It’s always a tragedy when your propaganda icons lose relevance to the younger generation. A couple of years past the fortieth anniversary of the original “Study Lei Feng” campaign, China’s propaganda moles are clearly hard-up for a way to make the much mythologized “ideal soldier” resonate with a generation of youngsters brought up on pirate “Friends” DVDs, MP3 players and Internet chat rooms. How else to explain this Xinhua article, which ran a couple of days ago, just before yesterday’s annual “Lei Feng Day” (don’t worry; I didn’t know it was coming either):
March 5 is an ordinary date on the Chinese calendar, but it’s the day when millions of young people across the country will do something good for someone else, following Lei Feng’s example.
“Lei Feng Day, honors a Chinese cultural icon who was immortalized by the late Chairman Mao Zedong as a selfless and model person serving the people heart and soul.
Lei Feng, who was just 22 when he was killed in an accident in 1962, inspired the nation after Mao called on people to “Learn from comrade Lei Feng”, and show the “Lei Feng Spirit”.
Born to a peasant family in Wangcheng of Central China’s Hunan Province, Lei Feng was orphaned before he was seven. At 20, he joined the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and spent all his spare time and money helping the needy. Lei died after being hit on the head by a wooden pole that was accidentally knocked over by a fellow soldier.
Lei left behind him a remarkable legacy of diaries and poems detailing his hopes and aspirations. For emerging new China, which was rapidly evolving through the 1950′s and 60′s, Lei’s diaries are peppered with simple verses of inspiration that rang true for the masses who wanted to “make the world more beautiful everyday. “By the early 1970′s Lei was worshipped as a hero or even a god and millions of young people emulated his acts of generosity.
That adulation was certainly not the result of any orchestrated propaganda campaign, and it’s cynical of you to think so. You should be ashamed. Posters such as the one at left, which exhorts everyone to love Mao Zidong thought in the manner of Lei Feng, were simply the result of people’s spontaneous outpouring of love for a 22 year-old peasant truck driver who died a conspicuously unheroic death. Many more such posters –all equally sincere– are on display at the Lei Feng section of Stefan Landsberger’s superb Chinese propaganda posters website.
Lei’s new biographer is working hard to ensure that modern youth, notorious for their short attention spans and disdain for Soviet-style, floppy-eared winter hats, stay connected with Lei Feng, who obviously has many lessons left to teach. Most interesting is an attempt to portray Lei as stylish and contemporary. At least, by 1962 Maoist standards:
Shi Yonggang felt unwell with the situation, who is one of the editors of a new book [sic], “Lei Feng: 1940-1962″, that will be released to on Sunday’s Lei Feng Day to recall Lei Feng’s Spirit.
This latest edition of Lei Feng’s story is one of more than 1,000 books that have recorded his good deeds.
“It is a pity that the image of Lei Feng depicted in those books is hard for people, especially young people, to understand and accept nowadays,” said Shi, the editor.
Shi’s book includes more than 300 never-before-published photographs of Lei showing him as an obviously fun-loving young man who was hip with his times.
In fact, not only was Lei hip with his times, such as they were, he was, it turns out, the coolest kid in his platoon, and a veritable style maven:
“Lei Feng did almost all the fashionable things of his day ,” Shi said. When Lei was a farmer, he drove a tractor which is comparable to today’s BMW. When workers became the most respected segment of society in the 1950s, Lei became an iron worker in an Anshan factory in Northeast China’s Liaoning Province. He then upgraded his technical skills to earn a rarely-issued driver’s licence and began a career as a truck driver.
Shi’s two favorite pictures are of Lei riding a borrowed motorcycle on Tian’anmen Square in downtown Beijing, while the other shows Lei holding a trendy satchel as he stands by the WuhanYangtze River Bridge, in Central China’s Hubei Province.
The photographs also show that Lei wore fashionable sweaters, a leather jacket and wristwatch, all considered luxury items of the day.
Driving a tractor; working as an iron worker; flashing a trendy backback. The boy was out of control. I grant you it looks like a stretch to equate nursing your rusty tractor over some dessicated, rutted field with pumping your black BMW 7-series down the highway at asshole speeds or pulling it up in front of Bellagio so the princelings out for their pre-club snacks can see your supermodel girlfriend flash her panties as she ankles her way out of the shotgun seat in a skirt so short it could be mistaken for a wide belt. But you have to remember we’re talking about 1950s China here, and standards were different. Nobody had panties then. Cool was where you found it, even if that was, um, a tractor.
Finally, it turns out that the obedient and studious model soldier and worker was actually a rebellious hair farmer of the first degree:
Zhang said that Lei liked to look smart and he loved to wear long bangs even though they were prohibited in the army. “Lei was warned about his hair so he would hide his bangs under his cap when he was on duty, but when he was out of uniform he would let them hang loose,” Zhang said.
Astounding. It’s a complete reformation. He probably had a band on the side and smoked out under the bleachers. Lei Feng is clearly much more relevant to modern youth than anyone had dared dream possible. Can a new series of propaganda posters showing the iconic youth with shades, an iPod and a sexy girlfriend be far behind? After all, if modern China is all about the glory of getting rich, how can its icons miss the boat? With that in mind, I’d like to suggest a few updated slogans to accompany the new propaganda posters:
- Seriously study fashion like Lei Feng, and get a nice shirt and some decent shoes.
- Lei Feng says quit whining and get a grip.
- Lei Feng wouldn’t be caught dead with his finger up his nose, asshole.
- Only download legal music, in the manner of Lei Feng.
- If Lei Feng caught you spitting, he’d bitch-slap you silly.
- Live fast, die young, and leave a good looking corpse. Just like comrade Lei Feng.
Look out kids, it’s the all-new Lei Feng.