Missing Lei Feng17 min read

My accidental connection with Mao’s good soldier – Andrea Worden

Ed: We’re delighted to be re-upping this older post now that ‘Learn from Lei Feng Day’ has rolled around again, with fresh lessons – or not – for us all.

Each year, as March 5 – known in China as “Learn from Lei Feng Day” – approaches, I feel nostalgic. In the early 1990s, Lei Feng and I became inseparable. I’ve kept an eye on him ever since. China’s model hero of selfless service to the people and unwavering loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party has been used over the years as a tool to stoke the legitimacy of the Party. In 1990, Lei Feng, Mao’s “good soldier,” had a singularly important mission: seeing the Party through the first anniversary of the June 4 massacre in Beijing without incident. He rose to the occasion, and I did my part, inadvertently, to help.

In the fall of 1989, as I began a PhD program in Chinese history at Stanford, I was still reeling from the events that spring. I had been living in Changsha, Hunan Province at the time, finishing up a two-year fellowship with the Yale-China Association. One day in early February 1990 I got a call from a Chinese friend at Stanford. After confirming that Wu Yuting was my Chinese name and that had I taught English in Hunan, she said in Mandarin, “Lei Feng belongs to the world.”  

It took a moment for me to register.

“How on earth do you know that I wrote that?”

“I’m not the only one. It’s a headline in the People’s Daily,” she said. She read the first paragraph to me:

Out of admiration for Lei Feng, an American teacher, Wu Yuting, went to the Lei Feng Exhibition Hall in Wangcheng County. After looking at the exhibits, she excitedly wrote in the visitors’ book: “Lei Feng belongs to the world.”  

Those words were, unfortunately, mine, but “out of admiration”? And “excitedly”? That was the People’s Daily.

“Do you know how many millions of people read the People’s Daily? You’re famous!” she said.

“In the early 1990s, Lei Feng and I became inseparable”

I first encountered Lei Feng at Yale in a Chinese sociology course. Chairman Mao’s “rustless screw” in the socialist cause returned lost children to their parents, helped the elderly find seats on trains, washed his comrades’ clothes on his days off and donated his savings to the commune. His motto, from the diary he conveniently left behind after his untimely death at age 21 (or 22 – both ages appear in different reports) in 1962, sums up his mission: “Human life is limited, but service to the people is unlimited; we should devote our limited lives to the unlimited service of the people.” Like many others when they first encounter the endless tales of the young soldier’s good deeds and the numerous professional-quality photographs documenting his service and study of Mao’s works, I was skeptical.  

Yale-China placed me at Hunan Medical University in Changsha. I was delighted. Hunan was the birthplace of many important Communist revolutionaries; there was Mao, of course, revolutionary-in-chief, but also his loyal soldier, Lei Feng, born just a few miles outside Changsha proper. I looked forward to visiting at some point, thinking that perhaps a visit to Lei Feng Town (originally Pingan Town, it was  renamed in Lei Feng’s honor in 1969) might shed some light on the mysteries surrounding his life. Perhaps because it was so close, it kept moving lower down on my “to do before I leave” list. It didn’t help matters that my students and friends had absolutely no interest in Lei Feng.

Whenever students came over to the Yale-China house, they looked quizzically at the poster of Lei Feng hanging on our kitchen wall. One student finally asked me about it. I mumbled something defensively about being interested and slightly amused by his story. She smiled awkwardly, too respectful to press the point. Indeed, it had been a struggle to even purchase the poster at the small shop in Changsha that, to my surprise, had a few for sale. When I asked for the Lei Feng poster, the shop clerk handed me a large calendar featuring beautiful Chinese women in skimpy bathing suits instead, proclaiming it “more suitable.” When I declined and insisted on the Lei Feng poster, she gave me a look I had become accustomed to, a look that said, “I’ll never understand you foreigners.” One of my colleagues had scoured Changsha’s bookstores for a copy of Lei Feng’s infamous diary, to no avail. One shop clerk told him, “You’re ten years too late.”

