The World of Chinese - - Contents - BY BY­RON R. HAUCK

He was a na­tional hero for his deeds in the oil­field, yet in the 1960s, fame was a dou­ble-edged sword for driller Wang Jinxi. It led to a desk job, a po­etry ca­reer, as well as po­lit­i­cal per­se­cu­tion. As me­dia to­day fo­cus on ath­letes and per­form­ers, TWOC re­vis­its the “model worker,” a pe­cu­liar type of celebrity in Maoist China

Even in China, “Iron Man” is fa­mous. There are now whole web­sites ded­i­cated to the ar­mored Amer­i­can in­dus­tri­al­ist-turned-war­rior. But in an­other era, the ti­tle be­longed to a home­grown hero—a brash, plain­spo­ken “model worker” and amateur poet named Wang Jinxi (王进喜).

“I would give up 20 years of my life, if it means China can pro­duce oil in its own land,” Wang once fa­mously de­clared. “I want to be a will­ing ox, work­ing con­sci­en­tiously for the Party and the peo­ple in my life.” It’s a fit­ting en­cap­su­la­tion of Wang’s ca­reer—and an apt de­scrip­tion of the laodong mo­fan (劳动模范, “model worker”) or laomo (劳模), the hon­ored yet pre­car­i­ous life of the folk idol in Maoist China.

Pre­dat­ing the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic it­self, the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party’s laomo pro­gram was based on Soviet Stakhanovite pro­gram. Whereas Stakhanovites were cho­sen for record­break­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity, and ap­peared in state me­dia ex­tolling the food and perks they re­ceived, the cri­te­ria for laomo re­flected the Party’s grass­roots be­gin­nings.

Mem­bers who cut costs, re­cy­cled ma­te­ri­als, and were loyal and self­less were the fron­trun­ners for Model Worker sta­tus. Yet the work was it­self the re­ward, and laomo who turned down ma­te­rial re­wards were re­spected all the more.

It’s hard to sep­a­rate ha­giog­ra­phy from truth in the story of Wang’s life: Born to a poor peas­ant fam­ily in Yu­men county, Gansu prov­ince, on Oc­to­ber 8, 1923, Wang be­gan beg­ging

at the age of six, and was tend­ing cat­tle for land­lords by 10. At 15, Wang started work­ing at the Yu­men Oil Field, and later be­came one of the PRC’S first gen­er­a­tion of oil work­ers.

In 1956, he joined the Com­mu­nist Party, and his team was hon­ored as the “Iron Drilling Team” two years later for set­ting a na­tional record in monthly drilling depths. Wang’s real achieve­ment, though, was ar­guably to live near a soon-to-be fa­mous an oil field in Hei­longjiang, China’s north­east­ern­most prov­ince.

In Septem­ber 1959, Wang was hon­ored as a na­tional laodong mo­fan, and at­tended a con­fer­ence with fel­low model work­ers in Beijing. While wan­der­ing around the cap­i­tal, so the story goes, Wang was ashamed to see pub­lic buses tot­ing pack­ets of coal on their roofs due to a lack of petroleum—at this point, the of­fi­cial record has it, the hardy driller from the North­west “squat down on a street cor­ner near Pek­ing Univer­sity, and cried.”

There was good news, though, later that year: A mas­sive oil field had been dis­cov­ered in a frozen swamp in an un­in­hab­ited part of Hei­longjiang. At the time, al­most all oil in China was im­ported—a “long­stand­ing slav­ish de­pen­dence,” said Premier Zhou En­lai—and a re­cent rift with the Soviet Union was hit­ting the coun­try’s sup­plies hard. Named Daqing (大庆, “Big Cel­e­bra­tion”) in honor of the 10th an­niver­sary of the PRC’S found­ing, the new field was cen­tral to Chair­man Mao’s or­der for a “mas­sive bat­tle” to boost do­mes­tic pro­duc­tion.”

