POLITICAL LEGITIMACY in the People's Republic of China is closely linked to the revolution that brought Mao Zedong and his comrades to power in 1949. And no episode in that revolutionary history is more salient than the Long March -- the 6,000-mile hegira of the Chinese Communist armies and political cadres from Jiangxi in south central China to the northwestern province of Shaanir headquarters, in a decade of anti-Japanese war and civil conflict with Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang, they turned shattering defeat into glorious victory.

Perhaps 90,000 troops and others set off from the central soviet areas in October 1934, driven from their bases by Chiang Kai- shek's "fifth extermination campaign." A remnant of less than 10,000 reached Shaanxi a year later -- having endured and overcome nearly constant military struggle with the pursuing Kuomintang armies and the perils of some of the most difficult terrain and climate of southwestern China. (The comparably epic adventures of the soldiers and cadres of the other Communist base areas overrun by the Kuomintang can only be touched on in Salisbury's account). In the course of the Long March, Mao Zedong, who had been in eclipse, was established in first place among the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), in no small part due to the military and political acumen with which he guided his hosts through the human and natural perils of that terrible year.

In the spring of 1984, Harrison Salisbury -- distinguished New York Times correspondent and editor for many decades before his recent retirement -- was permitted to retrace that Long March route of Mao Zedong's First Front Army, a journey that covered 7,400 miles and took two and a half months. This trip and dozens of interviews with "surviving senior generals, widows of Party figures no longer alive . . . , archivists, and historians" provide the basis for Salisbury's dramatic reconstruction of the Long March. Both his journey and the range of the interviews are unprecedented. The Chinese authorities, I would guess, have their own reasons for allowing Salisbury access that they will not permit to foreign (or Chinese) expert scholars who have mainly had to study the early history of the Chinese Communist revolution from afar.

The present book, however, narrates what is not quite an "untold story." On a number of critical matters Salisbury presents new material that significantly clarifies or alters our understanding of what happened. For example, on the early timing (before the "fifth extermination campaign") of the decision to leave the Jiangxi base area; on important details of the process by which Mao Zedong was able to garner the support of his colleagues and at the momentous Zunyi conference in January 1935 become the effective military-political leader of the CCP; and also on the dfficult question of the contention between the leader of the Fourth Front Army, Zhang Guotao, and Mao and his First Front Army. But the literature, even in English, on all of these matters is quite substantial, and I do not have the impression that Salisbury has consulted it or is entirely aware of the ways in which his investigations serve to enhance our knowledge of the CCP's evolution. When he does explicitly note that his material is new (in English) -- the accounts of the Qinggangpo battle and the meeting at Tongdao, for instance -- the events at times are much less important (except in the context of CCP historiography to which he has little access) than he suggests.

HIS NARRATIVE overall is a choppy anecdotal history which nearly indiscriminately intermixes amateur ethnography of the non- Han people of southwest and western China; local color sometimes brilliantly observed at first hand (but with excessive attention to the flora of western Sichuan); anguished battle scenes and accounts of great individual heroism; details of factional conflicts that obviously are considered very important by China's military and Party historians but whose significance is lost on the non-expert foreign reader; passages of hagiographical asides by local people or non-cadre survivors of the Long March that might just as well have come out of China Reconstructs; and the endless evocation of military units ("armies," "divisions," "battalions" and the like -- with a concreteness that belies their diminishing size and increasing fluidity) and their commanders, military and political.

The problem is that Salisbury just doesn't probe very deeply, doesn't on this occasion perform well in that reporter's role that made him a genuine journalistic star in the past. He is certainly not uncritical in some simple sense; he is well aware of the contradictions between the Mao Zedong and CCP of this seemingly golden age and the obscenities of the Cultural Revolution 30 years later. But he does not inquire as to whether -- perhaps -- there was something already wrong at the beginning, when the revolutonary myth was first being wrought. In effect (and this was possibly the purpose of the Chinese authorities though it could not have been that of Salisbury) what we have here is a picture of Mao and the CCP that satisfies the intention of the Chinese military (at least) to solidify a positive image of Mao Zedong's contributions to the Chinese Communist revolution before 1949 now that it is generally accepted in China that the Great Leader ruined so much after the early 1950s.