Extreme Makeover: China Refurbishes Old Heroes

Earlier this week I was wandering through a flea market in Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan province in China’s Wild West. Among stalls selling (mostly fake) antique porcelain and Tibetan artifacts redolent with the aroma of yak butter, I spotted a small crimson-red cigarette box bearing the image of Lei Feng, a chubby-faced soldier wearing one of those goofy, floppy People’s Liberation Army (PLA) hats.

Lei was a big name in the 1970s when Maoist-style egalitarianism was the height of political correctness. Chinese citizens were exhorted to “learn from Lei Feng.” Millions emulated Lei’s generosity and parroted his desire to “make the world more beautiful everyday.” In the early ‘80s, during my first posting in Beijing, I read articles about how Lei’s altruism ran so deep that he’d washed and darned the socks of fellow soldiers in secret, so that his comrades-in-arms wouldn’t know whom to thank. Of course, these days I figured China’s “me generation” had little use for Lei, who died in a 1962 accident.

As it turns out, the debate over Lei’s legacy is very relevant to today’s China. The whole issue of Chinese herodom is becoming more and more controversial. Recently, Li Datong, the outspoken editor of Freezing Point, was removed from the magazine’s top post for, among other things, publishing an article that questioned whether Chinese textbooks should present xenophobic Boxer rebels, who attacked foreigners living and working in China a century ago, as anticolonial heroes—or were they in fact simply “destructive.” The government is currently reviving interest in the teachings of Confucius, who was reviled in Mao’s day for his emphasis on hierarchy, because his ethics help support the current leadership’s obsession with social stability. Meanwhile down-and-out protestors these days sometimes carry portraits of the late Great Helmsman, Mao Zedong, during their demonstrations—despite the deadly repression that took place under his rule—because he cared for the poor and the peasants.

In the Chengdu market, my interest in the Lei Feng trinket triggered an unexpected response from the guy who wanted to sell it. (He wanted about $5; I bargained and got it for $1.) “That’s Lei Feng: today we’re commemorating his good deeds,” said the twentysomething with lanky hair and a slouch. “We made these souvenirs especially to remember him.” Indeed March 5 was a holiday in remembrance of Lei, and after I left the flea market I saw gaggles of young people with red flags handing out brochures commemorating Lei.

Of course, many people would rather forget. A recent article in the English-language China Daily, which reflects government thinking, lamented that Lei Feng Memorial Day had been “consigned to oblivion” compared to flashier holidays such as Chinese New Year and Christmas. The article was a comment on how most Chinese these days see holidays as an excuse to buy gifts or otherwise spend money.

Still, a funny thing happened to Lei on the way to the dustbin of history. The detour began not long ago when a female acquaintance of his was quoted in domestic media saying he’d been “a very good friend.” Had Lei had a girlfriend? In the ‘80s we were told the late PLA driver was too busy doing good deeds to think of romance. Were Chinese muckrakers on the trail of Lei Feng’s secret love?

No, that wasn’t it at all. In recent days new photos and fresh insights about Lei have emerged. On Sunday a new book about the Maoist icon, “Lei Feng 1940-1962,” was released. “It’s a pity the image of Lei Feng depicted in [most of the 1,000 books written about him] is hard for people, especially young people, to understand and accept these days,” the book’s editor, Shi Yonggang, was quoted as saying in an article run by Xinhua, the official news agency. In fact Shi’s book includes 300 never-before-published photos of Lei “showing him as an obviously fun-loving young man who was hip with his times,” Xinhua declared.

How’s that again? The article said that when Lei was a farmer (before he became a soldier), “he drove a tractor which is comparable to today’s BMW.” And when workers ruled in the workers’ paradise, Lei became an ironworker in the well-known Anshan iron and steelworks. Shi’s favorite photos of Lei show him on a borrowed motorcycle in Tiananmen Square and “holding a trendy satchel” as he posed by the Yangtze River.

