Is there still room for Lei Feng in modern China?

Lei Feng

Learn from Lei Feng's good example. Love the Party, Love Socialism, Love the People.

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 In 2010 the People’s Daily included a joke about Lei in their article, Is learning from Lei Feng now outdated?, it reads, “post-1970s generation learns form Lei Feng, post-1980s revolts against Lei Feng, and post-1990s forgets about Lei Feng.”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.”

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About T

I have been working in China for nearly five years now. I have traveled to more than 30 cities and towns, and have lived in 3 provinces. I am interested in issues concerning development in China and the rest of the world. I hope to provide a balanced look at some of the issues facing China as it continues its rise to power.
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31 Responses to Is there still room for Lei Feng in modern China?

  1. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    I agree with your co-worker, Tom. She compares the good example of Lei Feng’s humanity with that of religious example. I don’t believe in god of any kind but try to follow human kindness as demonstrated by inspirational people.

  2. sinostand says:

    I’ll be really curious to see this book. From what I’ve been told by Chinese friends who learned about Lei in school, his writing is largely flowery praise of the Communist Party and his altruism is always in the socialist context. Either this kid really drank the kool-aid or another state-sponsored work of fiction everyone will ignore is about to be released.

    I find the timing interesting too. Four months (about the time it takes to throw a book together) after Yueyue. Wish them good luck in re-establishing the socialist moral framework. They’ll need it.

  3. Lorin Yochim says:

    So…given the role of myth/legend in the production of model citizens, what is the significance of the question of whether or not he actually existed? If he did, would that make his acts more historically accurate? Does it matter? Did George Washington really chop down the cherry tree? If so, was it a sapling or a mature tree? Was in blossom or bearing fruit? Frankly, when foreigners ask that question of Chinese, they must think we are dolts. On a more serious note, one would be hard pressed to get any other answer than the one you co-worker gave, Tom. The values of Chinese people in the present are deeply influenced by socialism in positive ways, this despite the fact these values are being radically challenged by market relations. That unsympathetic foreigners don’t want to believe this is irrelevant to this fact.

    • James says:

      Should myths/legends be given a role in the production of model citizens? Some historians ascribe part of the blame for WWI to the role of myth and heroism in classical education. They may have a point.

      Can honesty be based on a lie?
      Is telling a lie acceptable if it produces the desired result? Desired by whom and for what purpose? Are nefarious purposes acceptable? Who determines if they are nefarious or positive?

      Would it be better to know the truth and wrestle with the difficulties of it, or accept a smooth lie?

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        Obviously you mean to ask rhetorical questions, but they are not easy to answer, unless one replaces “myths” and “legends” with “lies,” Presumably all children’s stories will now be burned in the public square, and the entire history of the U.S. will be expunged and the country will spontaneously explode. Most people understand that legends, myths, story books, etc. are a way to wrestle with the very difficult task of living and getting along with others.

        Finally, do you see the unfortunate contradiction introduced in your final paragraph? In order to not do the same myself by asking a rhetorical question, allow me to answer it by fixing the sentence for you: “Would it be better to wrestle with the difficulties of knowing the truth rather than accepting a smooth lie?” To this I could only answer, “yes.”

      • James says:

        There is no unfortunate contradiction in the final paragraph. I intended to get you to pause and reflect on truth and who should know it, and realize that far too many people believe that they should know the difficult truth, as they are more than capable of wrestling with the difficulties, but that other people cannot be trusted to deal rightly with it, and therefore others should be told the smooth lie.

        Governments often prefer the smooth lie. The bombing in Kosovo of the Chinese embassy was claimed to be “an accident” based on “out of date maps”. The truth is that the embassy was broadcasting for Slobodan Milosevic, directing his troop movements in return for parts of a disintegrated F-117. Trading the lives of foreigners for pieces of stealth technology.
        But admitting that would be difficult, so….

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        The third paragraphs contradicted the message of the second. RE the embassy bombing, good point, although a tragic defence of the indefensible, not to mention off topic.

      • James says:

        See below.

    • Kev says:

      Why are the Chinese so deserving of sympathy and where are these Chinese people who are “deeply influenced in socialism in positive ways”? People in China sneer at the hardworking and poorly paid. Lei Feng would be considered an uneducated idiot in todays China and would either have been taken advantage of or ignored.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        Presumably, then, Tom is lying about what the woman in his post said. As are the many people I’ve heard comment on Lei Feng over the years. To clarify, to be “deeply influenced” by something is not to be controlled by it. It is necessary, however, to define oneself in relation to a dominant discourse. Finally, the word sympathy here is entirely inappropriate. We’re not talking about abandoned puppies.

