Lei Feng Remains National Icon Despite Social Changes

He is probably the only ordinary Chinese to be remembered by the whole nation, and his selflessness and devotion have inspired at least three generations of people over the past 40 years.

His boyish smile still beams today from posters, newspapers, television and children's textbooks, and his name is known even to preschoolers.

To the Chinese, the young soldier whose life was cut short at the tender age of 22 has remained alive, and his patriotism, compassion and self-sacrifice have become a part of the moral standards for the 1.3 billion population.

Lei Feng was born a peasant in 1940 and lost both his parents by age seven. At 20, he joined the People's Liberation Army and spent all his spare time and money helping the needy. On Aug. 15, 1962, he was killed when a truck backing up struck a pole that toppled at him.

He became a household name in March 1963 when late Chinese leader Mao Zedong called on the whole nation to learn from him, and March has since been dedicated to the national "Learn from LeiFeng" campaign -- one that has never been halted despite convulsive changes in the country's contemporary history.

During the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution when Mao Zedong was idolized by the entire nation, Lei Feng was known as "Chairman Mao's good soldier" who had resolutely adhered to Mao Zedong Thought.

In the centrally planned economy of the late 1970s and early 1980s, most Chinese vowed to lead a frugal and meager life just like Lei Feng. Children were told to wear old clothes passed on bytheir elder brothers and sisters, and it was considered a disgrace to throw something away before it was completely worn out.

"To learn from Lei Feng" was at that time an important assignment for schoolchildren, who would, in their spare time, do voluntary work in their neighborhood and at railway stations, helping the elderly clean up houses, bringing a lost child home or carrying luggage for passengers.

"When asked what they had done, over half of the class would say they had returned wallets they found on the road or helped blind people cross streets," recalled a retired primary school teacher in Shenyang, capital of northeastern Liaoning Province.

Today, the Chinese are learning from Lei Feng in a much broader sense. Many do voluntary work, help the needy by donating money, body organs and blood, or apply to work in poverty-stricken western areas.

Many private business owners, known as the new rich in China, are also seeking to emulate Lei Feng by donating money to sponsor public welfare projects, help school dropouts and create job opportunities for the unemployed. And for many private firms, the Lei Feng spirit has become an important part of corporate culture.

"Exemplary Followers of Lei Feng" are being elected each year in many Chinese localities to carry forward the soldier's spirit.

A 19-year-old girl named Zhang Tiantian recently wrote a biographical novel, "The Song of Lei Feng", to express the younger generation's love and respect for the hero.

"Like all my peers, I've been encouraged to learn from Lei Fengever since I was a child," said Zhang, who traveled last year to Lei Feng's hometown in central Hunan province, and the PLA Shenyang Military Area Command where he was a soldier, to interview Lei's old acquaintances and find out more facts for her novel.

"When I sat in his former residence all alone, I felt I could see him -- a pleasant big boy," she added.

"Everyone lives in a specific social context, and so did Lei Feng," said Zhai Yuanbin, copywriter at the Lei Feng Memorial Hallin Fushun City, Liaoning Province. "The 'Lei Feng spirit' has been interpreted from different perspectives over the past decades, butits essence remains unchanged, namely love for the motherland, determination to serve the people, a strong sense of responsibility, perseverance and innovation."

"Lei Feng is a true hero: his life was made up of simple, day-to-day events that reflect his devotion and sense of responsibility, instead of world-shaking events or miracles," said a citizen in Shenyang who claimed to have been born in the same year as Lei.

In his spare time, Lei Feng was a voluntary tutor for primary school students in Fushun City. His account of his own miserable childhood and the profound changes brought by the Communist takeover in 1949 ignited patriotism in many children.

"He once asked us what we would like to do when we grew up," said Chen Yajuan, one of the students Lei Feng tutored, "We all said we wanted to become scientists or artists."

"'Why not a farmer or a worker?' he asked us in return," recalled Chen, now in her early 50s, "He then told us never to ignore petty things or ordinary people."

Chen's alma mater, Benxi Road Primary School in Fushun City, isthe predecessor of today's Lei Feng Primary School.

"Inspired by Lei Feng's words, I've been doing my best in everything I do," she said.

Lei Feng has won the respect of many people for his compassion. The Lei Feng Memorial Hall in Fushun has received over 64 million visitors since it was opened in 1964. When it was closed for renovation last year, people still poured in from every corner of the country, presenting fresh flowers, liquor and jujubes to show their respect.

The "Lei Feng spirit" has impressed foreigners as well.

"It's the common goal of the human race to pursue happiness through serving people and contributing to social progress," said Hiroshi Miyazaki, general manager of Dalian Harada Industry Co., Ltd in Liaoning. "The 'Lei Feng spirit' is an everlasting heritage for all of humanity."

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