Lei Feng (18 December 1940 to 15 August 1962) was a soldier in the People’s Liberation Army who was the object of several major propaganda campaigns in China. The most well known of these campaigns in 1963 promoted the slogan, “Follow the examples of Comrade Lei Feng.” Lei was portrayed as a model citizen, and the masses were encouraged to emulate his selflessness, modesty, and devotion to Mao. After Mao’s death, state media continued to promote Lei Feng as a model of earnestness and service, and his image still appears in popular forms such as on T-shirts and memorabilia.
The biographic details of Lei Feng’s life, and especially his diary, supposedly discovered after his death, are generally believed to be propaganda creations; even the historicity of Lei Feng is sometimes questioned. The continuing use of Lei in government propaganda has become a source of cynicism and even derision amongst segments of the Chinese population. Nevertheless, Lei’s function as a propaganda icon has survived decades of political change in China.
The current biography of Lei Feng as given in China’s state media says that he was born in Wangcheng (near the town of Leifeng, Changsha, Hunan, named in his honour), Lei was orphaned at a young age. According to CNTV, 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 “dishonoured 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 (22 by East Asian age reckoning, by which a newborn is one year old at birth), when a telephone pole, struck by an army truck, hit him as he was directing the truck in backing up.
Lei Feng was not widely known until after his death. In 1963, Lei Feng’s Diary was first presented to the public by Lin Biao in the first of many “Learn from Lei Feng” campaigns. The diary was full of accounts of Lei’s admiration for Mao Zedong, his selfless deeds, and his desire to foment revolutionary spirit. Lin’s use of Lei’s diary was part of a larger effort to improve Mao’s image, which had suffered after the Great Leap Forward. Scholars generally believe that the diary was forged by Party officials under Lin’s direction.
The diary contains about 200,000 words describing selfless thoughts with enthusiastic comments on Mao and the inspiring nature of the Party. The campaign began at a time when the Chinese economy was recovering from the Great Leap Forward campaign. During 1964 the Lei Feng campaign shifted gradually from doing good deeds to a cult of Mao.
When Lei Feng died in the line of duty, he was only 22, but his short life gives concentrated expression to the noble ideals of a new people, nurtured with the communist spirit, and also to the noble moral integrity and values of the Chinese people in the new period. These are firm faith in communist ideals, political warmheartedness for the party and the socialist cause, the revolutionary will to work arduously for self-improvement, the moral quality and self-cultivation of showing fraternal unity and taking pleasure in assisting others, the heroic spirit of being ready to take up cudgels for a just cause without caring for one’s safety, the attitude of seeking advancement and studying hard, and the genuine spirit of matching words with deeds and enthusiastically carrying out one’s duties. (Editorial, People’s Daily, 05 March 1993).
Chinese leaders have praised Lei Feng as the personification of altruism. Leaders who have written about Lei Feng include Deng Xiaoping, Zhou Enlai, and Jiang Zemin. His cultural importance is still reproduced and reinforced by the media and cultural apparatus of the Chinese party-state, including emphasizing the importance of moral character during Mao’s era. Lei Feng’s prominence in school textbooks has since declined, although he remains part of the national curriculum. The term “活雷锋/Huó Léi Fēng” (literally “living Lei Feng”) has become a noun (or adjective) for anyone who is seen as selfless, or anyone who goes out of their way to help others.
The CPC’s construction of Lei Feng as a celebrity soldier is unique to the PRC and differs from the more typical creation of military heroes by governments during times of war. In the PRC, Lei Feng was part of continuing public promotion of soldiers as exemplary models, and evidence of the People’s Liberation Army’s role as social and political support to the Communist government.
Controversy Among Scholars
Details of Lei Feng’s life have been subject to dispute. While someone named Lei Feng may have existed, scholars generally believe the person depicted in the campaign was almost certainly a fabrication. Some observers noted, for instance, that the campaign presented a collection of twelve photographs of Lei Feng performing good deeds. The photographs were of exceptionally high professional quality, and depicted Lei – supposedly an obscure and unknown young man – engaging in mundane tasks.
The lauded details of Lei Feng’s life according to official documents led him to become a subject of derision and cynicism among segments of the Chinese populace. As John Fraser recalled, “Any Chinese I ever spoke to outside of official occasions always snorted about Lei Feng.” In a 2012 interview with the New York Review of Books, Chinese dissident blogger Ran Yunfei remarked on the moral and educational implications of the Lei Feng campaigns, noting the counterproductive nature of teaching virtues with a fabricated character.
A 2008 Xinhua survey noted that a large number of elementary school students have vague knowledge of Lei Feng’s life, with only 32 percent of the surveyed having read Lei’s diary.
Contemporary Cultural Importance
05 March has become the official “Learn from Lei Feng Day” (Chinese: 学雷锋日; pinyin: Xué Léi Fēng Rì). This day involves various community and school events where people go to clean up parks, schools, and other community locations. Local news on that day usually has footage from these events.
Lei Feng is especially honoured in Changsha, Hunan, and in Fushun, Liaoning. The Lei Feng Memorial Hall (in his birthplace, now named for him, Leifeng) and Lei Feng statue are located in Changsha. The local hospital carries his name. There is also a Lei Feng Memorial Hall, with a museum, in Fushun. Lei Feng’s military unit was based in Fushun, and it was here where he met his death. His tomb is located on the memorial grounds. To commemorate Lei Feng, the city of Fushun named several landmarks in honor of him. There is a Lei Feng Road, a Lei Feng Elementary School, a Lei Feng Middle School and a Leifeng bank office.
Lei Feng’s story continues to be referenced in popular culture. A popular song by Jilin singer Xue Cun (雪村) is called “All Northeasterners are Living Lei Fengs” (Chinese: 东北人都是活雷锋; pinyin: Dōngběi Rén Dōu Shì Huó Léifēng). A 1995 release, originally notable only for its use of Northeastern Mandarin, it shot to nationwide fame when it was combined with kitsch animations on the Internet in 2001. In March 2006, a Chinese organisation released an online game titled Learn from Lei Feng Online (学雷锋) in which the player has to do good deeds, fight spies, and collect parts of Mao Zedong’s collection. If the player wins, he or she gets to meet Chairman Mao in the game. In the 21st century his image has been used to sell items including, in one case, condom packaging.
As of 05 March 2013, popular interest in Lei Feng was minimal as ticket sales to feature-length biographical films, Young Lei Feng, Lei Feng’s Smile and Lei Feng 1959, released on Learn from Lei Feng Day failed to produce any takers at all in some cities. Reportedly, party cadres in rural areas have been charged by the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television with organising group viewings.