Spirit of Lei Feng to counter materialism
Every Thursday afternoon, 92-year-old Liang Peixian eagerly waits by her doorstep to welcome a group of students to her home, where she has lived alone since the death of her husband and son.
The students do her laundry, buy her food, fill her buckets with water, cut her hair and wash her feet. To Grandma Liang, as they affectionately call her, they are family.
'When she moved here last February, the ground in front of her home was uneven so we re-paved it to make it safer,' said Zhang Yian carefully removing a callous from Ms Liang's foot.
Ms Zhang is just one of many third-year medical students from Hubei Medical University who call on Ms Liang regularly. The visits began 10 years ago when a former student of the school discovered the woman living on her own and garnered the support of his class to help her. Later intakes of students in turn took up the cause.
In March, Hubei Medical University was awarded the 'Lei Feng' prize in recognition of its students' efforts over the past 10 years.
A first for the college, the award has been granted in previous years to people perceived to have done similar good deeds.
Lei Feng, deified in the 1960s like Mao Zedong, is the communist revolution's 'rustless screw' whose 'self-sacrificing spirit' has been used to motivate youngsters in China to toe the party line.
Though his name has never been forgotten, his 'spirit' has ebbed and flowed. Strongest in the 1960s (because of Mao's role in elevating him to cult status) it sank to a low in the 1980s amid rampant crime and corruption. But Lei Feng was again placed on a pedestal in 1990, when party leaders held a forum in his honour.
'The party, by reviving the Lei Feng spirit through the forum, had done what the people had been longing for,' said Lei Mengxuan, a distant relative of Lei Feng, who wrote a biography about him in the mid 1980s.
'The 10 years of [China's] opening up left many people feeling that traditional values of hard work and simple living were lost. Their spirits were hollow.' Born in 1940, Lei Feng grew up in Hunan's Pingan town, which was renamed Lei Feng town in 1969. After finishing school at 16, he worked as a messenger for a county official. It was then, legend goes, that his selfless nature began to appear.
By then a Communist Party member, Lei Feng constantly showed care for his colleagues, bringing them raincoats and umbrellas on rainy days. After dinner, when others left the table, he would wash the dishes and sweep the floor. When in the army, in his spare time he would darn the socks of his fellow soldiers. Many other tales of his good deeds, some obviously exaggerated, followed him.
Named model worker numerous times, he died in Liaoning in 1962, at only 22. A driver in the army, Lei had got out of his truck to direct his assistant into a parking space. The assistant hit a pole which in turn, hit Lei on the head.
One year after Lei Feng's death, Mao called for the country to learn from Lei Feng. 'Many thought Mao made a martyr out of Lei Feng but in fact it was Lei Feng's selfless acts and absolute devotion to the party that touched Mao,' Lei Mengxuan said.
Now, every March 5 is marked by a series of volunteer activities throughout China. Do-gooders organised by their work units offer their services free, fixing televisions, giving medical help, or mending bicycles, among other things. Students scrub train floors and lawyers offer tax consultations gratis.
Though the Lei Feng story - some say myth - was strengthened briefly in 1990, it is now rapidly weakening, prompting Beijing to begin a propaganda campaign recently to restore the traditional socialist ethic of hard work and a selfless devotion to one's compatriots - values Chinese leaders fear the people have been neglecting in the country's drive towards a market economy.
It has placed two Lei Feng-style role models in the limelight: Shanghai's Xu Hu, a plumber, and Hubei's Xiao Bo, a sewage worker.
'The Lei Feng spirit has become a special force in building socialism with Chinese characteristics,' said Huang Zhijian, deputy director of China Youth Research Institute. 'It guides the spiritual growth of our youths like a red flag.' Mr Xu, a 49-year-old Communist Party member, is described by the People's Daily as a 'glittering nugget of gold' who sets an example for 'all ordinary workers in the new era'.
Mr Xu, who works for a housing department in a run-down area of Shanghai, supposedly responds to emergency requests day or night - unusual for plumbers on the mainland, who have a reputation for being rude, greedy, and unreliable.
The People's Daily commented that in China's new market economy it was not enough just to have a talented group of managers, experts and technicians; China needed thousands of ordinary workers like Mr Xu who loved their job and were willing to work hard for others.
Analysts said the Xu Hu campaign was launched because some Chinese leaders were worried that young people were becoming mercenary, individualistic, and spoilt - some even questioning authority.
Sewage worker Mr Xiao, 29, another proletariat saint like Mr Xu, said he had made sacrifices for his work.
'My relatives looked down on me and no girl wanted to go out with me because I stank so much, but I persevered,' he said.
In 1989 he and 12 colleagues organised a volunteer league to help the elderly, and he later spent 10 per cent of his meagre salary to support an impoverished stroke victim.
'Our teachers told us a lot of Lei Feng stories,' Mr Xiao said. 'As I grew up, when I helped people I didn't think of Lei Feng but, in reality, his good deeds were already ingrained in me.'