In early spring 1989, I told a friend in Changsha that I was planning to go to Lei Feng’s hometown, thinking that perhaps she might like to join me. “No one goes there anymore,” she said. “Why do you want to? Lei Feng’s a joke. We all think so.  He was a screw in Mao’s machine, not a person. Mei you yisi – there’s no point.”  

She offered a few examples of his idiocy. His death topped the list. Lei was an army truck driver at the time; as he directed his assistant into a parking place, his comrade hit a telephone pole, which fell on Lei Feng’s head. He died, a revolutionary martyr, a few days later.

Several of my graduate students eventually agreed to join me on an excursion to Lei Feng Town. They weren’t necessarily fans of Lei Feng, but for them, it would be a leisurely bike ride in the suburbs of Changsha, a picnic, and most important, a full day to practice English outside the classroom with their American teacher. They didn’t care where we went.

On May 7, we set off for Lei Feng Town. My students shared stories about the Lei Feng of their youth. They explained how they were required to write essays evaluating their thoughts and conduct against the standards that appeared in Lei Feng’s diary.

“Do you know about the diary controversy?”

I did, but wanted to hear what my student had to say. He explained that the language and style were far too sophisticated for someone of Lei Feng’s background, who had been a poor orphan with limited education.

After we had walked around the museum, Lei Mengxuan, the earnest manager, motioned us into the visitors’ room. He offered us tea and opined about his beloved distant relative. He looked at me and then at my students. Guessing why they were there, he announced, “Foreigners are more interested in Lei Feng than Chinese are.”

He handed me the visitors’ book and asked if I might write some words about my impressions. Although I had grown more skeptical about the veracity of Lei Feng’s story after looking at the exhibits, it would have been impolite to refuse, particularly after he had given me some materials for “my future study” back in America, as a substitute for the elusive diary I had requested. Not even Mr. Lei had a spare copy of Lei Feng’s diary.  I conferred with my students. Since I was a foreigner it made sense to touch on the relevance of Lei Feng beyond China. I wanted to write something that wouldn’t offend, but that might also suggest that Lei Feng was more myth than reality – that he at once existed nowhere and everywhere. As I wrote “Lei Feng belongs to the world” in Chinese, Mr. Lei beamed. A student snickered in hushed tones, “If Lei Feng were alive today, he’d be studying English to go abroad.”

“Lei Feng was more myth than reality – he at once existed nowhere and everywhere”

In my rushed departure after Tiananmen five weeks later, I threw most of my things into some crates that I never expected to see again and packed my prized possessions into a knapsack – journals, photos, wall posters from the Changsha demonstrations, and, of course, the poster of Lei Feng.

The Lei Feng poster came with me to Stanford, a source of comfort in an alien land of clean air, perpetual sun and relentless wealth. The first time some Chinese classmates came over to my apartment their gaze went straight to the poster.  One of them started chuckling, “Why do you have a poster of Lei Feng on your wall?”

“I just think the whole Lei Feng thing is kind of funny, that’s all.”

“Lei Feng was an idiot,” said another.

That first article in the February 3, 1990 edition of the People’s Daily that bore “my” headline (there was more than one) also contained a paragraph about Lei Feng at West Point. I had heard, and promptly dismissed, the rumor about West Point cadets “studying Lei Feng” while I was in Changsha. My Chinese friends insisted it was true. This is what the article had to say about West Point:

At the famous American West Point Military Academy, five portraits of the most revered heroes hang in the lobby. Lei Feng’s is first. An excerpt from Lei Feng’s diary is printed in the student handbook: “Human life is limited, but service to the people is unlimited; we should devote our limited lives to the unlimited service of the people.”

Lei Feng and I were becoming inextricably intertwined. There was no escaping it. So I called West Point. An officer in the public relations department responded to my query. “Sure, I know who ‘Lee’ Feng is,” as if he were asked that question every day. When I asked if anyone else had called about Lei Feng, he said he first heard of Lei during the summer of 1989 when some members of a Chinese film crew visited the academy.

