proposed that if Ch’en were to maintain order in the town so that it could be handed back to the Chinese authorities intact it would go some way towards vindicating them, demonstrating their repentance and good intentions towards their re-instatement. Ch’en apparently saw the sense in this suggestion and immediately ordered his men to cease looting. He then released Louis and asked him to go to the Commissioner once more to renew the rebels’ petition for pardon and re-instatement. King rode out of Tachienlu and caught up with the Commissioner at the town of Luding, where he found the General and his soldiers consolidating their position. Reinforcements having just arrived from Chengdu. 

Luding Bridge, photo by Ernest Henry Wilson, 1908

Luding Bridge, 2010

The Commissioner was apparently still willing to seek a pardon for the rebels and he telegraphed his superiors in Chengdu to this effect, but, unbeknownst to either side of this stand-off, a second garrison under the command of another General, who was unaware of these negotiations, was at that moment descending on the rebels from the opposite flank. In an early morning attack this force routed the band of rebels completely and those rebels who did not fall in the fight fled. The rebels disbursed as best they could, some even continued in their lawlessness, but there was nowhere for them to hide. One by one they were eventually picked off or rounded up, and those who had tried to go incognito and disappear were eventually caught too and were later brought to justice. Ch’en Pu-san was executed along with his men. “The last I saw of him,” Louis recounts, “was his head only, brought back and paraded in the town he had taken, and spared.”[3]