Wang was among the first vol­un­teers for the ar­du­ous task. When Wang’s No. 1205 Team ar­rived in Daqing in March 1960, the tem­per­a­ture was be­low -40 de­grees, and there was no plumb­ing; the team col­lected water by break­ing ice. Their rig was erected with­out me­chan­i­cal tools. In April, they were 700 me­ters into drilling a well when a blowout oc­curred. As the oil work­ers hur­riedly threw ce­ment into the pit, Wang, de­spite suf­fer­ing a leg in­jury, tossed aside his crutches and plunged into the well to stir the mud with his body, in­spir­ing the oth­ers to (lit­er­ally) pitch in for a three­hour bat­tle against the blowout— “Iron Man” was born.

Iron­i­cally, be­com­ing a laomo was one of the few means for a worker to leave be­hind man­ual la­bor. Af­ter his Daqing as­sign­ment, Wang quickly rose through the ranks, first as di­rec­tor of drilling brigades and rev­o­lu­tion­ary com­mit­tees, then reach­ing deputy chief of the CPC at Daqing. He at­tended the First Ses­sion of the Third Na­tional Peo­ple’s Con­gress in 1964, vis­ited Al­ba­nia with the China Petroleum Del­e­ga­tion in 1966, and got ex­tra ra­tions along with his desk job and international travel.

Mean­while, he had gained a cult fol­low­ing at home. At a 10,000-per­son rally for the Party’s birth­day in 1960 in Daqing, Wang was a bona fide celebrity, ar­riv­ing on horse­back with red ban­ners, flow­ers, and a color guard hold­ing flags bear­ing his fam­ily name—a much like how mil­i­tary gen­er­als were hornored of old, a fact that would not serve him well dur­ing the Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion.

By the 1960s, the fa­mous photo of Wang in the mud was in Chi­nese text­books, and his ad­mir­ers kept faith­ful records of his vis­its with Chi­nese lead­ers: A to­tal of 31 with Premier Zhou in his life­time, and 13 with Chair­man Mao, in­clud­ing a tete-a-tete on the Tian'an­men ros­trum.

The for­mer oil worker was en­cour­aged to write po­etry (an an­thol­ogy of which has been pub­lished by the Daqing Wang Jinxi Me­mo­rial Museum), per­haps build­ing on the nar­ra­tive that he had learned to read and write from the Party’s lit­er­acy pro­gram for work­ers. With­out for­mal ed­u­ca­tion, Wang’s un­pol­ished style and sin­gle-minded

se­lec­tion were ex­actly suited to the mythol­ogy of an or­di­nary worker achiev­ing recog­ni­tion through sheer ef­fort and de­vo­tion to the Party.

“The drill bit runs to the earth/ Crude oil gushes to the ground/ Sup­port the Viet­namese, drown the Yan­kees!” is in­dica­tive of one verse writ­ten dur­ing the war in Viet­nam. An­other was quoted by Chair­man Mao, who told the Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist Edgar Snow what China’s opponents should con­sider: “One of [Daqing’s] drilling work­ers said: ‘The oil worker lets out one mighty roar, and the earth shakes three times with fear.’”

Fame, though, could be dan­ger­ous in Wang’s day. While fel­low cult hero Lei Feng, who died in 1962, was safely en­sconced as a model of Mao Ze­dong Thought, the tides quickly turned against the liv­ing Iron Man dur­ing the Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion. At a mass gath­er­ing on De­cem­ber 23, 1966, “Gang of Four” mem­ber Zhang Chun­qiao al­leged that “Wang Jinxi’s performance had not been good…his change of sta­tus makes him in­flu­en­tial. He is a ben­e­fi­ciary of his rep­u­ta­tion, money, and sta­tus. What fur­ther rev­o­lu­tion­ary de­sire does he have?”

All around the coun­try, for­mer he­roes were be­ing forced to con­fess crimes. Beijing’s “Night Soil King” Shi Chuanx­i­ang, a san­i­ta­tion worker who once shook hands with Liu Shaoqi, was branded a “scab” and “fake laomo,” and even­tu­ally died af­ter en­dur­ing over 100 “strug­gle ses­sions”—a fate sim­i­lar to dis­graced for­mer president Liu him­self. Iron Man was also brought to such ses­sions and tor­tured. Ac­cord­ing to The Soul of China, a 2007 book on the his­tory of the Party, Wang was beaten, branded with a hot iron, and his head forced into a chim­ney flue full of gas make him to con­fess that, “The red flag of Daqing is black; Iron Man false.”

