Matt Sheehan

Unpacking the Propaganda Legacy of China’s Lionized Communist Hero, Lei Feng

An image of Lei Feng from a museum near Changsha, Hunan. (HKmPUA/Flickr)

March 5 of this year marked the fiftieth anniversary of Chairman Mao’s invocation for all Chinese to “learn from comrade Lei Feng.” During this week the image, the story and ultimately the legend of Lei Feng, China’s most propagandized soldier, permeates all corners of official Chinese society. Over the last half-century the event has slowly morphed from a celebration of obedience to the Party into a catch-all celebration of community service and selflessness.

The Communist Party’s propaganda networks have made that transition as seamless as possible. Lei Feng’s legacy was first crystallized in a diary attributed to him and published after his death.Fifty years down the road, it’s that diary that has turned this model soldier into another one of the Communist Party’s awkward historical artifacts: something too useful to cast off entirely, but too embarrassing to embrace in its original form.

The man ostensibly at the center of this week’s publicity frenzy has long been held up as the ideal soldier, citizen and Party member. Orphaned in a family hounded to death by greedy landlords, the boy born Lei Zhengxing was supposedly eight years old when the Communist Party took power in 1949.

Ten years after watching the People’s Liberation Army sweep its way to victory, the young man changed his name to Lei Feng and prepared to enlist in that army. Standing just over 5 feet tall and weighing around 120 pounds, Lei Feng wouldn’t be an obvious candidate for modern China’s great martial hero. Declared physically unfit for duty, Lei Feng was only admitted on the basis of some experience with engineering and his outstandingly “correct” political thinking.

Between 1959 and 1962, Lei Feng would happily toil away in an army unit based near the northeastern city of Shenyang. During this time he threw himself fully into all duties and filled every waking minute of free time with study of Mao Zedong thought and the completion of selfless deeds. In a diary entry dated October 13, 1961, Lei Feng wrote of the joy in secretly doing favors for others.

Today was really great. Comrade X came back by bus and he was asking around everywhere for who washed his long johns and a pair of stinky old socks, but nobody said a word. So who was it that washed them? Only I know, but I didn’t say anything. I feel like doing this is my responsibility.

When not busy delivering his meager supply of apples to the sick or collecting children’s feces for fertilizer, Lei Feng threw himself into study of Chairman Mao’s teachings. In a diary entry dated the first of January 1961, the young soldier wrote:

Since studying Mao Zedong’s works my heart has brightened, my ideology and worldview have become more cheerful and lofty, and my energy for work grows by the day. Because of my constant elevation of political consciousness, I’ve finally been able to gain some small accomplishments in my work and studies.

As early as the 1970s, however, Western commentators had already established a convincing case that Lei Feng the legend was the invention of Party propagandists. The over-documentation of the supposedly anonymous soldier was suspicious, and the obvious staging of photographs from his life was doubly so. These days, even semi-official Chinese accounts of Lei Feng admit in passing that the diary he allegedly left behind is probably not authentic.

Lei Feng’s alleged death on August 121962, and some embellishment from the political apparatus, made the 21-year-old a posthumous national hero. On March 5, 1963, Chairman Mao’s command to study comrade Lei Feng marked the beginning of a tradition that sees its fiftieth anniversary on Tuesday. To this day, the shaky factual foundations of the holiday haven’t stopped Chinese institutions from celebrating it with gusto.

Each spring, schools, companies and government organs are ordered to put together photogenic volunteer activities, with red banners exalting the volunteers who showcase the “Lei Feng spirit” by picking up trash, visiting the elderly or checking people’s blood pressure. Meanwhile, Chinese elementary schoolers recite and newspapers reprint some of Lei Feng’s signature catch-phrases. Most famous among these is his explanation of why he chooses to serve the people.

Human life is limited, but serving the people is limitless. I want to take limited human life and turn it into limitless service to the people.

The absolute sacrifice of the individual in favor of an infallible Party and Chairman takes on almost religious dimensions throughout the diary. It’s a posture that may have elicited praise at the time, but in 2013 it’s enough to make the Party blush. When admitted into the ranks of the People’s Liberation Army, Lei Feng wrote down a list of solemn vows he made regarding his life as a soldier.

Listen to the Party. Obey orders, follow commands. Wherever the Party points, I will rush there.

That sentence alone serves as reminder that the People’s Liberation Army is not China’s army; it’s the Chinese Communist Party’s army.

Nowadays, many Chinese people shrug off the annual Lei Feng propaganda blitz, and that’s an attitude that likely suits the Party just fine. By secularizing Learn from Lei Feng Day, turning it into a celebration of volunteering rather than obedience, the Party has managed to remain where it feels most comfortable: out of the picture but firmly in control. Over the past fifty years the Party has moved from revolution to rule, and its own concept of a model citizen has shifted in turn. Whereas the days of Lei Feng demanded fanatical worship of its revolution, today the Party would gladly take forgetful acceptance of its rule.

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Matt Sheehan

Matt is a journalist and translator living in Beijing. He's spent over two years in China learning to speak the language and love the people. You can check out his writing at www.optimistschina.com or follow him on twitter at @mattsheehan88.