Today, the young soldier Lei Feng (1940-1962) would probably have been amazed and shocked to see what his China has become. If he would not already have been dead, he would perhaps have had a hard time surviving the shock from seeing the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) turning its guns on its own people during the crackdown of the Tiananmen protests on 4 June 1989. Maybe he would have joined in the protests of his superiors, the generals Nie Rongzhen and Xu Xiangqian.
Lei would probably be surprised, as well, by the ideological transformation that his memorial day on the March 5 — the Learn From Comrade Lei Feng Day (向雷锋同志学习纪念日) — has undergone.
Lei Feng Day celebrates its fifty-second anniversary today and one wonders how it can still be celebrated when fundamental values for the Mao-era, like collectivism and self-sacrifice, have been swapped for its complete opposites, individualism and a cult of the self.
Even the very existence of Lei Feng has come into question and his diary has been called ”a work of fiction”. What is Lei Feng if not a Saint George with Chinese characteristics? An icon who was part of a lost creed and whose symbol is only good for printing T-shirts in a now secular society.
Just like Mao Zedong, Lei Feng was born in Hunan province. He was named Lei Zhengxing by his parents, both of which he lost at the early age of seven. His younger and older brother died from nutrition deficiencies and tuberculosis respectively.
But even these hardships were not enough to tell the patriotic underdog story of Lei Feng, so the Zhejiang production company Yongle took matters in their own hands and depicted Lei Feng’s father as a communist martyr refusing to give information to Japanese Imperial soldiers while under torture. Some even claim it was Japanese soldiers and Nationalist soldiers working together.
Lei Feng’s mother is said to have committed suicide shortly after she had been “defamed” by a local landlord.
In this way, Lei Feng became the embodiment of China before the 1949 ”liberation” by the CCP. This period, known as the Century of Humiliation, both domestic and foreign forces oppressed the lives of ordinary Chinese. Baidu Baike — the People’s Republic’s answer to Wikipedia — add further hardships to Lei Feng’s childhood, as if he had not suffered enough already:
“When he had not yet turned seven years old, Lei Feng become an orphan and was adopted by his grandmother. In order to help out in his grandmother’s household, Lei Feng usually went up in the mountain to chop wood. However, the mountain was unjustly occupied by a local landlord who did not let the poor people chop wood there.”
Lei Fengs tormented childhood seem to surpass the combined agony of both Prometheus and Sisyphus. Maybe that is why the Lei Feng Day is being downplayed in English editions of Chinese media.
Not only is it hard for a Western reader to sympathize because of the almost exaggerated, almost comical, way in which his early life is depicted, it is equally difficult to accept Lei Feng’s happier days after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
During his adolescence, Lei Feng has his mind set on becoming a soldier of the PLA, something he succeeds in doing at the age of twenty, even though he does not meet the standard physical requirement for entering the army. On 8 January 1960 Lei Feng writes in his diary:
“Today is an unforgettable day. Today is a most honorable and glorious day. I head towards my new post, wear my yellow uniform and proudly join the ranks of the People Liberation Army.”
After he joins the ranks of PLA Lei Feng continues his life as an soldier. He’s good deeds become known to the public after a while and articles about him are being published in local news papers. The same year as he becomes a soldier of the PLA he also becomes a member of the Communist Party. In his last diary entry somewhere between the 8th of August and the 15th of August Lei writes:
“I will stand close with the people of China and wholeheartedly serve them because this is the only purpose for a soldier”.
On the 15th of August while out on a task with his best friend Qiao Anshan, Lei Feng dies from the head injuries he suffered while accidentally being driven over by Qiao Anshan. Within a year Lei Feng’s life has been immortalized through the official recognition by Mao Zedong.
Lei Feng’s diary consist of 168 entries and is a mixture of party slogans, promises to the party, self-criticism and descriptions of how he spent his day.
At first glance one might get the impression that the diary has a equivocal narrative where one can make different interpretations. Even interpretations that could be used to contradict the anti-western school material agenda by the party.
