For many years, one of my fascinations has been propaganda. Whether it’s in the form of commercial advertising, news reports, or outright government communiques and visual art. Some of the most blatant and striking has been generated by the various Communist Parties. Red China has created some of the most interesting campaigns. One of their more successful campaigns is still celebrated on March 5th, each year.
Lei Feng is a combination historical figure and official legend. The official Communist Party story goes something like this:
Lei Feng was born to peasant parents in Hunan Province in 1940. Still an infant, he became an orphan when Japanese occupying soldiers shot his father. Shortly afterward, an evil landlord drove his mother to suicide. Lei Feng was rescued by the Party and was raised to become a soldier in the Peoples’ Liberation Army, PLA, and a member of the Communist Party. In 1962, Lei Feng was killed in a work related accident. A truck he was directing backed up into a telephone pole which fell and struck the young worker.
The Party and government launched the “Learn From Comrade Lei Feng” campaign the next year. Conveniently, there were many photos of him and his diary was published. Chinese citizens were told to follow the example of Lei Feng’s “screw spirit”. That is in regard to a diary notation in which he explained his goal to be a “never rusting screw in China’s revolutionary machine.” Lei’s diary was filled with entries expressing admiration for Chairman Mao Zedong.
The first propaganda campaign was a part of a major effort to improve Mao’s public image, that had taken quite a beating after the “Great Leap Forward” program. Most scholars and much of the public believe that the book was a total fabrication of the Party’s propaganda department. Of interest are twelve photos of Lei Feng (or someone resembling him) performing his humble, but heroic deeds. The images are of very good, professional grade.
Oddly, Lei Feng was supposedly an unknown and obscure citizen who only performed very mundane tasks. Under normal circumstances would there be a reason for a professional photographer to record such events nor to document the life of such a humble citizen? Despite Lei Feng’s obscurity, the propaganda displays, in great detail, information about Lei’s life and his devotion to virtuous, moral and patriotic actions.
“We should treat comrades like the breeze in spring, work hard like summer’s sunshine, conquer difficulties like the autumn’s bise sweeping withered leafs, and treat the enemy as ruthless as the cold winter.”–Lei Feng
These days, Learn From Lei Feng Day is encouraged by official Chinese institutions and has been endorsed by all the Premiers since the days of Mao Zedong. Community and school events take place to pick up litter in parks and clean up schools and streets.
Despite the official endorsements, a recent survey by the Xinhua News Agency found that elementary school pupils have only a vague understanding of Lei Feng’s life. About 70-percent have not even read the diary. Attendance at previously mandatory “biographical” Lei Feng films has been minimal.
“If you are a drop of water, do you moisten an inch of the land? If you are the first sunlight, do you illuminate the dark hours? If you are food, do you foster useful life? If you are one of the smallest screws, will you always stick with the status of your life? If you want to tell us what you are thinking, do you disseminate the most beautiful ideal day and night? When you are alive do you always remember to work hard and realize your efforts will affect future lives and let the world become more beautiful day by day? I would like to ask you, what have you brought about for the future? In our life, we should not only be spenders.”
Older, hardline Chinese citizens still celebrate the life and supposed good deeds of Lei Feng. They remind the Chinese youth that the world needs more of the lessons of humility and devotion that Lei exhibited.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes Lei Feng. “To live is to serve the people. Live to make others happy.”