In 1962, an unheralded conscript was killed in Fushun, northeastern China. Lei Feng was just 20 when a banal accident — a falling telephone pole — ended his yet-undistinguished life. Officials later fortuitously uncovered his diary, allegedly filled with words of selfless devotion to the Communist Party. His ideal had been “to be a small cog in the machine,” working for the party and Chairman Mao. “Parents are dear to their children, but they can’t compare with Chairman Mao,” read one entry.
Mao needed all the propaganda skills he had to divert attention away from the Great Leap Forward, which was failing spectacularly; Lei Feng’s story was a godsend — as much as that word can be employed within Mao’s atheistic society. ‘Lei Feng’ myth thus promptly began with a ‘Learn from Comrade Lei Feng’ campaign, initially focused on performing humble Communist deeds, but later also on following the cult of Mao. The biography of Lei Feng saw some strange variants before the definitive version was prepared by the writers of the Propaganda Department in 1964.
Chinese leaders, including Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemin praised Lei Feng as the personification of altruism. ‘Lei Feng Exhibitions’ were organized in the large cities, showing many different “original” copies of the hero’s diary. These exhibitions –and the official illustrated diary — also contained a remarkable number of photographs, such as “Lei Feng helping an old woman to cross the street,” “Lei Feng secretly [sic] doing his comrades’ washing,” “Lei Feng giving his lunch to a comrade who forgot his lunch box,” and so forth. Susan Sontag was frankly dismissive of the authenticity of these photos in her On Photography. Simon Leys was more sarcastic in his 1977 book Ombres Chinoises: “Only cynical and impious spirits will wonder at the providential presence of a photographer during the various incidents in the life of that humble, hitherto unknown soldier.”
After Mao’s death, Lei Feng briefly remained a cultural icon symbolizing selflessness, modesty, and dedication, but his life became more openly questioned. A photograph later hilariously showed Lei wearing a wristwatch, an item of extravagance that was officially denied and practically unavailable to people of his rank*. Although many contemporary writers dismiss Lei’s continued importance, he remains one of modern China’s most resilient icons. Although his prominence in textbooks has declined, Lei Feng remains part of the national curriculum. He may now be subjected to open mockery, but there are still Lei Feng memorial, museum, and memorial day, and his life was also still celebrated in songs, T-shirts, kitsch internet animations and even a video-game even into 1990s and 2000s.
(cf. Wristwatches also made a rather unfortunate appearance in another series of iconic propaganda photographs made by an equally suffocating dictatorship.)