“So no American reporters have called you?” I asked.

“No. Why?”

“Do you realize there are millions of people in China who think that Lei Feng is ‘studied’ at West Point?”

I translated the paragraph from the article and asked him if it was true. He said that he didn’t think so, but that he would get back to me. He asked me some due diligence questions – such as, who are you exactly, and why do you want to know? – and said again that he would get back to me. I wasn’t expecting to hear from him.   

A few days later he left a message on my answering machine. When I called back he wasn’t there. I gave my name to the woman who answered the phone. She immediately said, “Oh, I think I can help you. You’re calling about Lei Feng, right?”


“We’re all really interested in this, and you know, we got a call from AP this morning about the same thing. It seems that a similar article was published in a newspaper in Beijing. We checked into it, and there is no portrait of Lei Feng anywhere in the school, and he certainly is not part of the set curriculum. He very well might be mentioned in some Asian studies class, but he definitely is not part of the course of study.”  

“How about the quotation in the handbook?” I asked.   

“There’s no Lei Feng quotation, unless he said ‘Duty, Honor, Country,’” she said, laughing. “I guess we should feel honored that they think we are worthy of learning from their great hero,” she added.   

My friend encouraged me to write something about my Lei Feng experience for the Chinese student email network at Stanford. (Historical note: this was 1990 when email for popular usage barely existed, the internet was not widely available, and social media was years away.) My short piece was then forwarded to a national email network, where China Spring, one of the leading Chinese dissident magazines, picked it up and translated it into Chinese. After that story appeared in May 1990, some Chinese friends at Stanford told me that their friends and former classmates from China who were now in the US were asking them if they knew me. Later that month the president of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association at Berkeley invited me to speak at a panel discussion  on Lei Feng. A week or so later, I ran into a friend at the Stanford post office.  

“Your talk at Berkeley on ‘Lei Feng and Moral Stalinism’ sounds really interesting. I’m going to try my best to make it.”

Moral Stalinism?”

I went to my mailbox to find an announcement for the talk. It described how I had developed a “strong academic interest in Lei Feng” after my run-ins with the People’s Daily.

The afternoon of the talk at Berkeley I was interviewed by the World Journal, the most popular Chinese-language newspaper in the US. The article, “Wu Yuting Discusses Lei Feng,” appeared soon thereafter. Out to dinner one night with some classmates, Lei Feng came up (as often happened), and the Taiwanese wife of one of my classmates turned to me and said, “That was you? I cut that article out to Xerox and send back to China. It’s great counter-propaganda.”

My story had gone viral, in a 1990 sort of way. Lei Feng was making me famous.  

In late July 1990, yet another Chinese classmate at Stanford asked me if I had seen the most recent article about Lei Feng in the People’s Daily.

“No, what was it about?”  

“Lei Feng at Harvard.”

The article, purportedly written by a leader of the “Learn from Lei Feng Movement” at Harvard, described how a group of Chinese students, moved by Lei Feng’s spirit, organized a “mass movement” to clean up Harvard Yard. Many Americans reportedly joined in; one participant called it  an “unforgettable day.” The article went on to say that Lei Feng’s name quickly became well known at Harvard.

And so I called the Harvard Crimson. If anyone knew Lei Feng’s name at Harvard, it would be the people at the Crimson.  

“Have you heard of Lei Feng?” I asked the news editor.

“No… is he a student here?” He asked his colleagues in the newsroom – no one had heard of Lei Feng.  

“Do you know anything about a massive cleanup of the Yard one Saturday, about a month or so ago?” I asked.  

“No, but this sounds like a great story.”

I had become part of the most intense Lei Feng revival since Mao first called on the country to “Learn from Lei Feng” in 1963. Over half a million copies of Lei Feng’s diary were reissued in advance of March 5, 1990, in time for the first anniversary of Tiananmen, with a new preface by Yang Baibing, then Chief Army Political Commissar, who wrote that the martial law troops in June 1989 were following Lei Feng’s call “to devote their limited lives to the unlimited service of the people… In this blood-and-fire, life-and-death struggle there emerged many Lei Feng-type soldiers. They put the people’s benefit above everything, and bravely gave all to this goal.”  

