Lei Feng and “The most beautiful” – modern Chinese heroes as the glue of socioeconomic harmony
Note: Gil Hizi is Ministry of Tofu’s contributor. He is also the chief editor of website Thinking Chinese.
The stories of Zhang Lili (张丽莉, aka ‘zui mei jiaoshi’, ‘most beautiful/virtuous teacher’), the Harbin middle school teacher who sacrificed herself to save two pupils from the wheels of a vehicle, and Wu Bin (吴斌, aka ‘zui mei siji’, ‘most virtuous driver’), a Hangzhou bus driver, who didn’t let a critical hit in his liver stop him from bringing his passengers to safe ground in his last breaths, have sparked up the hearts of all walks of life in China recently. These cases add up to the July 2011 story of Wu Juping, “China’s most beautiful mother” or “model worker” Guo Mingyi.
Zhang Lili, ‘the most beautiful teacher’, was finally sworn in as a Chinese Communist Party member on July 1, 2012, the 91th birthday of CCP, after her heroic deed qualifies her.
Wu Juping, the most beautiful mom, caught a baby that fell from the 10th floor, and received the honor at a ceremony after being discharged from the hospital.
These stories demonstrate the scope of the character ‘mei’ 美. While Zhang is the (most) “mei teacher”, Wu is the (most) “mei driver” and Wu was the (most) “mei mother”. ‘Mei’, signifies ‘beautiful’ but can also mean ‘good’ or ‘virtuou’. In the altruistic cases above, the line between ‘beauty’ and ‘virtuous’ is very thin and ‘beautiful’ becomes an adjective that reflects inner luminance. When the ’heroes’ are women, the public can easily see beauty in their appearance that corresponds to their good deeds.
But why is China so moved by these events and why do dramatic titles as ‘China’s most virtuous/beautiful’ are given to ordinary people? What leads even the state-affiliated Xinhua News Agency to acknowledge that this is the ‘age of ordinary heroes’ (平民英雄出的时代). In general, these stories represent an optimistic intersection between modern digital culture and traditional values, between the communist leadership and common people’s interests. The public is moved, and the state and media only wish to expand this unique moment, celebrating the chord of social harmony.
While the story of Lei Feng, the altruistic Maoist soldier who died in 1962, continues to be inculcated through the Chinese educational system, there are growing doubts about the veracity of his legend and even suspicion that he was merely a propaganda tool and a protagonist in morality tales that the Party used to tame its people. After all, why was there invariably a photographer around, who timely and readily recorded Lei Feng’s touching moments, with a camera, a luxury and rarity in the 1950s?
The teaching of his deeds also tends to involve a bitter acknowledgment that today values are different and people are not as self-sacrificing as they were in the ‘reddest’ years of all. At the same time, the public is less naïve, carries resentment towards the corruption of officials, and is less likely to consider people in power positions as heroes. New stories that ‘touch’ one’s emotions are not patriotic legends but rather moments that one can strongly relate with. China Daily has captured this trend wisely and publishes a page dedicated to ‘modern heroes’ which it calls “the successors of Lei Feng”, connecting between longstanding myths and the decisions of everyday people.
‘Reality culture’ pumps up the minds of Chinese youngsters not less, and perhaps more, than it does elsewhere on the globe. The news events that draw most attention are the ones that are astonishing but nevertheless remain at close range, i.e. things that could happen to ‘you and I’. As an article by Xinhua News Agenncy argues, the key is the essence of “small characters” (“小人物“).
The ‘reality’ here is not only manifested in the background of these characters, but also in the randomness of the events that they found themselves in. Therefore the tribute that the media and public express towards them lies in two dimensions: One is making the person a hero and analyzing his or her sage-like qualities. While teacher Zhang Lili lied in a comma, journalists interview her family, workmates, pupils and past teachers in attempt to find roots for her amazing virtue. Portraying Zhang Lili in a strong positive light is necessary, but at the same time, the key for her popularity lies in her ‘ordinary’ existence. Viewers relate to her since maybe she projects the hearts of others, maybe she proves the Mencian argument of the compassion the exists in the core of the Chinese or human heart. ‘Maybe in spite of our tough and sometimes indifferent daily existence, when urgency comes we would also find this softness and altruism within us’.
Zhang Lili showed what it means to be a dedicated teacher; Wu Bin demonstrated that a driver is fully responsible for his passengers at all cause. We would surely trust our children to attend the caring of these two personnel, a comfort that is quite rare in these turbulent times. Here, the excitement of the state and the public intertwines; the values of ‘work dedication’ and ‘benevolence’ (仁义) are important both on the individual level and on the governmental level, that wishes to maintain social stability. These everyday role models (mofan 模范) are stronger than any propaganda. The state media widely uses them to elevate the patriotic sentiment and the faith in the divine morals (daode 道德) of Chinese society, clearly corresponding with Confucianism and traditional culture.
The ‘zui mei’ stories yet are not a boost to the Chinese social ego as they are an indication that morality has not become extinct in the value endangering society. The story of little Yueyue, the little toddler that lied on the street after being hit by a car, only to be coldly ignored by dozens of pedestrians, is one of many events that led to social pessimism and nostalgic introspection. Zhang Lili and Wu Bin not only offer an alternative, they indicate that the ‘morality gene’ is still located in the DNA of Chinese society. (Read our story: 2-year-old run over by two vehicles, ignored by 18 passers-by, riling up public opinion)
Chen Xianmei, a rag-picking woman who helped Yue Yue after the toddler was run over by two trucks and 18 passersby brushed her aside, is relentlessly dogged by the press corps and propaganda officials who heavily publicize her “heroic deeds” and try to make a moral example out of her through storytelling and fanfare.
The balance between the competitive society that promotes self-sufficiency and socialist chords, between modern instant culture and longstanding profound tradition, suddenly does not seem so fragile when commoner altruism is exhibited. The images that ‘move China’ (感动中国) resonate with instant emotionalism that popular culture is producing in a quest for high rating and patriotic sentiments, while the state regards them as a source of its legitimacy.
In many of the big new events, what make viewers so involved is photos and videos that captured the event ‘live’. Such was the case with Wu Bin’s painstaking efforts and, on a different note, also with the neglect of ‘little Yue Yue’. People are moved by daily life stories, but ‘word to mouth’ or printed words are seldom enough nowadays. What touches most are cases that are supported with authentic and concrete imagery.
The contrast between the glossy TV or internet platforms which are filled with women’s skin, commercial ads and dizzying pop-ups and the astonishing, intense and virtuous reality of the ‘zui mei’ events produces an immense social spark. The fact that within all the modern ‘noise’ an ordinary person can become a virtuous hero, and indifferent viewers can get in touch with their feelings is a comforting notion for individuals, state officials and TV rating.
Jing Gao contributed to this story.