I recently listened to a segment of The China History Podcast that mentions the propaganda campaign ”Follow the examples of Comrade Lei Feng” (向雷锋同志学习).
From Wikipedia: “Lei Feng, Chinese propaganda poster by Qiu Wei (丘玮). The caption reads: “Follow Lei Feng’s example; love the Party, love Socialism, love the people”.”
According to legend, Lei Feng was a selfless, true revolutionary. Orphaned at a young age, Lei considered “The Party” to be his mother. Lei was a modest soldier who performed good deeds at every opportunity, such as gifting his meager moon cake rations to hospitalized soldiers, darning his own socks and gathering field manure to help a local people’s commune. He strove to improve himself through studying Mao’s work and read late into the night using a flashlight.
Lei Feng’s short life (he is said to have died at 22) was used as a tool for teaching positive messages about modesty, helping others and self-improvement.
But, while Lei Feng may have been a real person, and while some of the legend is based in truth, it is widely acknowledged that he was greatly mythologized by the Party’s PR machine: photographs were staged and his diary entries significantly “enhanced.”
A few readers have hinted that I share little of myself on this blog and only feature the very rare self-photograph. Taking a cue from the Lei Feng story, the following is a completely false, but utterly harrowing and inspirational, telling of my life story using select photographs from my past. For dramatic purposes, I have re-named myself “Red Banner Sister” (红旗妹妹).
The Story of Red Banner Sister
She fled the corrupt West to find rebirth in the East. She is Red Banner Sister.
An impoverished childhood: Young Red Banner Sister lived in the barren, inland American desert with her parents and eight brothers and sisters. Her parents worked a small mining claim in the Oquirrh Mountains, which provided a meager income. This was supplemented by her father’s evening job as the piano player at a local silent movie theater and her mother’s sideline as an amateur inventor.
In this early photograph, young Red Banner Sister pauses at the end of a long day spent gathering snails, roots and other wild foods to support her family.
Three-year-old Red Banner Sister scavenging for wild foods and salvageable car parts.
Sold as a fourth wife to the local copper mining baron: With the lead mine spent, the advent of “talkies” and the theft by Philo T. Farnsworth of her mother’s great invention (the television), Red Banner Sister’s family was forced to sell her into polygamy. In exchange for her marriage to LeRoy “The Copper King” Smith, her family received the right to the remaining 35 year lease to the Park West ski resort.
Red Banner’s diary entry from the eve of her wedding reads:
“While I fear what fate awaits me at the Smith Estate, I know I give my brothers and sisters the gift of a better future as ski instructors and faux alpine lodge cafeteria workers. My soon-to-be sister-wives seem kind and I am overjoyed that my marriage will be featured as the warm-up act to Sting’s appearance at the Park West Summer Concert Series.”
Red Banner Sister with LeRoy “The Copper King” Smith and her three sister-wives (identities obscured for their security).
Photograph of Red Banner Sister taken after “The Incident at the Polygamous Prance.”
Forced to flee: But not all was well in the Smith household. In a fit of jealousy during “The Copper King’s 8th Annual Polygamous Prance,” Evets Smith (LeRoy’s first wife, pictured second from right above) brutally attacked Red Banner Sister. Contacting the underground assistance group, “Beehive Women,” Red Banner was smuggled out of the decadent West and across the Pacific to Orientistan. She hints at the tribulations of this journey in another diary entry:
“This morning I was herded into a long metal tube that was packed with small chairs bolted in tight rows to the floor. Conditions were initially swelteringly hot and then bitterly cold. Though I know many, many hours passed, the sun never set. We were given stale bread, what I think was chicken pasta and two pieces of iceberg lettuce. We entered the tube as people, but left it as pungent, twitchy, angry animals.”
Reborn in the East: Red Banner Sister was welcomed with open arms by the People of Orientistan. The Red Dawn Women’s Hospital healed her body while the People’s Party of Orientistan healed her mind and soul. Seeking to repay the People for her salvation, Red Banner Sister joined the People’s Army of Orientistan. Committed to her training, she often spent her brigade’s free days at the firing range. Her dedication paid off when she became her division’s most accurate marksman, a skill that allowed her to overcome every rigged carnival game that her brigade encountered during “The Great Carny Purge.”
Red Banner Sister demonstrates firing technique used during “The Great Carny Purge.”
Committed to serving the People: After retiring with honor from the Orientistan Army, Red Banner Sister could have lived a life of rest, reflection and guanxi-funded excess. She chose instead to dedicate her golden years to overseas humanitarian work on behalf of the Orientistan Development Program (ODP). Posted in South Asia, she spent many tireless hours nodding, smiling and pretending she knew what was going on in villages throughout the Sub-Continent. Her diary reads:
“I travel the countryside from dawn until dusk, stopping only for roadside curry and cold Coca-Cola. I ask myself, if only we could drive faster or pass more lorries on the Grand Trunk Road, think of the good we could do! I dream that one day every village woman will know Red Banner Sister’s “shallow river crossing” method and that every tiger pit will be marked by my official “Inspected by Red Banner Sister” sticker.”
Red Banner Sister on mission for Orientistan Development Program. Educating village women on “shallow river crossing” methods (left) and tiger pit inspection (right).
One last job: Red Banner Sister’s love for the People of Orientistan is an undying passion. When the Orientistan Secret Service requested her help for a long-term, deep-cover mission in her former homeland, she immediately left her permanent suite of rooms at the Orientistan Army Holiday Resort and immersed herself in her cover-role as Hurrah Potash Open Pit Mine Inspector. Her objective remains classified.
Below is the last known photograph of Red Banner Sister.
Last known photograph of undercover Red Banner Sister. Unidentified location in the American desert.
More tid-bits on Lei Feng:
The China History Podcast’s “The Cultural Revolution, Part 1″ (CHP 083) provides an overview of the Lei Feng story’s political-maneuvering place of importance in the early 1960s.
Read “Fact Checking a Chinese Hero” at the New Yorker blog, “Letters from China: Dispatches from Evan Osnos,” for more information on the creation of the Lei Feng myth and how much of it might be true.
Read “A Lei Feng Two-fer” by Joel Martinsen at Dan Wei, for more on the 19-scene staged photo shoot that helped created the Lei Feng myth.