Mao had four wives and, it's thought, seven children, all subordinated to the revolutionary cause. This pattern, wrote Philip Short in "Mao: A Life," a massive and balanced biography of the Chinese leader, caused a gradual withering of the man's humanity. Without it, Mao came to believe that China's greatest resource, its people, could be expended to achieve his goals.

Fact or fiction?

A few days later, I traveled by car to one of the most renowned battle sites in the long, gruesome civil war that raged intermittently across China from 1927 to 1950. My guide -- a charming, funny young university graduate in Chengdu -- told me that all Chinese schoolchildren know what happened at Luding Bridge.

Scholars, however, still contest the events of May 29, 1935, when the hungry, sick, cold and weary Communists, a little more than halfway through the Long March, made a last-ditch attempt to escape annihilation by the better-armed Nationalists. Early that morning, an advance Red Army unit reached the town of Luding, in a Himalayan mountain valley not far from the Sichuan-Tibet border. There, a 120-yard-long chain-link footbridge spans a deep chasm over the cold, raging Dadu River.

In popular histories and Chinese war movies, a handful of ragged Communist soldiers crawl over the bridge under heavy Nationalist fire from the far bank, blazing the way for the rest of the desperately retreating Red Army. But authors Chang and Halliday claim that there was no battle at the Dadu River, that the Communists crossed the bridge unopposed and that Mao fabricated the legend of Luding.

A traveler cannot make any final determination about events at Luding Bridge, but just getting here inspires appreciation for the true grit of the Long Marchers. Of the more than 80,000 Red soldiers who began the Long March in 1934, only about 20,000 made it across Luding Bridge in the spring of 1935.

I too almost didn't make it. I set out with a guide and driver from Chengdu early one spring morning, intending to reach Luding by dark, stopping in the town of Anshunchang, where the Red Army first tried to cross the flooding Dadu. Thwarted, they then embarked on a forced march across about 80 miles of trackless Himalayan foothills to Luding, a feat accomplished in little more than 24 hours. It took me half a day of driving to cover a fraction of that distance, and we never even made it to Anshunchang because the paved road was impassable.

A bridge was out somewhere in that poor, rough, deforested country. Before turning back to the main highway leading to Luding from Chengdu, we passed abandoned hydroelectric plants, burrowed through dark, decrepit tunnels and saw tired market towns where people still seemed to be suffering from the Great Leap Forward.

While the Cultural Revolution has been officially condemned, attributed to Mao's henchmen in the Gang of Four -- the even-more destructive Great Leap is seldom discussed in China. My twentysomething guide, a product of the free market miracle that began after Deng Xiaoping reversed Mao's economic policies in 1978, was too young to remember the famine, but he said his mother and father did.

Mao launched the Great Leap in 1958 to jump-start the Chinese economy by turning small peasant farms into collectives, but now it appears to be a major cause of a five-year famine that left at least 30 million people dead.

It was dusk when we finally reached Luding Bridge, where a man in a photography stall with Red Army costumes offered me the chance to have my picture taken dressed up as a Long Marcher. Mao-era kitsch -- T-shirts, coffee mugs, alarm clocks bearing the chairman's portrait -- has become chic in China, so the photo might have made an amusing souvenir. But the only memory I wanted was of walking over the precarious, swaying footbridge.

At the far side, I asked my twentysomething guide the same question about Mao that I had asked in Changsha. He repeated the 30% bad, 70% good assessment of the chairman's policies, then added that some Chinese now think 40% to 60% is a more accurate ratio.

A safe haven

To get to Yanan several days later, I took a five-hour bus ride north from Xian, the capital of Shaanxi province, on a new superhighway that ascends the Yellow Earth Plateau. The monotonous, inhospitable landscape, where people live in cave houses built into the sides of canyons, is riven by erosion and subject to Old Testament-force dust storms.

The Communists found safe haven in Yanan for more than a decade, from shortly after the end of the Long March through the expulsion of Japanese forces from China in 1945 and the Communist Party's final battles against Chiang Kai-shek. In this small town in the Chinese hinterlands, Mao consolidated his position as supreme leader and developed the ideologies canonized in his "Little Red Book."

Yanan now has a population of about 340,000 and a booming economy, thanks to the discovery of oil on the plateau. My guide there was a pleasant, soft-spoken man who took me through the Communists' compound at Yangjialing, near the mouth of a dry valley just north of town.

By late afternoon, the compound was crowded with uniformed groups of Communist Party members and Chinese soldiers on holiday, all snapping pictures of the assembly hall where Mao delivered his infamously long speeches and the cave apartment where he lived.

Tunneled into the hillside, the chairman's quarters have the pleasantly musty smell of a wine cellar and a feeling of security that must have appealed to Long March veterans such as Mao and his second-in-command, Chou En-lai.

From the canopy bed, which is theatrically littered with cigarette butts, Mao directed the wars against the Japanese and the Nationalists. It was also the perch from which he wrote, read and devised the Yanan Rectification campaign, aimed at purifying the beliefs of new recruits to the Communist Party and ensuring that they recognized Mao as its final authority. The campaign was a precursor of the ugly purges to follow.

Visitors to Yanan can experience how the party leaders lived during that time at the Yangjialing Cave Hotel up the canyon from the compound. Its rooms sit on half a dozen levels abutting the hill, with a restaurant below and a tea garden on top. My room had a platform bed, where I felt safe and grounded during a thunderstorm that rocked the little valley.

The night I arrived, so did a bus carrying 150 new Party recruits on a visit from Beijing, where they worked for a high-tech company. They looked to be in their 20s and 30s, and, clad in orange polo shirts, they paraded around the courtyard behind a flag bearer. Afterward, they listened to a lecture by a local historian and watched old Chinese revolutionary war movies alfresco. It looked about as diabolical as an Amway convention.

Later, my guide said that only about 5% of the Chinese people belong to the party, partly because of the many rules members must follow. Cynicism and apathy are other factors, increasing since China's economic opening and the 1989 killing of pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

Tiananmen Square

I ended my tour in Beijing by seeing the portrait of Mao on the Gate of Heavenly Peace, overlooking Tiananmen Square. The chairman's image has presided over the vast square since 1949, though it had to be replaced last year after an unemployed man tried to set it on fire.

Crowds stood below the portrait, some from abroad, but most of them Chinese who now have enough money and the freedom to travel, something I have always taken for granted. The horrors of the 20th century -- the crushing poverty and hopelessness, the wars and revolutions, the natural and man-made disasters -- are behind them now, and the picture of Mao is more a symbol of China than the image of a real man who lived on a gargantuan scale.

Some Westerners think the evils Mao perpetuated blot out whatever real reforms he brought to China, a conclusion the Chinese may someday reach too. Meanwhile, I can only begin to imagine what it will mean to them to have to decide whether their nation's founder was a George Washington or a Joseph Stalin.

Looking up at the chairman's portrait in Tiananmen Square, I remembered the words of a friend who says sanity lies in the ability to live with contradictions. At Yanan, Shaoshan and Luding Bridge, that was all I could do.

susan.spano@latimes.com