March 5 in the People’s Republic of China is marked as Learn From Lei Feng Day (向雷锋同志学习 / 向雷鋒同志學習), This is a propaganda campaign encouraging imitation of Comrade Lei Feng, a young People’s Liberation Army soldier who died at age 22. Lei Feng was held up as an example of communist ideals, including a strong work ethic, self-sacrificing nature, and unquestioning dedication to Mao Zedong and the socialist cause. Following his death on August 15, 1962, 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.
Born on December 18, 1940, in Wangcheng near the town of Leifeng (named in his honor), Changsha, Hunan, 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 laborer, died a year later, and his younger brother passed soon afterwards. Finally, his mother committed suicide after being “dishonored by a landlord.”
Lei 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” propaganda 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 propagandists 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, 5 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 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.
The lauded 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.
A 2008 Xinhua survey noted that a large number elementary school students have vague knowledge of Lei Feng’s life, with only 32 percent of the surveyed having read Lei’s diary.
However, Lei Feng is an icon who continues to resonate in mainland China. March 5 has become the official “Learn from Lei Feng Day” (学雷锋日 — 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 honored 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” (东北人都是活雷锋 — 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 organization 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 March 5, 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 organizing group viewings.
Lei Feng’s Former Residence (雷锋故居 — Leí Fēng Gùjū) is currently an immensely popular tourist attraction in Hunan. The residence is located in Leifeng Town of Wangcheng District, in northwestern Changsha, South Central China’s Hunan province. Lei Feng was born in the original 12-room house on December 18, 1940, and lived there until November 1956 when he was transferred to Wangcheng County as a civil servant. The residence was demolished in 1958 because of significant disrepair and dilapidation. Lei’s uncle, Lei Guangming (雷光明), built a 3-room house on its original site. In the winter of 1966, the Hunan Provincial Government started to construct the Lei Feng Memorial near the residence. It was completed on November 20, 1968. The local government renovated the residence in 1991 soon after which it was officially opened to the public. The grounds also include a 16-foot (5 m) tall statue of Lei Feng wearing a military uniform with a gun on his back. The statue was made of granite by sculptor Zhu Weijing (朱惟精).
China released its first stamps honoring Lei Feng on the 15th anniversary of Chairman Mao’s eulogy, “Learn from Comrade Lei Feng,” March 5, 1978 (Scott #1376-1378). All three stamps were denominated at 8 Chinese renminbi fēn with one stamp bearing Mao’s eulogy (bearing the stamp number of 3-1), another giving Chairman Hua Guofeng’s thoughts (3-2), and the last picturing Lei dressed in a military uniform and studying Mao’s works. These were printed using the photogravure process and perforated 11¼ x 11.
The 50th anniversary of Chairman Mao’s eulogy was marked by the release of four stamps designed by Li Chen and released on March 5, 2013 (Scott #4068-4071). In addition to each stamp design being issued in individual sheets of 12, there was also a miniature sheet of eight stamps, two of each design (Scott #4071a). These were produced using a combination of offset lithography and engraving by the Henan Provinal Postage Stamp Printing Works, perforated 13½. The 80-fēn stamp in the set is titled “Follow the Example of Comrade Lei Feng” (Scott #4068), the first of three 1.20 ¥ (Chinese renminbi yuan) denominations is called “Learn and Study” (Scott #4069) while the others are “Work Hard” (Scott #4070) and “Happy in Helping Hands” (Scott #4071). The serial number on the miniature sheet is 2013-3 s while those on the individual stamps are 2013-3 (4-1 through 4-4).