Author: Tong Yao
On March 5, China celebrates the “Learn from Lei Feng Day”, involving various community-minded actions where people clean schools, parks and other public spaces. But why is this day so remarkable?
Lei Feng was born in Wangcheng, Hunan province, in 1940. His childhood was marked by the loss of important family members who left him an orphan even before the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949.
His father was killed by invading the Japanese Army; his mother committed suicide after being “dishonoured by a landlord”. His elder brother died after a year of exploitation as a child laborer, and his younger brother passed away soon afterwards. Lei later became a member of the transportation unit of the People’s Liberation Army. Unfortunately, at 21, he died in an accident when a telephone pole, crashed into by an army truck, struck him.
Lei Feng started acquiring notoriety only after his death. His image revolved around Lei Feng’s Diary presented to the public in 1963 in the first of many “Learn from Lei Feng” campaigns. He was portrayed as a model citizen, and the masses were encouraged to emulate his selflessness and modesty.
Nevertheless, some are cynical about the truthfulness of the official details of Lei’s life. In fact, the propaganda campaign began at a time when the Chinese economy was recovering from the Great Leap Forward, the failure of which had seen Mao’s image suffer.
Lei Feng’s prominence in school textbooks has declined, but he remains part of the national curriculum. The phrase huó Léi Fēng (活雷锋; lit. “Living Lei Feng”) has become a noun (or adjective) for anyone who is selfless, or anyone who goes out of their way to help others.