      • Kev says:

        Why should I think Tom is lying? He is just relating what a Chinese person told him. I talked to my Chinese GF about Lei Feng and her response was that for the fist few years of Mao, people actually did be nice to eachother but, like everything else here, once the novelty wore off, people went back to the traditional back stabbing mentality.
        My father, Grandfather, Great grandfather and myself were all deeply influenced by socialism and, unless someone waved a magic wand and miraculously changed socialism while we weren’t looking, Chinese people today show little to no positive symptoms of this deep influence.

      • Kev says:

        @Lorin
        You mentioned “unsympathetic foreigners” so hence my question about sympathy.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        It’s true I did say unsympathetic, but it wasn’t in the sense you appeared to have taken it in. An explanation is somewhere in this thread. In addition to that sense, there is another, and you’re right that I meant in part “unsympathetic to positive effects of the socialist legacy.” I appreciate your comment about your father, g-father, etc., because most wouldn’t recognize the influence of socialist ideals like this, even in putative bastions of capitalism. Many decades of erasure of this legacy tends to have people locating all positive national characteristics elsewhere, typically in hard-working individualism. A more honest history would point to the ways in which in the past communities were more a collective effort deeply influenced by (marginalized) socialist movements (union, other). This may be an analysis that applies more to NA than to, say, England.

        As to China, I take your point about people ignoring Lei Feng if he lived today, but I would argue that the expat take on the “greedy/avaricious” China is produced as much by the particular positions that expats occupy in Chinese society (not to mention culture shock). Without going in to detail, evidence that there is another China that does not exhibit the undesirable characteristics they point to tends to be left unseen or discounted. That, of course, is another enormous topic.

  4. James says:

    There is no message contradiction between the second and thrid paragraphs, there are questions you dodged thinking about by terming them rhetorical. (In your original comment you imply that it doesn’t matter if a story is a lie, as long as it produces the desired result – so those questions are designed to clarify if you really believe that, and you declined to answer.)

    The embassy bombing is a clear example of two governments lying to their combined ~2 billion people, because they judged that the people couldn’t handle the truth.

    Now, instead of answering, and wrestling with the difficult truth, you will no doubt attack.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      James, you always feel that you are under personal attack. You are not. By way of showing you that my comments were not a personal attack, allow me to reveal the contradiction you inadvertently created.

      You began by suggesting that myth and legend may be illegitimate means of forming ideal subjects. Good question (if you are unclear about what I mean by subject here, don’t hesitate to ask). You then suggested that there is a problem with who decides what and what isn’t true. Also a important point. You then flipped this good point on its ear by suggesting (I think through a poor choice of words–all of us do this regularly here) that there is a truth whose consequences need to be dealt with. The only way to conclude with consistency was to say that knowing the truth is difficult. Positing a truth unproblematically available .

      The case of the embassy bombing perfectly demonstrates this problem, although I will admit that I do not know the truth in that case…except for the following. One of the parties involved regularly engages in such things; the other does not.

      Finally, my correction of your sentence merely rescued what it seems you meant to say in the first place, and here I’ll do it once more, but not again. You seem to be saying that the real task is “wrestling with the difficulty of knowing the truth.” I hope you’ll recognize that I most likely agree with you and am trying to suggest a way to reconcile this fact with the words we are using.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        Oops. Above “Positing a truth unproblematically available simply sends us running in circles.”

      • James says:

        Sigh. Always… usually signals a blanket statement that is untrue, but that the person percieves to be, or wants to be, true.

        I wrote exactly what I meant, please cease to rewrite my sentences.

        The difficult truth is the contradictory thoughts in the minds of most people, that (1) they should know the difficult truth, as they (arrogantly) believe themselves more than capable of wrestling with the difficulties, but (2) (again arrogantly) that other people cannot be trusted to deal rightly with it, and therefore others should be told the smooth lie.

        I meant difficult truth, not “difficulty of knowing the truth”. People do not like to see themselves clearly, and prefer to not examine their own lives or thinking, inspite of Socrates and Plato. Examining their own lives might prove themselves to be arrogant and self-centered. (as most humans are)

        Let me ask you clearly, and I hope you will answer this clearly and concisely; do you believe that telling people a lie in order to produce a result you desire is an action that is right and good?

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        In this case, the contradiction remains and I can’t agree with most of what you say. At any rate, let’s just leave it intact to save our sanity. Now, let’s split in two what can’t be reconciled.

        1. When the truth is known by everyone, it is undesirable to obscure it with a lie. This is an elementary point hardly worth discussing.
        2. When the truth is not known, then knowing what to do and how to go about building a society that everyone can live in is rather difficult.

        Now, what precisely does this have to do with legend and myth? Do you think that legend, myth, and lie are synonyms? This was the implication of your original comment.

    • James says:

      down below.

  5. James says:

    “So…given the role of myth/legend in the production of model citizens, what is the significance of the question of whether or not he actually existed? If he did, would that make his acts more historically accurate?”

