On this date in 1963, Mao Zedong launched the “Learn from Lei Feng” campaign. The most important lesson I’ve learned from Lei Feng is to look out for falling telephone poles, but maybe I’m not the target audience. Anyway, in case you missed it, Lei Feng was a young soldier in the PLA whose selfless devotion to his brother troops, to the people, and especially to Mao Zedong and his country made him a role model for young Chinese. If you want to think of him as a cross between a boy scout, GI Joe, and “Opie” from the old Andy Griffith Show, go ahead I won’t stop you.
How did he die, you might ask? Fighting the dastardly American imperialists? No. Sneaking across the Himalayas to beat back Indian encroachment into the Motherland? Not really. Mortal combat with Soviet spies? Not so much. Actually, he was directing one his fellow soldiers to back up a truck (Possible last words: “Dao! Dao! Dao! Ooomph…) when the truck knocked down a telephone pole right on top of poor Lei Feng.
After his death, Lei Feng’s Diary was, erm, discovered and…lo and behold…it turns out that he was quite the young man: always helping others, assisting old ladies, living a frugal life, darning socks for his platoon mates and of course diligently studying Mao Zedong thought. It was almost too good to believe. Actually, it was. “Learn from Lei Feng” exhibits sprang up like mushrooms through the PRC, moving tributes to exhort the people to follow Comrade Lei Feng’s example. Generations of students in China have ‘learned from Lei Feng’ starting at a young age, even as the soldier’s image has been updated and revised to suit the times and political climate. (Lei Feng the homeowner. Lei Feng the entrepreneur.* Lei Feng in an Audi A6 clutching a man purse. Ok, I made that last one up, but you get the idea.)
The fact that the diary was fictitious and a product of the propaganda department doesn’t necessarily rob Lei Feng of his significance–hey, it’s nice to be nice to others. As political campaigns go, urging people to help each other and be frugal definitely has its merits. So, let us all learn from Lei Feng: Help your fellow citizens, assist the elderly whenever possible, and for goodness sake, watch out for large falling objects.
*Stefan Landsberger, Lei Feng, p. 2.
top right: 1965 poster, “Serve the people wholeheartedly” from the Stefan Landsberger collection.
middle right: 1982 poster, “Mama tells me to study Lei Feng,” from the Stefan Landsberger collection.
bottom right: 1983 poster, “Learn from Comrade Lei Feng, foster a Communist moral character,” from the Stefan Landsberger collection.