Lei Feng writes repeatedly about learning from the Canadian supporter of the Chinese Communists, Norman Bethune. When Lei Feng reads a poem by the Chinese author Lu Xun he announces that he plans to live after it, but, he clarifies that one must always remember that the love of the party and of the motherland always comes first. This last notion is re-used by journalists Huang Mingsong and Yang Minqing in their article Reflections concerning ‘Learn from Comrade Lei Feng’ written in March 1988. They write how one can both make money and at the same time emulate the spirit of Lei Feng.
Lei Feng also writes a great deal about the people that he regard as heroes. Some of those mentioned in the diary are martyrs from the Civil War, like Dong Cunrui, or the Korean War, like Huang Jiguang and Shi Chuanxiang (the latter being a hygiene worker who also goes by the pseudonym The Great Excrement Worker 大粪夫).
One of the many principles that Lei Feng lives by is to never do good things for the sake of being praised as a hero. This is one of the things which I personally admire Lei Feng for, the idea of helping people just for the sake of helping. In a twenty-first century society where the majority of people have the means to document every single event taking place in front of their eyes and then uploading it to the Internet, the idea of a nameless hero becomes a highly ambiguous concept. American vigilantism, especially the fictionalized, comes close to it and the barefoot doctors of rural China might also be counted to the unknown, unsung heroes. Even though Lei Feng lived by this ideal himself, he could not help but to reveal his name.
On 20 August 1960, Lei Feng writes in his diary that he donates a 100 yuan to the Wanghua area in the town of Fushun. In the movie about Lei Feng from 1964 he is being portrayed as donating this money without telling anyone who he is, but in the letter which he sent in real life Lei Feng signs his letter with his own name and also telling the recipient which troops he belongs to.
In a society where connections (关系) and social rituals are so important the concept of not boosting one’s own image is downright negative. One comes to think of the persona of Wang Bing’s documentary Man With No Name (无名者), where the mere suggestion of the word brings negative connotations.
As the years have passed since the campaign for Learn from Lei Feng started Chinese media have struggled to keep the movement alive. It gained some momentum shortly after the crackdown at Tiananmen Square in 1989, but after this traumatic experience the articles appearing every March were fewer and fewer.
Curiously enough, when a new leader takes control of the party, there tends to be an upsurge of articles about Lei Feng. This happened the year after Deng Xiaoping died in 1998 and Jiang Zemin became the supreme leader of the party. And once again in 2003, when Hu Jintao assumed his post as president.
Hua Guofeng — supposedly Mao’s own choice for taking over — even tried to establish his own Lei Feng-slogan in 1978: “Learn from comrade Lei Feng and thoroughly carry out Maos proletarian revolution”.
Nowadays the movement seems to be more of a formality. Price ceremonies are often held on the fourth of fifth of March to decorate exemplary people who have been promoting the spirit of Lei Feng.
This year the Publicity Department (earlier called as the Propaganda Department) released a list of 50 working units and individuals that have supposedly learned from the example of Lei Feng. On every English edition of the Chinese newspapers’ websites one can read the same article about Lei Feng: ”China singles out Good Samaritans”.
Back in 2011 China Daily wrote an article where they suggested a few modern Lei Fengs. Two of them were big time tycoons, the founder of Alibaba, Jack Ma, and the world’s loudest philanthropist Chen Guangbiao. It is possible that the false reports of Lei Feng’s portrait hanging on the walls of West Point, has made Chinese media more reluctant to spread news about him.
Whether or not Lei Feng matters to the countries in the West, he is still relevant as a political symbol in China. And under President Xi Jinping, who is sometimes said to be redder than red, Lei Feng may play a more crucial part in China’s propaganda work. We’ll have to wait and see if the Lei Feng of 2015 will continue to be a “come in March and leave in April”- phenomenon. In the meantime we can all learn from Lei Feng’s example and help those in need.