What China's Talking About Today: Questioning a Maoist Icon

Mixed views on a famous revolutionary figure

Revolutionary icon Lei Feng is memorialized in a popular Cultural Revolution-era propaganda film / YouTube

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Chinese revolutionary icon Lei Feng's death.

Beijing seems to be re-conjuring Lei's image, sparking several trends on Sina Weibo with hash-tags  #Do You Remember Lei Feng?# and #Lei Feng is in our hearts#.

Everything Beijing has wanted Chinese people to be, since the founding of the People's Republic, Lei exemplified in his diary.

Lei Feng was an orphan who became a member of the Communist youth and was virtually raised by the Party. At the age of 21, while serving in the People's Liberation Army, Lei died in an automobile accident. What is believed to have been his journal was first presented to the Chinese public by Lin Biao -- Chairman Mao Zedong's erstwhile right-hand man.

In the diary, Lei wrote of selfless deeds for his country and compatriots as well as an undying devotion to the tenets of Mao Zedong thought.

It seems Beijing is digging up the deceased patriot once again. In a spread entitled "Lei Feng Continues to Lead By Example," national newspaper China Daily writes that this year Beijing hopes the 50th anniversary of his death will "encourage altruism" in a country where "many people are still reeling from several shocking events in 2011, including the death of a 2- year-old girl who was ignored by passers-by after being run over [by a car]."

Living in China, one often hears calls from the government, often in public service announcements, to live by example and improve the suzhi or the quality of the nation's collective character. China scholars have long discussed the Lei Feng phenomenon, but his likeness has been largely relegated to knick-knacks and t-shirts at China's tourist traps.

But Lei Feng is, once more, a part of the popular conversation.

Monday was Lei Feng Day in China. By 8am on Tuesday, China time, "Lei Feng" showed up in well over 5 million Weibo micro-blogs -- some reverential, many snarky.

User 小样J_小模wrote: "Lei Feng represents a way of living and treating others. He is a good example. #Lei Feng is in our hearts.#"

User 彼岸莲心 seemed to disagree: "My child's school suddenly bombarded them with Lei Feng propaganda. I just tell my kid, you don't need to study any specific person on any specific day. I say it's just like any other day, and encourage them to be a kind, genuine person - that's enough..."

Other users ignored Lei Feng's potential lessons for Chinese society altogether and went after the icon himself.

User 西安欧文 wrote: "Yesterday was Lei Feng Day! Have you learned [alluding to the "Learn from Lei Feng" propaganda campaign]? What money do you have to learn from Lei Feng? In 1958, Lei Feng's monthly salary was 38RMB. 50 years ago, Lei feng wore 44-yuan leather jacket and 18-yuan pants... The older generation knows that in 1958, a salary of 38RMB was a lot - He was among the moneyed, privileged people of the day. My fellows, do you have the fees to go learn?"

Judging by the discussion on Weibo, it seems Lei Feng represents a bygone era -- a kind of intentional naiveté that many in the Cultural Revolution would brandish as a kind of social capital. It's almost surreal to see some Chinese media trying to breathe life back into him, and its even more interesting to see some Chinese Netizens so boldly reject one of the icons that are at the base of the People's Republic today.