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  • Gordon Dumoulin

DIFFERENT CHINA (ep 12) | China’s role model for 60 years….

While Chinese children are learning about Shakespeare, Edison and Kennedy in school, Chinese entrepreneurs aspire the ways of Bill Gates or Warren Buffet and people are interested in Picasso or Beethoven. Also for role models, many Chinese are not unfamiliar with famous people in Western societies serving as an example for many such as Mandela, Mother Theresa or more recently Kobe Bryant.

In the contrary, most Western people might not be able to count more than 5 fingers naming known, influential Chinese persons or role models from the past or presence.

If you have ever visited China, it would be almost impossible if you did not see a picture or poster of this person with his typical fur-lined army hat in the streets. Who is he ?

Lei Feng 雷锋 (1940-1962) was a soldier in the People’s Liberation Army of China, and following his early death became a cultural icon, portrayed as model citizen for his selflessness, modesty, and devotion to the Chinese Communist Party.

His role model has survived decades of political, economic and social developments and is very alive today with anyone in China being familiar with Lei Feng.

While quite some people in China (and abroad) have disputed the facts about his life and personality since long time, claiming cynical propaganda, the soldier has turned in some kind of a hero and legend over the decades, transformed by time but his image and basic principles consistent and strong. 

As per his biography shown in CCTV program “The Legacy of Lei Feng” (2012), he was born in Wangcheng (near the town of Leifeng, Changsha, Hunan province, named in his honour), Lei was orphaned at a young age. Lei lost all of his family prior to the establishment of the People's Republic.

His father died when he was just five (killed by the invading Japanese Army), his elder brother, who was exploited as a child labourer, died a year later, and his younger brother passed soon afterwards. Finally, his mother committed suicide after being "dishonored by a landlord."

He became a member in the Communist youth corps when he was young and joined a transportation unit of the People's Liberation Army at the age of twenty. According to his official biography, Lei died in 1962 at the age of 21, when a telephone pole, struck by an army truck, hit him as he was directing the truck in backing up.

Lei Feng was not very much known until after his death when his diaries were published, describing modest thoughts, selfless actions and his devotion to the Party and Chairman Mao Zedong. His idea of a perfect Sunday seemed to be washing five mattresses or 800 pounds of cabbage for his comrades, walking an old lady home in the rain, and then quietly darning someone’s bed cover.

His altruism has been praised and published as example for the people by the Chinese government up till today and 5 March is the official ‘Learn from Lei Feng’ day (学雷锋日) which regularly involves events in some communities and schools where people go to clean up parks, schools, and other community locations.

Despite many people take all details of the life story of Lei Feng with a grain of salt (kernels of truth encrusted with spin), Lei Feng remains a hero and legend for many.

His legacy goes beyond his devotion for the Party, people admire Lei Feng for his character. The term "活雷锋 Huó Léi Fēng", literally "living Lei Feng", has become a common expression by people for anyone who is seen as selfless, or anyone who goes out of their way to help others.

In 2012, great attention was given to Lei Feng’s 50th birthday by the government and he has come back in society strongly since then.

For some he remains a ludicrous symbol of propaganda but an interesting survey in 2013 by Prof. Elaine Jeffreys (University of Technology Sydney) among 415 university students "Understanding the Lei Feng Revival" shows that younger people hold other viewpoints.

The survey showed that just 3% thought he was “just propaganda,” with 73% viewing him as a role model. 77% believed Lei Feng symbolized “helping others” rather than patriotism or loyalty. No one — 0% — thought he was “not relevant to today’s China”.

Download the whole survey in the sources section at bottom.

It might signal that the legacy of Lei Feng for what he stood for is greater than just his political ties, making factual accuracy less relevant as the legacy of morality in Chinese society serves the purpose. 

Lei Feng is anywhere in Chinese society, posters on the street, mugs, t-shirts, TV shows, movies and pop songs. There was even a condom package with Lei Feng in 2006, although very short-lived as it was shut down.

Last year KFC opened a Lei Feng-themed restaurant in Changsha (his hometown) to honor his spirit.

Also during today’s COVID-19; “The more critical the time, the brighter the spirit of Lei Feng,” declared one Xinhua article on March 5. Media praised Wuhan medics being “living Lei Fengs”.

Western societies hardly have role models like Lei Feng. Exceptional selflessness, those who suffered for a grand cause or saved millions are being praised and honored in the West such as Mandela or Martin Luther King, Jr.. Western societies don’t have statues for cleaning mattresses or cleaning cabbage.

Western people might perceive the legacy as pure propaganda but Lei Feng has turned into so much more in many dimensions in Chinese society. And when times are tough, Lei Feng is amid the people. How many times do you hear "活雷锋 Huó Léi Fēng” or "living Lei Feng" when ordinary people praise others for their human spirit.

As Alex Colville writes in his article "In the Spirit of Lei Feng" from Supchina (see sources at bottom) during COVID19 times :

"I now tell the volunteer temperature-checkers in my housing compound they are “living Lei Fengs.” The look of happy gratitude on their faces, the eagerness with which they run to tell colleagues, shows Lei Feng is a little label for a big idea."

The legacy of Lei Feng, its role in China and for the people today as well as its controversies are a typical example for the complexity, dualism, collectivism and diversity of Chinese society.

Beijing, July 2020. Gordon Dumoulin


This article has been written with extracts or data from following sources :

Understanding the Lei Feng Revival |

In the spirit of Lei Feng by Supchina |

Lei Feng Wikipedia |

#china #chineseculture #chinesesociety #crosscultural

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