The suspension bridge consists of thirteen chains, nine forming the floor, covered with planking, with two chains on either side. When the troops of the vanguard unit led by Lin Biao reached the bridge on 29 May 1935, they discovered that the KMT Army units at the opposite end had removed two-thirds of the planking; the remaining flooring had been set on fire.
That account is based on Harrison Salisbury’s The Long March—The Untold Story (New York, etc.: Harper & Row Publishers, 1985) which I have read, as I have read Edgar Snow’s classic propaganda piece Red Star Over China and several books by the American Agnes Smedley, which are fascinating documents: China Fights Back (1938) and Battle Hymn of China (1943) being the two I read.
But it didn’t happen.
Yes, they crossed the bridge. But there were no Nationalist troops there, and the bridge was not set on fire. The whole incident is a work of fiction. A horse did die.
So Jung Chang and Jon Halliday say in Mao: The Unknown Story (2005). I am convinced, but others are not. One thing is for sure; it didn’t look like that painting. There have been howls of protest, and you may read this article from The Observer and an exchange of letters in The London Review of Books.
I am finding Chang and Halliday absolutely fascinating, and the Mao that emerges is far more believable than the demigod so many once worshipped. Quite a few other leaders of the Communist Party are given proper credit too, as so much suppressed information is brought to light, and the idea that Chiang Kai-Shek was actually “shepherding” (or trying to do so) the Communists into the North-West for reasons of his own seems outrageous at first glance, but as a student of some forty years in Chinese history, I have to say it makes a certain amount of sense after all.
Mind you the Long March remains an epic nonetheless; there was much sacrifice and much heroism and much endurance. There was also much incompetence, malicious manipulation and power-playing as well, and the sainted Mao was behind much of all of those, and responsible himself for many of the deaths. Harsh, but true.