Yes, it turns out that Lei “did almost all the fashionable things of his day,” Shi told Xinhua. He wore fashionable sweaters, a leather jacket and a wristwatch—all considered luxury items at the time, the article claimed. Lei even wore his hair with “long bangs, even though they were prohibited in the Army,” said Zhang Jun, another photographer whose works appeared in the new book. Lei “hid his bangs under his cap when he was on duty, but when he was out of uniform he would let them hang loose.” (No wonder he’s always pictured wearing that hat.) Zhang said that Lei had held many jobs before joining the Army, which helps explain why he could afford to wear a wristwatch, or to donate the equivalent of $25 to disaster relief in Liaoning province when such a sum was more than 10 times the average soldier’s monthly wage at the time.

OK, let me get this straight: Lei, who’s famous for his unmistakably retro fur-lined hat with ear flaps sticking out parallel to the ground, is now being packaged as a hipster? In the ‘80s, the government put on “Learn from Lei Feng” exhibitions showing darned socks and patched trousers which we were led to believe once belonged to the frugal soldier. And now we’re told he was a fun-loving, long-haired, regulation-flouting, name-brand-obsessed yuppie enthralled with the Chinese BMWs and Pradas of his time?

Yes, folks, the campaign to refurbish Lei’s geeky old image into something cool seems to be inspired by the Chinese Communist Party itself, in a bid to make him more relevant—and attractive—to today’s youth. It’s part of an official initiative to foster patriotism and promote Chinese icons, holidays and traditional culture in a world dominated by Western action heroes and Christmas. During the recent Chinese New Year holiday, authorities permitted Beijing residents to set off fireworks inside the city for the first time in about a decade—partly because “fireworks are part of Chinese tradition, and we might begin to forget local traditions and holidays if we aren’t allowed to practice them,” a spokesman for the Ministry of Public Security told me.

The renovation of Lei’s image doesn’t stop there. Late last year China’s biggest online gaming empire, Shanda Interactive Entertainment, revealed that Lei Feng was on a list of “100 Chinese Heros” to be featured in a series of online games developed by the NASDAQ-listed company. Shanda hopes Lei and other historical characters will give Lara Croft and Pokemon a run for their money. Most of Shanda’s other heroes hail from feudal times, including Koxinga, the Ming dynasty general who defeated Dutch colonizers on Taiwan; the famously incorruptible judge Bao Zheng, and the legendary eunuch admiral Zheng Ho, whose treasure fleets sailed as far as Madagascar and beyond—decades before Christopher Columbus.

Shanda said it hopes the use of Chinese heroes will supplant current online favorites, often violent and largely created in South Korea and Japan. The Chinese company says the content from foreign competitors “isn’t suitable for young people … and produces a negative impact on society.” The first series of games, portraying five of the Chinese heroes (including Lei), will be launched within months. “Portraying their great achievements through games not only gives young people something to think about, but also makes videogaming a healthier place,” said Shanda in a statement.

It’s not clear how Lei Feng will measure up to the action-packed milieu of most online games. Even though he was a soldier, Lei never saw actual combat; his life ended early when another driver backed a vehicle into a wooden pole that fell on top of Lei, killing him accidentally at age 22. Shanda indicated that the new Lei Feng game would feature grenade throwing, rescue attempts and “learning the pleasure of helping other people.”

The company provided few other details, but it’s probably put much thought into the matter. Shanda’s head Chen Tianqiao is reknowned as China’s wealthiest man. No doubt he’s eyeing the 100-million-plus Net users on the mainland—and more than 14 million online gamers among them, each of whom spends an average of 11 hours a week on the computer. Not long ago Chinese authorities expressed concern that online gaming was linked to soaring crime rates and antisocial behavior. Last autumn they introduced tough new regulations designed to limit online gamers to playing only three hours at a time. It’s hard to know how best to “learn from Lei Feng” these days—do you limit your online-gaming sessions the way the government says you should? Or simply play your patriotic heart out, many hours at a time, with Shanda’s new Chinese heroes games?