The Moral Icon Lei Feng

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Léi Fēng (18 December 1940  – 15 August 1962) was a soldier of the Chinese army in Communist legend. After his death, Lei was characterized as a selfless and modest person devoted to the Communist Party, 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.

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 5.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Lei Feng’s story continues to be referenced in popular culture.

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