    If he didn’t exist, his acts are categorically historically inaccurate, as there were none. I’m not sure what the role of myth/legend is in the production of model citizens, and furthermore, the effects of myth and legend are not all positive.

    “Does it matter? Did George Washington really chop down the cherry tree? If so, was it a sapling or a mature tree? Was in blossom or bearing fruit?”

    So according to you, the fact that is a lie is OK as long as it produces the desired result – a high value placed on honesty – even if it was produced by belief in a completely fabricated incident.
    By extension, you appear to be supporting lying in general, as long as it produces the desired result.

    “Frankly, when foreigners ask that question of Chinese, they must think we are dolts.”

    Maybe. Why don’t you ask three (3) Chinese people their views on whether Lei Feng really existed, and the effect of his exsistence or non-exsistence on the values the State would like to instill in its citizenry? I would be interested to read your report, because I have asked college students and friends this many times, on Learn From Lei Feng Day.

    “On a more serious note, one would be hard pressed to get any other answer than the one you co-worker gave, Tom. The values of Chinese people in the present are deeply influenced by socialism in positive ways, this despite the fact these values are being radically challenged by market relations. That unsympathetic foreigners don’t want to believe this is irrelevant to this fact.”

    Unsympathetic? Because they don’t believe that socailism has positive effects? How is that unsympathetic? Socialism has some positive effects, as does capitalism, and both have negative effects.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      Do myth and legend always have admirable aims and effects? No. Did anyone say that they are? Did I say that lying is justifiable? Please cut and past…wait…let me do it for you: “1. When the truth is known by everyone, it is undesirable to obscure it with a lie. This is an elementary point hardly worth discussing.” Why is it necessary to restate the obvious over and over again?

      No, I will not ask three (3…not 4) Chinese people their views on whether Lei Feng existed. That is what I did years ago when I, too, dwelt on matters that were important to me but were, in fact, of little significance to Chinese people. When I brought up this conversation up with my wife (she is one of those brainwashed Beijingers hardly able to distinguish truth from lie) yesterday, she predictably asked, “why are you wasting your time talking about that?”

      On “unsympathetic”: this goes to you and @Kev. Here unsympathetic suggests that expats tend to accord to their own beliefs a higher truth value. It goes something like this: “I am an autonomous, free thinking human being. Because this Chinese person’s beliefs/interpretations do not align with mine, he/she is the product of a lifetime of propaganda and lies. Poor thing, someday he/she will achieve enlightenment.”

      I answered your question succinctly. Mine remains unanswered. Are myth, legend, and lie synonyms?

      • James says:

        No. Neither are they synonymous with truth.

        I would answer your wife thus: the unexamined life is not worth living. I make it a practice to regularly meditate on what I have done and what I believe. If the two do not match up, I consider the reasons why. I have seen too many people, including myself, make mistakes that they could have avoided if more thought and less rationalization had been applied.

        Blind belief is a questionable foundation.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        An admirable spin on my wife’s comment, but you miss my point, which is that the practice of examining life for Chinese people often has very little in common with exploring those topics that vex expats. There is no shame in this. It’s a natural condition resulting, I would say, from the various material and ideational gulfs that separate us. At any rate, in quoting my wife I wasn’t invoking a universal principle. I was simply underlining the very specific point that she has no real interest in the Lei Feng problem at the core of this discussion.

        As suspected, you and I have no fundamental disagreement here on the desirability of knowing truth. But let’s be clear about the nature of the problem. Knowing the truth is not as simple as taking a photo or asking one’s neighbour what the truth is or, alternatively, reflecting on one’s own beliefs/experiences and declaring the truth known. What you’re talking about in your description of reflection is an important disposition to develop, but truth does not spring unfiltered from the operations of an individual mind. And there is no necessary connection between myth and legend and deception. Stories, some fictional, some less so, are a fundamental aspect of human experience. They are an invaluable tool of communication and–I feel I have to stress this once again–of struggling to come to know truth at a deeper level. Indeed, there is a long critical tradition in Chinese culture of using myth and legend (along with other tools such as metaphor) to challenge authority or, perhaps more to the point, to challenge authoritative claims to higher truth. in fact, the legend of Lei Feng itself is an example of this use of storytelling. Recall that the revolution was all about bringing about a new society and new socialist subjects. Part of this project involved attempts to overthrow hegemonic ideas and habits, of creating a more cooperative society. There is very little of the nefarious purposes implied in questioning whether or not Lei Feng was a real person, and I think the end of Tom’s post bears this out.

        Or is there? Others are free to make the case.

      • James says:

        I find you to be projecting a great deal.

        You believe me to be unsympathetic and denegrating towards Chinese people.
        I can only say that I am not, and that my friends would disagree with your assesment as well.

