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In Need of New “Hero” For Young Chinese

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It’s 50 years since the death of one of China’s most prominent propaganda heroes: Lei Feng, from the era of Mao Zedong.

He was an ordinary soldier known for spending all his spare money and time to help the needy – and has been China’s national symbol of sacrifice since 1963.

The 5th of March is the official “Learn from Lei Feng” day, when people go to clean up parks, schools and other public places.

But as Rebecca Valli reports from Beijing, Lei Feng’s legacy is also changing in modern China.

In a scene from the 1964 movie about Lei Feng, the hero runs into a mother and child on a country road, in the middle of a terrible storm.

The child, soaking wet, is scared and crying.

After learning that the two have a long way to walk, Lei Feng offers to accompany them.

He picks the little boy up, starts walking and even calms him with a song.

The movie was made two years after Lei Feng’s death.

Urging people to “Learn from Lei Feng”, Communist Party chief Mao Zedong tried to inspire Chinese youth with a passion for self-sacrifice and patriotism.

Lei Feng’s diary was published as a book; and a song called “Study Lei Feng, the good model” was released.  

Chen Shaofeng is a professor at Beijing University’s Philosophy Department.

“Lei Feng had some opportunities that most people do not have. He was an orphan but he was able to receive support from many people. He was in horrible circumstances but the communist party organizations helped him. This kind of support contributed in shaping his sense of social order, he was a soldier, but outside his work duties he would always do the utmost to help other people.”

Authorities have promoted “Lei Feng's spirit” – a combination of humble obedience and lighthearted altruism – in waves ever since the 1960s,.

Party officials often turn the spotlight on Lei Feng’s good behavior, to encourage people to unite in times of moral crisis or social tension.

50 years after his death, the Party’s Central Committe ordered media to intensify coverage of “Lei Feng activities.” A book of his collected writings was also published for the occasion.  

And Lei Feng myth is undergoing some changes.

A short film called “Lei Feng Man” made last year by filmmaker Ma Shi has been viewed by millions online.

The movie tells the story of Yingxiong –which means ‘hero’ in Chinese.

Yingxiong is given Lei Feng’s clothes and immediately transforms into a modern version of the icon.

Dressed in a superhero outfit and riding a rusty bike, he hits the streets – scraping off advertisements plastered across the city, helping a blind person to cross the street, and climbing a tree to fetch a little boy’s kite.

The film’s producer, Zhang Liangliang, says this is not mocking the old hero.

“I don't think we are making fun of Lei Feng. It is more of a reinterpretation of Lei Feng, done in an entertaining way.”

Zhang is a fresh graduate of China’s top film school and he’s idealistic about Lei Feng’s spirit.

Yet he acknowledges that young people today doubt that Lei Feng was in fact a real person.

“They think that Lei Feng seems too perfect to be real. As if he was invented, he does not seem like a person who really existed.”

To many young Chinese, widespread corruption and undeserved privileges suggest that officials don’t practice what they preach.

Professor Chen Shaofeng from Beijing University says young people now have wider access to information through the internet – making official propaganda a difficult task.

“When these information for example about Lei Feng is spread to young people now, it's like a small drop of water into the big sea. Propaganda can move people, but its effectiveness is greater if it's in concert with how the civil society is evolving. It cannot be excessive because otherwise people will not believe you, if you tell someone's story in too perfect terms, then people will not trust you.”

An actor of last year’s movie is Li Zhen, who was born in the 1980s.

He says today’s youth don’t need a new hero, but instead a new set of principles to live by.

“A more materialistic culture started to develop then, and spiritually things evolved as well. People born afterwards came in contact with many more things than even my generation did, their concept of hero became multifaceted.”


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