The mothballed youth hero Lei Feng came back to public consciousness this year, the 40th anniversary of his death. But an old photograph showing the model proletarian wearing a wristwatch has sent a few sparks flying.
Born in 1940, Lei lost his parents in the Sino-Japanese War. He grew up imbued with dedication to the revolution, obedience to the party and passion for serving the people. His diary showed his many selfless deeds, from secretly washing his comrades' socks at night to buying a train ticket for a young mother with a child.
He died in an accident at the age of 23. Mao Zedong praised Lei and urged the whole country to learn from his example. Lei was an emblem of his era. Even after China embarked on reform and opening, the 'Learn from Lei Feng' campaign was resurrected several times when party elders were alarmed by corrupting Western influences and individualism.
The latest revival started four years ago in the form of an annual conference to study the Lei Feng spirit. This year, the Lei Feng Museum in Fushun added a few pieces of memorabilia to its collection, which includes the picture of Lei wearing a wristwatch.
The curator explained that the picture had been hidden from the public for four decades because, until now, people would not be capable of understanding that a bit of self-indulgence should not detract from his heroism. The effort to update the hero's image scandalised Lei's contemporaries, now in their 60s.
'Lei Feng violated the army regulation that says soldiers at his rank were not allowed to wear watches,' one said. Some veterans calculated that the imported watch on his wrist probably cost 300 yuan (HK$282 at current rates).
A monthly allowance for a soldier like him was 5 to 10 yuan. 'Wearing a watch like that at that time was like driving a Mercedes-Benz today,' said another.
Young people could not care less about the re-packaged role model. 'I have always thought he was phony,' sneered one on the Internet. Others say that Lei Feng is a simple-minded abstraction of revolutionary values. Let him rest in peace.