        I accept that nobody on the planet will agree with me on 100% of my understanding of the world, nor 100% of my beliefs, whether they are the absolute truth or not.
        Not even if I have incontrovertible evidence of the truth.

        All one can do is make a rational, well-reasoned argument, present what proof is available as clearly as possible, and let it go.

        Yet you consistently accord your own beliefs a higher truth value than nearly everyone on the planet. You seem to be convinced that you are the final arbiter of truth and understanding, and will not stop until you have the final word.

        Yet you do not find yourself to be arrogant, or self-centered, but justified in your wisdom.

        Lorin, nobody is the be-all end-all authority on everything Chinese. Not even you.

        Nobody’s experience of reality encompasses the whole of reality. Not even yours.

        You’ve lived in China for a decade. I match that, and others surpass us.

        If you had even a bit of humility in your postings, I would find you much more believable.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        James, note that my comment came first in this thread. Nothing I said there was directed at you. If you are not denigrating toward Chinese people, then you are not. But you and I know damn well that many, many expats in China are. On the other hand, you did make a point blank denigrating comment about my wife’s approach to life, perhaps unintentionally and certainly without warrant, might I add. As an aside, my guess is that you don’t have a spouse at the moment. Anyone who does have one knows that to make a comment to him/her like the one you suggested would be to risk a black eye (“Good afternoon, honey, could you please be a little more self-reflective? I’m living the examined life; shouldn’t you?”).

        Now right up to this point i thought that we were getting somewhere with this discussion, otherwise I would have long ago seen no point in continuing it. There is a clear convergence or coming to agreement over the course of the comments. I do not hold my experience in or ideas about China automatically to be superior to anyone else’s, any more, I assume, than you do (Check that for a moment. I do know one fellow who has been living in China for 20 years now, and he does it for easy access to prostitutes. I’ll express a feeling of superiority with respect to that). But surely we are here to compare ideas and at least attempt to come to some kind of agreement, or at least recognize that our ideas are in some ways incommensurable. I don’t particularly care if you or I or anyone else has lived in China for 5, 10, or 35 years (see above for an example of how little this can matter). We are talking ideas at this point. Having said this, I really don’t understand what on earth in my previous post has riled you to the point of attacking me personally. I’ve gone back and read it, and there is no call for the ad hominem. If you find my ideas challenging to yours and this offends you, then this has nothing to do with me.

      • t says:

        Haha you know quite well that the idea behind Lei Feng is that he existed. He is not shenhua, legend or myth. His diary is designed to be considered real.

        You know that. The Party invented yhe guy to control critisism of the party machine. And yes, that is brainwashing because primary school students are taught about him today and he is all over Sihuan University campus bulletin boards. I mean, there is nothing else on these boards. He is on public buses in Chengdu and he suddenly appears on bill boards in Shandong.

        He is brainwashing because his ideas are not ethics alone, they are ethics chained to the concept of the party, not just socialist ethics either,which exist in every religion and philosopher.

        Theres a gaping chasm of difference.

        You must see that right? People lose the ability to question what they were taught at an early age. So Lei Feng creates party loyalty,in an unthinking way. Do you see why that might be dangerous or unfair? Ultimately justice depends on evaluating the good from tge bad. The CCP instill their `we are the good` stamp from primary school. Clever eh?

  6. Kev says:

    Simple answer….No. Never has been, never will be.

  7. Pingback: Asia Unbound » China’s March Madness—Not Jeremy Lin but Lei Feng

  8. t says:

    One thing, religion is religion, notLei Feng. People who are religious believe in a God. Some just believe in the philosophy of humanism. Lei Feng is a fake. Hes not exaggerstion, hes trying to quell the criticism of the socialist machine. Yes, religion has done this too in the past and soemtimes today.

    But if you embrace truth, that includes assertions of fact over fiction. Christians believe that Jesus did what the Bible says he did. Its essential to validating what Jesus said.

  9. t says:

    If Jesus did not exist, im afraid we must also question the validity of what he said and why he said it, Betrand Russell wrote that Jesus was a political tool for destabilizing Rome. This makes what he taught a means to an end,not as an end in itsekf. Same for Lei Feng. He was a prop,and this invaidates his teaching.

  10. t says:

    Lorin, you are right. I dont know why James reacted like that!

    But lets just recognize that he is taught as a real person not an ideal,but like Jesus, as a superior man whose life exemplified ideals and thus stands as an example for lesser mortals.

    But in actuality, its very easy to create a character like him and brainwashing the people into believing the Party is wholly good is what Lei Feng teaches.

    So given that we have seen the Party was callous and pyschopathic in times of the Great Leap Forward, the Hundred Flowers Campaign and Wenhua Da Geming,shouldnt we question the Party and Lei Feng?

    Actually, were all not quite getting the point. He was created right after tge disastrous Great Leap and thus worked to reduce Party criticism.

    Thats the reason for him. And his big model lips.

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