Keeping a diary about one's "good deeds" each day was shared homework for many pupils born in the 1980s.
The journals often featured accounts of elderly men and women falling down in the street, then being helped to their feet by the passing youths.
These assignments were given because teachers wanted to encourage their students to be like Lei Feng, a revolutionary who died aged just 21 in 1962 and was later hailed by the government as the poster boy for selflessness and being a model citizen.
That propaganda continues, especially around March 5, which is considered "Learning from Lei Feng Day".
But the message appears to have been lost on some citizens. On the streets, if a person falls down, others are reluctant to lend a hand, fearing they could be punished for their good deed or even blackmailed by the person they are trying to help.
An online survey of more than 1,000 people by the Southern Weekly showed more than 60 per cent of people don't remember March 5 as a day to learn from Lei.
Last Tuesday marked the 50th Lei Feng Day, and the iconic figure was again splashed across the state media.
A biopic of Lei even appeared in cinemas in Nanjing, Jiangsu, this week, but ticket sales were sparse - just 261 sold on Monday and Tuesday.
The public simply "does not appreciate the way [Lei Feng Day] is publicised", the Youth Times commented.
Instead of focusing on a young man who died 50 years ago, the newspaper said that existing grass roots role models such as Wu Juping - a woman who broke her arm catching a child falling from a tall building - would be better examples to follow.
"They're real, lovely, and convincing," it said. In short, they are easier to relate to.
Rather than expecting ordinary citizens to take a page from Lei's book, the Beijing Times said that it is government officials who should be the ones taking the lead in learning from Lei's devotion to the people.
The paper highlighted this point by noting that when Mao Zedong launched his propaganda campaign five decades ago, he said leaders should learn from Lei's spirit of serving others.
The Xinjiang -based Morning Post argued that Lei's image and memory should be used to promote the spirit of volunteering.
It said this spirit came to the fore in the wake of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, with people seemingly more willing to embrace their civic responsibilities. The Legal Evening News said Lei's spirit should be understood as a fulfilment of one's duty and contribution to society, such as caring for the elderly, lending a hand to others, saving energy and living a green life.
It suggested a comprehensive system of punishing evil actions and rewarding the virtuous.
For example, the government should establish as many awards to encourage good deeds as possible, the newspaper said.
But a recent suggestion by the Guangzhou government aroused controversy by saying people who returned valuable found items to their owners may be rewarded by them with cash equal to 10 per cent of the items' value. Some people said that requesting or accepting such a reward would diminish the value of the deed itself.
"Lei Feng never let people know his name when helping others. Are we still following his example if we take the reward?" asked one Sina Weibo blogger.
But regardless of how much people dislike the way the government publicises Lei, others say that keeping his spirit in their hearts will help them find courage or inner strength when it's needed.
As a Xinhua commentary said, promoting Lei's spirit may serve as a reminder that the pursuit of materialistic gains alone is not enough in life - especially in a society where an increasing number of people are becoming too concerned with money and objects to spare a thought for others.