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Modern China's founding legend: heavy on myth?

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For China, it's Paul Revere's ride and Washington crossing the Delaware in one.

The Luding Bridge battle is the most famous moment in the Long March, itself the defining legend of modern China. The Red Army is hotly pursued in 1935. Soldiers hoof it 24/7 for 140 miles. They must cross the Dadu River, or be wiped out! But a 300-year-old chain-suspension bridge is closely guarded. So a suicide squad shimmies over the chains, under machine-gun fire, and wipes out the dreaded Nationalist enemy. The Red Army crosses! The China of Mao is saved!

Mao told the story to American chronicler Edgar Snow, who apotheosized it in his 1937 "Red Star over China." Mao's poem about the battle, "Gunfire licked the heavens/ Iron chains rocked," is included in the book and became a Chinese Gettysburg Address, memorized by kids.

Just one problem: A "battle" never quite happened. A skirmish with guards of a local warlord might have occurred. But the machine guns, the Nationalists, the 140 miles, and the chain crawling - today is regarded as mythical. Most likely, no Red soldiers died at Luding. As Gen. Li Jukui wrote 50 years later in a memo never published until last month by author Sun Shuyan in her new book, "Long March:" "This matter was not as complicated as people made it out to be later."

While China's economy has matured rapidly, the official history of modern China remains unrevised. How the truth of the past emerges in China is a subject of great importance and invisible struggle here. Legends like the Long March, the epic two-year survival march around China by the fledgling communists, remain so crucial to the founding concepts of the party that archives on the march are unapproachable and no scholars who want a healthy career will study the area.

Yet Ms. Sun, an Oxford-educated daughter of China who tracked down 40 march survivors, found the real story of China's defining myth to be "far more heroic, and far more tragic, than is known." The endurance, the sacrifices, the heartbreak - especially for women - goes past any official accounting, she finds. But her account won't be published in China, much like the recent tough history of Mao by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday.

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