Lei Feng's last words?

By Hu Qingyun Source:Global Times Published: 2013-3-11 22:43:01

Visitors look at the Forever Lei Feng exhibition at the China Millennium Monument on Friday. From March 4, about 23,000 visitors watched the exhibition over five days. Photo: CFP
Visitors look at the Forever Lei Feng exhibition at the China Millennium Monument on Friday. From March 4, about 23,000 visitors watched the exhibition over five days. Photo: CFP


The precise date is lost to history, but it was probably sometime close to 1960.

Rain was bucketing down upon a panic-stricken young woman at a Shenyang train station. She had been planning to visit her husband in Jilin Province, but instead she found herself trapped and alone in the cold. She had lost her ticket and all her money and had no idea what to do.

Out of the gloom came a face now known to Chinese citizens everywhere. The soldier bought her a ticket and sent her on her way, one more good deed in a list so long, many historians are skeptical one man could achieve so much.

"Thank you, comrade. What is your name?" the woman asked, tears of gratitude welling up in her eyes.

"I'm just a Chinese soldier," her mysterious savior answered, before vanishing into the night. Maintaining anonymity was Lei Feng's habit, an ironic trait for someone who was to become one of China's most prominent moral icons.

In 1962, he died in an accident when he was just 22 years old. He was a nobody in his lifetime, but on March 5, 1963, Mao Zedong announced that China should "Learn from Lei Feng." Over the following decades, he would be held up as an icon and take center stage in morality campaigns. His legend has grown to unbelievable proportions as he has been repeatedly depicted in films, television shows and even textbooks for children.

Now however, the public is growing weary of Lei's lessons. When recent films have been released they have flopped catastrophically, raising the question of whether Lei Feng holds relevance for modern audiences.

Empty seats

Just four people came to a Sichuan cinema to watch a Wednesday premiere of Youthful Days, a movie about Lei Feng's life, despite the fact that the cinema was capable of holding 100 people. Qu Zhi, a 25-year-old man, was one of the handful who attended.

He hadn't actually gone there to watch the film, but when he arrived at the cinema at about 10 am it was the only film screening. "There were very few people there; the cinema was nearly empty. I guessed it was because it was during the day," Qu told the Global Times.

Three films about Lei Feng's life, Youthful Days, The Sweet Smile, and Lei Feng in 1959 were screened as part of a series of "learning from Lei Feng" activities on Lei Feng Day on March 5, but numerous media reports outlined their failure to attract audiences.

Many cinemas canceled screenings because few people had bought tickets. Some cinemas played the films to near-empty houses.

The former State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) said on March 4 that all film companies and cinemas needed to try their best to promote these films. The SARFT said the screening of these movies plays an important role in "promoting Lei Feng spirit" and educating the public about the virtue of doing good deeds.

"Perhaps people decided not to go to cinema to watch them as they think those movies will portray Lei as a flawless moral idol as depicted in previous TV series," Qu said.

However, Qu said Youthful Days was different as it showed that Lei could fall in love and make mistakes.

"He looked more like a normal young man in Youthful Days, passionate and impulsive. But I don't think many people will go to cinemas because of this," Qu said.

Yin Hong, a professor at Tsinghua University, who has been studying the film and TV industry in China, told the Global Times that these films should be judged on educational merit rather than box-office performance.

"They were not for the market. They should be treated like public-welfare movies and played for the public for free," Yin added.

Man or superman?

When Lei Feng donned a red cloak and sunglasses to fight crime in a short film clip he became an online hit.

"To me, Lei Feng is a Chinese version of a chivalrous man, or a superman, because he helped the weak," Ma Shi, the director of the series of short films entitled Lei Feng Man, told the Global Times.

Ma made the first episode of Lei Feng Man in 2011 for a graduation project, which attracted over 10 million clicks. The second episode was released in February 2013 and has already attracted about 8 million clicks.

Ma said Lei Feng was an ordinary guy who had good heart and Lei Feng Man was also a normal man who was inspired by him and wanted to do good deeds.

"I'd rather watch Lei Feng Man than the films in the cinema, as it's more close to reality. I don't really care who he was 50 years ago and only care what he could do in modern times," read one comment on online video-clip sharing website Tudou.

"If you want to educate the public about those morals that have been forgotten, you have to attract their attention with some kind of irony," Xue Fei, a student from Heilongjiang Province who was the inspiration for Lei Feng Man, told the Global Times.

However, some aren't even convinced Lei Feng was a real individual, or think his exploits were exaggerated.

"To be honest, I think Lei never existed and the stories about him were completely made up for government morality campaigns in the 1960s. Originally, Lei was not only a character that did great deeds but also a character who always obeyed the Party," a Beijing-based university professor told the Global Times.

Is Lei Feng still needed?

"Rather than saying we need this man who died over 50 years ago, we need his spirit to encourage people to trust and help each other," Li Zhe, a 20-year-old university student from Beijing, told the Global Times.

Despite extensive volunteering efforts, Li said he had not watched any Lei Feng movies, TV series or other productions for a long time, as he didn't need them to remind him to do good deeds.

"I don't really care whether Lei was in love with someone before or whether the entire story about him was fake or not," Li added. "Maybe we don't need more stories about Lei's life but should pay more attention to those who do a lot of good things in their daily lives."

"To me, Lei Feng was just a name. What people should remember is the spirit of doing good deeds. Helping others should become a habit," Xue said.

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