Friday, March 6, 2009

Learn from Lei Feng: Cap Your Rig


Yesterday, March 5 was a minor holiday in China - Lei Feng Day. The "Fengster" as the Danwei.org blog refers to him was an otherwise unremarkable soldier who was turned into a revolutionary icon of Maoist China for his supposed selfless devotion to the people. In his own words, the man who supposedly spent his free time studying the works of Chairman Mao and darning his own and other people's socks wanted to be nothing more than a selfless "revolutionary screw that never rusts."


He died not as a martyr or hero, but ingloriously when a truck accidently backed into a power pole that fell and crushed him at 22. Unknown to the western world, Lei Feng was, until Mao declared the "Learn from Lei Feng Campaign" on March 5, 1963, a nobody, a cheerful everyman and orphan who made the People's Liberation Army and the Communist Party his family, as recorded in books assembled after his death supposedly from his diary, statements and deeds – “After Liberation I Had a Home, My Mother was the Party” and “Bitter Recollections and Sweet Thoughts.”

Even in the bold new China of money and stock market IPOs, he continued to serve - as in a 2006 an online Lei Feng video game (players collected gold tokens for performing good deeds and darning socks in order to "visit" Chairman Mao) and a navel gazing Lei Feng blog in which he "wrote" about his own legend.

“In March of each year, lots of people start to study me. This kind of thing has gone on for years and years. Sometimes, when I'm helping other people, I'll unconsciously think to myself, ‘I'm learning from Lei Feng,’ and feel a sincere joy. Sometimes I'll forget that Lei Feng is really me. Me, learning from an even higher me. Sometimes this problem baffles me.”

So it baffled me a bit when coworkers gave me a "What the hey?" looks when I wished them "Happy Lei Feng day". Most laughed. The Fengster, who fascinates me - I've got a kitschy poster in my bedroom, Barry White would be proud - is a joke to most who grew up on his legend in primary school. In fact, children are supposed to observe Lei Feng Day by helping old people across the streets. A recent Chinese language news item told of a delegate to the current gathering of the annual government rubberstamp legislature who wants the Fengster declared as a "national heritage" by the United Nations and is under the deluded belief that he's so revered that his portrait even hangs in West Point to inspire cadets. As if we didn't have enough of our own hero soldiers, few of whom were slain by power poles.

"Oh, you know so much about Chinese culture," one coworker said politely when I did the Lei Feng day greeting. I assured him that what I know about Chinese culture could be stuffed in one of their tiny tea cups with room for a family of six. "But why are you interested in Lei Feng?"

Part of it is his kitsch value, no question. Typically pictured in his winter issue PLA floppy ear flaps hat, he is presented as a cross between a Boy Scout and Mother Teresa. And there are reoccuring attempts to modernize him - both offcially and otherwise as was done by a Shanghai novelty company in 2006 that was selling "Learn from Lei Feng" condoms. It should be noted that Lei Feng died a virgin. At least that's the official line. And his condoms were pulled from the market following objections originally spurred by an outraged mother who found a tin of them along with an "Official Horndog" certificate in her teenage son's school backpack.

I interviewed the company's spokesman (courtesy of C's translating skills) for a story I wrote at the time for Asia Sentinel and when pressed about the logic of using Lei Feng's virginal visage to sell rubbers, he had a prompt reply. "Lei Feng would have supported safe sexual conduct and responsible family planning, I believe. And our condoms are stronger than his socks. He would not need to repair them."

Image courtesy of Stefan Landsberger's Chinese Propaganda Poster Pages

3 comments:

john said...

So this is something like Arbor Day, or Flag Day, or Groundhog Day? Did Lei Feng see his shadow?

Stuart said...

I was thinking along the lines of "Learn from Lei Feng: Don't die a virgin!"

Anonymous said...

Hey Justin,
It's Kevin Kegler. You may remember me from such films as lunch at the Bice cabin or Miller High-Life on the back porch. I'm in Beijing through tomorrow night and would like to get together for a drink or a hit of oxygen if we can make it happen. I'm impressed at the inability to find anyone or anything in this city of millions. I'm staying at the Sariz Hotel at 19 ZhongguanCun St, Haidian unless they knock it down tonight to make room for a bigger and better hotel/ mall/ massage parlor/ brothel/ pizza joint/ starbucks.