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November 6, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright November 6, 2008 Ed Jocelyn. Used by permission.


General Xiao Ke, who died last month in Beijing at aged 101, was the last surviving commander of the Chinese Red Army that made the legendary Long March. Only 27 when he led his troops out of their Communist base in south China, Xiao never reached the career heights promised by his youth and ability. Instead, his later life became notable for a commitment to principle that put him at odds with political reality.

Xiao Ke was born in Hunan Province to a scholarly family that had fallen on hard times. Three of his eight brothers and sisters died in infancy, yet by rural Chinese standards the Xiao family was still relatively well off. They possessed a small landholding that in the early 1920s was regularly raided by warlord soldiers and local militia – during this era, Chinese armed forces of all descriptions commonly supported themselves by looting. In his memoirs, Xiao recalled that his brother and cousin blamed at least some of this thievery on men who worked for a powerful local landlord, with whom they began a bitter dispute. In 1923, wrote Xiao, his brother and cousin were tricked into visiting this landlord’s estate, where they were seized and taken to the county government for summary execution.

The persecution of his family encouraged the young Xiao Ke to think about a military career. With soldiers at his command, he could punish the guilty and protect his own. He was further inspired by the example of another brother, who moved to Guangzhou in 1925 to enter military school. The following year, Xiao also moved to Guangzhou, where he studied for four months at the Central Military Committee Military Police Academy. After graduation, he entered the Guomindang’s National Revolutionary Army, taking part in the Northern Expedition that began in July 1926.