Lei Feng is more than just a name in China. He is hailed as a cultural icon, symbolizing selflessness, modesty, and dedication. His name creeps into people's hearts, daily conversation, music, even movies; his imagery can be found on cups, T-shirts, and bags. There's the Lei Feng Model Bus, Lei Feng Model Student, Lei Feng Class, Lei Feng Nursery, Lei Feng Village, just to name a few.
But there are also undercurrents of ridicule, labeling Lei Feng as a fool, after 30 years of opening up and reform made consumerism a main driving force in people's lives and individualism leads to self-fulfillment.
If previous role models were primarily sanctioned by the government to serve political ideologies, what we see today in the rapidly changing Chinese society is a diversity of role models and grassroots-based civic heroes, who are of the people and inspire the people. [See Below]
As China commemorates Lei Feng on March 5 and in someplace the whole month of March is devoted to the campaign "Learn from Comrade Lei Feng", this special coverage intends to outline the subtle changes in people's perception of role models or heroes as well as the leading arguments for social values in China.
From top, clockwise: College students walk past a statue of Lei Feng during the "Lei Feng is in my heart" activity in Northeast China's Fushun; Art students in Lei Feng dress hold banners with Mao's words, "Learn from Comrade Lei Feng," in East China's Hangzhou; Volunteer Li Zhenrong helps a man carry luggage at a railway station in East China's Fuyang; A student learns how to make a paper-cut of Leifeng, in East China's Bozhou.
Originally called Lei Zhengxing, the former People's Liberation Army soldier was born on Dec 18, 1940, to a farming family in Wangcheng, Central China's Hunan province.
He was killed in 1962, while directing a truck as it backed up. A pole struck him on the head. Lei had a habit of keeping a diary to detail his deeds and experiences, which was published after his death and became one of the bestsellers of the time.
Many people in the West or China would take it for granted that Mao Zedong handpicked Lei Feng to be a role model devoted to the Communist Party and the people of China by writing, "Learn from Comrade Lei Feng," launching a nationwide propaganda.
Lei Feng's rise from respected soldier to cultural icon that still matters to China's social values today seems to be less politically charged than was assumed. According to Lin Ke, a secretary in Mao's office, China Youth magazine approached Mao in February 1963 to write an epigraph for their special coverage on the influences of Lei Feng. After repeated requests, Mao wrote, "Learn from Comrade Lei Feng" in the traditional calligraphy.
China Youth magazine published Mao's writing on March 2, 1963. Two days later, it was republished by People's Daily, Daily of People's Liberation Army, China Youth Daily and Guangming Daily. The news media later published handwritten epigraphs by Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai, Zhu De, Deng Xiaoping and other state leaders, finally immortalizing the solider as an emblem of selflessness and devotion.
The posthumous campaign, whether you like it or not, could not deny that Lei Feng was a man of integrity, responsibility, and love by today's standards. Lei Feng had already built up a reputation thanks to media coverage, long before Mao's call. The soldier was characterized by millions as a selfless person who devoted his entire life to helping others. On Jan 7, 1963, the Defense Ministry named a transportation unit where Lei Feng once worked as the "Lei Feng Squad." The glory of Lei Feng extended from the military to other industries.