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45 Years of Lei Feng

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.

11 Comments on 45 Years of Lei Feng

  1. Thanks for this — I hadn’t known. For a while I’d thought about writing a novel entitled 电线杆: The Lei Feng Story.

  2. Xian Ting Xin Zuo // March 5, 2008 at 1:39 pm //

    Lei Feng was definitely a favorite propaganda icon of the Communist Party of China. The question we ought to ask ourselves is, why did it all happen the way it did Lei Feng’s iconic role model status?

    In a nutshell, it’s all due to economic and Chinese culture. Let me explain…

    Unlike in the capitalist West where people mostly strive to carve out their own wealth in a developed society, China, particularly back in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, and even ’80s, was a developing nation where there were limited economic means to encourage people to put in more hard work, i.e. no exponential pay raise or fat bonus for people like Lei Feng. So his “selfless contribution to the society” was exploited by the CPC to help address this issue.

    Then in Western culture, I’m always amazed at how people would go out of their way to help a stranger in need. I just slammed Christianity for their bigotry in many so-called “pro-life” matters in another post of mine on Granite Studio’s blog. But I can’t help feeling it might have something to do with the positive side of their religious ideas: helping people for nothing in return — whereas in a non-Christian China, people rarely lift a finger to help a stranger, although they do tend to help those in their family and friend circles. But not strangers. In a culture like China’s where people don’t usually help others, Lei Feng’s role model was much needed.

  3. Jeremiah,

    the first poster you quote can’t be from 1965: the aesthetics were different in those days. This poster, and the other ones from the series (not quoted here) must be from the early 1980s. However, they are undated.



  4. One has to wonder how many Lei Fengs bought the farm during the recent winter weather woes when it was purported that 10,000 concrete electrical poles lacking rebar broke. Waiting on the diaries.

  5. Stefan,

    Thanks for the tip. It was actually a typo, I had originally used the “Uncle Lei Feng reads revolutionary stories” poster from 1965, switched to the “wholeheartedly serve the people” and then forgot to erase the date.

    By the way, words cannot describe the gratitude that those of use interested in modern Chinese history have for your hard work and research into the world of Chinese visual propaganda.


  6. This is amazing. Unclear whether or not it comes with a diary, though.

  7. What a beautifully written post! Shall watch this blog with interest.

  8. It’s a nice text. I am a Chinese who grew up under the red flag. Still in the 80s of the last century the campaign “learning from Lei Feng” was still enormously popular. I can recall what I did that time: help old people / blind, handicapped people cross the streets, find some lost money outside and turn them in to teachers or policemen… Actually the kids normally know nothing about the propaganda. In some extent, it does good for the growing up of the kids.

    Ironically, on the newest March 05, I was the only one who can still remember Lei Feng in my friends circle (a community of Chinese students who are studying somewhere overseas).

    By the way, I read all the diaries of Lei Feng and can still remember a lot. It was not seldom in the 60s and 70s (also the first years of 80s) for young Chinese college students and workers to write such kind of diaries on order to get some political privileges in contests etc.

  9. Hey, question, do you think it’s possible that Lei Feng was a fantasist? It’s trite to say that the communist government fabricated the character, but it would be both humorous and pathetic for Lei Feng to have done it himself.

  10. Jeremiah,

    Just a quick note to thank you for this post, and also to note that efforts to promote and reinforce good behavior in this way have a long history in China. I was just reading an article about community compacts (xiangyue) in the Song (and then Zhu Xi’s reincarnation of them) and they were deployed in a similar way–in this sense, a written guideline for correct, harmonious behavior. And, of course, there were enormous efforts to this end during the Republican period as well (most prominently the New Life Movement of the mid-30s). In response to earlier posters who have mentioned that the Lei Feng phenomenon is a reflection of Chinese people’s inability to act on these norms of “good behavior,” I would gently suggest instead that it is rather evidence of the persistence of a set of ideal behaviors.

  11. Kate MH,

    You raise an excellent point, attempts at moral exhortation have a long history in China as does the use of iconic figures as part of moral education.

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