Lei Feng

lei feng

Lei Feng (1940 – 1962) was a soldier of the People’s Liberation Army of China. After his death, Lei was characterized as a selfless and modest person who was devoted to the Communist Party, Chairman Mao Zedong, and the people of China. In 1963, he became the subject of a nationwide, posthumous propaganda campaign ‘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, Lei Feng remained a cultural icon representing earnestness and service; his name entered daily speech and his imagery appeared on t-shirts and memorabilia. Although someone named Lei Feng probably existed, the accounts of his life as depicted by Party propaganda are heavily disputed, leading him to become a source of cynicism and subject of derision among segments of the Chinese population. Nevertheless, Lei’s image as a role model serviceman has survived decades of political change in China.

Lei was orphaned at an early age. 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 while 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 military leader Lin Biao; it 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. Some Western scholars believe that the diary was forged by Party propagandists under Lin’s direction.

Lei Feng’s cultural importance is still 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 ‘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 CCP’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.

Details of Lei Feng’s life, as presented in the official propaganda campaign, 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. In a 1977 essay, Susan Sontag noted that these photographs of Lei Feng’s good deeds ‘depict scenes in which, clearly, no photographer could have been present.’

The impossible details of Lei Feng’s life according to official propaganda 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.

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