Re­mark­ably, Wang re­fused, declar­ing, “It doesn’t mat­ter whether I am an iron man or a clay man. No one can top­ple the red flag of Daqing. Who­ever dares…let’s smash him into the earth with one fist.” Threat­ened at knife­point to sign a con­fes­sion, he shouted, “I can’t read well, but I know th­ese words. Put the knife at my throat, and I still won’t make a sin­gle mark!” By this time, the coun­try had all but de­scended into chaos, with fac­tions of Red Guards lead­ing raids on ri­vals and pitched bat­tles be­ing fought be­tween troops and rev­o­lu­tion­ary youths. Wang was even­tu­ally res­cued when Premier Zhou or­dered the PLA to bring Daqing back un­der mil­i­tary con­trol, but it would only be a short re­prieve: Stom­ach can­cer claimed his life in 1970.

It was a strange end for a laomo fa­mous for his dis­dain of per­sonal priv­i­lege, say­ing “I am a driller. When I work as a cadre I am still a driller. Po­si­tion has changed, but the true qual­ity of the work­ing peo­ple can­not be changed.”

Re­ha­bil­i­tated, like many dis­graced laomo and rus­ti­cated of­fi­cials, af­ter the Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion, Wang was even­tu­ally named one of China’s Top 10 Fig­ures of the 20th Cen­tury by Xin­hua News Agency in 2000, along with Sun Yat-sen and Mao him­self. Iron Man’s story has been res­ur­rected sev­eral times by the Party, most re­cently in a 1990 TV se­ries and a 2009 movie—all fol­low­ing ma­jor up­heavals in the coun­try’s po­lit­i­cal his­tory.

The Party con­tin­ues to name model work­ers to­day, though with­out the to­tal­ized pro­pa­ganda drives as in Mao’s day—still, some have achieved me­dia fame on their own steam. Post-1979 hon­orees in­clude Yuan Long­ping, the “father of hy­brid rice,” and Yang Li­wei, the first Chi­nese in space. In 2005, the ti­tle was be­stowed on Olympic hur­dler Liu Xiang and NBA bas­ket­ball star Yao Ming. The fa­mous oil field even has a “New Iron Man,” sci­en­tist Wang Qimin, rec­og­nized in 1997 for his achieve­ments as di­rec­tor of the Daqing In­sti­tute of Ex­plo­ration and Devel­op­ment.

But such recog­ni­tions re­main con­tro­ver­sial. “[Ath­letes’] suc­cess and achieve­ments owe not only to their ef­fort, but…to the phys­i­cal qual­ity they are born with,” Zhou Xiaozheng, so­ci­ol­o­gist at Ren­min Univer­sity, opined to China Daily. “It is not easy for com­mon peo­ple to fol­low their model.” To an in­creas­ingly well-ed­u­cated, well-off pub­lic, though laomo no longer needs to be syn­ony­mous with de­pri­va­tion, strug­gle, and slav­ish de­vo­tion.

In­deed, a 2015 sur­vey by Nan­fang Daily found that laomo no longer holds much ap­peal to 95 per­cent of in­ter­net users. “So­ci­ety’s eval­u­a­tion of la­bor has evolved from ‘strength and sweat’ to in­tel­lec­tual, so­cially and eco­nom­i­cally prof­itable work,” the sur­vey con­cluded. “Laomo in ev­ery decade re­flect dif­fer­ent ide­o­log­i­cal ori­en­ta­tions.”


Chen Shaofeng (陈韶峰), of the Daqing Wang Jinxi Me­mo­rial Museum, and Hatty Liu con­tributed to this re­port

Wang Jinxi met Premier Zhou En­lai no less than 31 times in his life­time

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