Model of selflessness
Ex-soldier travels China promoting the Lei Feng spirit
“Follow Lei Feng’s example, never forget the philosophy of hard work and plain living!”
The loudspeaker in Liu Jianguang’s minivan minivan, covered with posters of Lei Feng, red flags and the flags of the Communist Party of China (CPC), blares out the slogan as he travels from Hele village to his next stop, Ganquan village in Chongzhou, Sichuan Province.
For the last 18 years, the Sichuan local, aged 60, has travelled to 31 provinces and autonomous regions in China in this minivan to promote the spirit of Lei Feng, a cultural icon from Mao’s era who was portrayed as a selfless, modest citizen devoted to the Party, the country and its people.
Aside from promoting the spirit of Lei Feng, in every village he visits, he stops by the Party secretary’s office and asks for an impression of the official seal of the village. Liu aims to collect 10,000 impressions of official local Party committee seals by 2021, the year of the 100th anniversary of the establishment of CPC, as a way to mark the day. So far, he has collected over 2,000.
Many people see Liu as someone who is stuck in the past. Most of the villagers who stop to look at his minivan are more interested in its bizarre exterior than in Lei Feng, a figure who most people now regard as outdated.
But Liu is immersed in the memories of the past, and although he is beset by financial troubles and constantly on the verge of bankruptcy, he has no intention of stopping his journey.
Joining the campaign
In 1971, Liu joined the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Even though this was a full nine years after Lei Feng’s death, a nationwide campaign to “follow Lei Feng’s example” was in full swing, and people were encouraged to learn from Lei’s selflessness and modesty. Liu threw himself into the campaign wholeheartedly, helping locals build bridges, chopping wood for retired workers, and cutting his comrades’ hair for free.
When the Xinhua News Agency did a story about him in 1973, he became a model in his troop, which rewarded him with a second class merit and called for political instructors to learn from him. He was even invited to speak at a national conference in 1974 to commend those who earnestly followed Lei Feng’s spirit.
However, days before the conference, Liu told fellow soldiers that he should be invited to schools so that students could hear about his story. This was regarded as seeking “personal idolization” by his troop’s political commissar. Liu was severely criticized as a result, and did something that he would regret his entire life. He ran away from the troop.
Liu was now a deserter. He soon realized what he had done and took a train back, but it was too late. All the honors that had once been bestowed upon him as a follower of Lei Feng were gone. Recalling that experience now still brings tears to Liu’s eyes.
“I was too young and too naive,” he said.
But the memory of what he experienced in those years has never faded. “I should reach the same heights as Lei Feng in my lifetime,” he often says.
After Liu was demobilized, he was sent by the government to serve as a volunteer “aiding Tibet.” He had hoped to make a contribution in a place where “the country needed him most,” but was only designated a job supplying groceries at Tibet’s meteorological service.
On the road
Liu quit his public service job in Tibet in 1999. That spring, he embarked on his nationwide journey to promote the spirit of Lei Feng. Being on the road makes Liu feel that his life has meaning again.
“When I’m on the journey, I am Lei Feng, and Lei Feng is me,” he said.
Whenever he arrives at a city or a village, he earns money by polishing shoes. With the money he earns, he teaches people with disabilities shoe polishing techniques. Liu thinks he is not only promoting Lei Feng spirit, but also helping underprivileged people to get jobs.
His story soon attracted media attention, and in many of the cities he visited, reporters showered him with titles such as “China’s first professional Lei Feng, ”“the living Lei Feng,” and “the new hero of the Long March.” Liu collected some of the reports and pasted them on his minivan. Liu’s deep love of Lei Feng once brought hope and honor to his family. In the 1970s, his troop sent some cadres to his home in Sichuan’s Qianfang village, bringing them news of Liu’s honorary title. “He used to be the pride of our family,” says Liu Guangfeng, Liu’s elder sister.
But now, the whole family is more worried about him than proud.
In order to save money, he now cooks, eats and sleeps in his minivan. With almost no savings to his name, he often has to rely on leftover vegetables from grocery markets to feed himself.
His minivan has long passed being roadworthy. Strictly speaking, it’s now illegal for him to drive it on the road. But when traffic policemen see the slogans of socialism and the Lei Feng spirit plastered all over his van, they usually let him go.
In 2014, after his village was relocated, Liu was given a small apartment as compensation. His sisters helped him decorate the home, and asked him to return.
Liu went home, but told the local government that he wouldn’t be able to finish his mission by 2021 if he stayed, and wanted to donate his apartment to someone else, much to the annoyance of his family. His other sister Liu Guangju said, “You followed Lei Feng your whole life, but who cares about you? How can you help others when you are in need of help?”
Liu didn’t listen. “I will break down if I don’t follow Lei Feng,” he said, and left.
Liu Jianguang sits next to his minivan, showing people a newspaper report of him.