A new tactic for Lei Feng’s post-Tiananmen revival was to show how popular Lei Feng was among foreigners. The rationale appeared to be something like this: if young Chinese were so eager to accept new ideas from the West, if they learned that Americans were “studying Lei Feng,” then they might decide he couldn’t be all that bad, and should more earnestly “study” him, too.

“If Lei Feng were alive today, he’d be studying English to go abroad”

Over the next few years, stories and inquiries about Lei Feng sightings trickled in. Vivian Chiu of the South China Morning Post got in touch before her visit to Lei Feng Town in 1992. She interviewed Lei Mengxuan, the enthusiastic manager of the museum, and mentioned me. Ms. Chiu wrote in her article, “At the mention of Wu Yuting, Ms. Worden’s Chinese name, Mr. Lei almost jumped up with excitement. ‘She inspired me and inspired the whole country!’”

In February 1993, a friend from Changsha sent me an article from China Youth Daily about a reporter’s trip to Lei Feng Town. Midway through the article, the journalist wrote:   

In May 1989, a young American woman named Wu Yuting made a special trip to the Lei Feng Museum. She spent three days copying large portions of Lei Feng’s diary and other stories about his life and deeds. Grasping the museum manager’s hands, she said, “When I was little I often heard my father talk about an amazing person from China named Lei Feng. Today I finally have come to this place I’ve been yearning to see for such a long time. While I was here, I received the most profound education of my whole life. I want to take Lei Feng’s spirit back with me and pass it on to my students, to let them learn how they should act when they grow up.”

Things eventually died down on the Lei Feng front, and I went on to other pursuits. Lei Feng has not fared particularly well in the cynical and wired reality of contemporary China, particularly during the internet’s earlier, more freewheeling days. Netizens have unpacked many inconsistencies in the official stories of Lei Feng’s hagiography, and have vented about the hypocrisy of inordinately wealthy and privileged Chinese officials calling on the people to learn from the selfless and frugal communist icon. But the Party is determined to rein in challenges to its heroes and martyrs, because in the Party’s version of things, such attacks are tantamount to challenging its legitimacy. Defaming and harming the reputation of communist heroes and martyrs, whether real or constructed, is now a civil and criminal offense.

In January 2015, the accidental creator of the “Lei Feng at West Point” myth confessed on Weibo. On April 1, 1981, Li Zhurun, then a Xinhua reporter, saw an article published by a US news agency describing how Lei Feng was studied and emulated at West Point. He didn’t know at the time that the “news,” published on April Fool’s Day,  was “fake news.” Li reported the story in Xinhua as if it were true, and from there the story took on a life of its own. He called it “one of the biggest mistakes of my life.” I wonder how Li is faring after his unwelcome confession.

What if Lei Feng were alive now, in Xi Jinping’s New Era? It’s clear that he couldn’t be both a paragon of “serving the people” and a Party loyalist. It’s one or the other. I’d like to think that Lei Feng would have left the People’s Liberation Army and become a human rights defender, working at a grassroots NGO, helping members of the “low-end population” in Beijing as they battled demolitions and forced expulsions. And for that, Lei Feng would have landed in jail. But the Party continues to use him for its own self-serving purposes, now to promote “core socialist values.”

I miss Lei Feng. But fortunately, he’s never far away. The poster I wrested from a reluctant Changsha shop clerk 30 years ago now hangs, framed, high in a prominent spot in my condo in Washington, DC. He’s keeping an eye out. I’m confident he’ll be there for me in a pinch, but in the meantime, I sure wish he’d do my laundry. ∎

The author would like to thank the Yale-China Association for its kind permission to use content from the original story published in
The Yale-China Review, “Lei Feng and I,” Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring 1993. Header image: Wikicommons.