'Learn from Lei Feng!': Education, social context, and the generational memories of a Chinese Communist hero

Katherine Bischoping, Zhipeng Gao


In this paper, we investigate Chinese generations’ memories of Lei Feng (1940-1962), a communist national role model famed for his countless everyday acts of serving others in a collectivist spirit. Using interviews with forty-one participants ranging from 18 to 81, we argue that four Chinese generations, as defined by their age (and education), have largely distinctive memories of, and attitudes toward, Lei Feng. The generation that received its early education during the heyday of the Lei Feng campaign largely remains devoted to him and references the “Lei Feng spirit” in characterizing contemporary China as morally declining. Their weathered predecessors, as well as the youngest consumerist generation, have a more detached or even irreverent perspective on Lei Feng’s legacy. The final generation, caught in China’s transition from a state-planned, revolutionary, virtuocratic society to one of free enterprise, consumerism, and meritocracy, holds the most heterogeneous perspectives. For several of this generation, the mismatch between their socio-political context and the pedagogical messages about Lei Feng has led to a painstaking interrogation of moral obligations in contemporary China. 

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Copyright (c) 2021 Katherine Bischoping, Zhipeng Gao

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