Today the People’s daily ran a story gushing over an upcoming release of the complete works of Lei Feng nearly 50 years after his death. In the West though it is widely accepted as fact that Lei was little more than an invented character who served the Party’s propaganda needs, and is a reminder of the days before Mao’s cultural revolution. Today we’ll be trying to answer two questions about Lei – Who was Lei Feng? And is there still room in modern China for “Lei Feng Spirit”?
I’ll let a People’s Daily article introduce the man:
“Born in late 1940 in central China’s Hunan province, Lei was orphaned at the age of 7. He started working in a steel mill in 1958, and became an army recruit in 1960 at the age of 20. Lei is known for devoting almost all of his spare time and money to selflessly helping the needy.
He died from injuries sustained from being hit on the head by a pole while helping a fellow soldier direct a truck on Aug. 15, 1962.
In a diary dated just five days before his accidental death, he wrote, “From now on, I will love and respect people more, always learn from the masses with a humble heart like a primary student, and be a servant of the people.”
A year later, late chairman Mao Zedong called on the entire nation to follow Lei’s example, and March 5 of every year is designated “Lei Feng’s Day.”
Supposedly, from 1958-1962 the young man (he would have been 18 when he started writing) composed 330 diary entries, 12 articles, 18 speeches, 30 poems, 3 novels, and nine pieces of prose. Which he completed while helping the needy, working in a steel mill, and joining the army, all without attracting any acclaim during his life.
Yet somehow after his death, dozens of photographs surfaced of Lei Feng helping old men cross the street, washing cars, and standing majestically with a machine gun.
Today in China, Lei Feng endures as a symbol of both altruism and of a long gone era. In 2010 the People’s Daily included a joke about Lei in their article, Is learning from Lei Feng now outdated?, it reads, “post-1970s generation learns form Lei Feng, post-1980s revolts against Lei Feng, and post-1990s forgets about Lei Feng.”
Unfortunately, it seems the the 2007 video game “Learn From Lei Feng,” failed to bring the spirit into the current age. It sounds like the game focused on a world completely unfamiliar to the children it was supposed to attract. Here are a few “quotes” from a sixth grader who played the game (each paragraph is from a separate part of the article, not a lengthy speech):
“For beginners, sewing and mending socks is the only way to increase experience and to upgrade.”
“Every time you are promoted to a higher level, your clothes will become more average.”
He also said he likes to battle against the secret agents mainly. “Sometimes the enemy was very strong. The fight almost exhausted me, so I would go to talk with the Party secretary to replenish my vitality at once.”
“As long as my experience, reputation, skill and loyalty satisfy the game’s criteria, I will win and meet Chairman Mao,” Jiao noted. “I still have several tasks to go through. I will ‘work hard’ and strive to obtain the Chairman’s autograph as soon as I can.”
Mending socks, becoming “more average,” and striving for a virtual autograph; it’s hard to imagine why such a game didn’t resonate with today’s youth. Not to mention the disturbing effort to rekindle the cult of Chairman Mao.
When I asked a coworker (~30 years old and usually critical of the Party) today what she thought of Lei Feng, my desire to see the legend disappear was greatly diminished (Yaxue had a different experience with Lei Feng). A smile came across her face as she looked off to some far away time, “Lei Feng was a good man, a kind man. He helped many people, and did so many good things. I think people should follow his example. My teacher just told me that we should be helpful like him, we didn’t have to try and write essays or speeches like Lei Feng did.” She later said that in her mind, he wasn’t a symbol of Mao or Socialism, just good behavior.
When I asked her what she made of the foreigners who thought he might not be real, she quickly moved from shocked, having never realized the possibility that he had been invented, to philosophical. “Maybe it doesn’t matter if he was real,” she said softly, “He taught me many important lessons about how to help others, and inspired me to be a good person. Almost like a religion teaches people to be good, even if God isn’t real. It’s a pity my children won’t learn about him. He’s not important anymore.”