Can Lei Feng compete with Jesus?

Posted: March 5, 2012 in Chinese Culture
Tags: ,

Today marks “Learn from Lei Feng Day” in China, where citizens are reminded to follow the lessons of the young soldier who selflessly served the motherland through good deeds to strangers in the early 1960’s. This year the holiday seems to be receiving special attention. A slew of Lei Feng publications have been commissioned, which China Daily proclaimed will boost altruism. And CCTV has been airing several pieces on modern Lei Fengs, like Chinese workers in Africa.

Yesterday, one of these segments caught my eye about a “foreign Lei Feng. ” An American in his 40’s named David is teaching in rural Gansu and has been living in poor areas around China for the better part of two decades. The segment said that after getting hired at one school, David asked to be paid 1,000 yuan less each month so that his salary was the same as the Chinese teachers.

I dug a bit deeper and found David has been the subject of other TV segments celebrating his Lei Feng-ness. He wears shoes with holes in them, only has a backpack’s worth of worldly possessions, and during an interview when he was asked how much he usually scores during basketball games (he’s quite tall), he replied, “I don’t score very much. I just like to pass to other people. Watching them score makes me happy.”

And if the parallels to Lei Feng still aren’t obvious enough, David also hangs a Chinese flag wherever he lives and the “interests” portion of his résumé says “serving the people.”

David’s image seems almost cartoonishly contrived, but still, there’s no faking living in one of China’s poorest areas for over a decade for basically nothing. David’s M.O. seemed a bit familiar, so I dug even deeper on Google and sure enough, I found what was absent (almost certainly on purpose) from the CCTV bit: David is a devout Christian. One former student even blogged about how he and several others had been led to Christianity by David.

This is where Lei Feng and David are a world apart. Lei Feng’s legend says that he did his good deeds for the good of the nation. He praised the efforts of Mao and the party and helped others so that China may ultimately achieve Communism. But expecting people to sacrifice so much for nothing in return is why “learning from Lei Feng” is ultimately just as doomed to irrelevance as Communism itself.

But as David’s converts prove, religion has much more potential to make a splash. While on the surface people like David seem just like Lei Feng, they actually get something big in return for their sacrifices. They get the promise of heavenly reward from a higher power who’s always watching. And unlike socialist ideology, their scripture won’t easily be discredited by political or economic shifts.

Tomorrow, we’ll look deeper at Christianity’s potential in China and why so many young people are converting.

Christianity series Part 2: The new Christians

Christianity series Part 3: Divine economics

Christianity series Part 4: What Marx may have gotten right

Christianity series Part 5: Communist Christianity

Comments
  1. Tom says:

    I know about 40 people in similar situations…newspaper profiles, gov’t awards, and never a mention of faith.

  2. Lorin Yochim says:

    It’s an interesting post that takes a curious turn in the second to last paragraph. I’m quite familiar with Christian doctrine having been steeped in it for most of my childhood years, so no need to explain. But is the suggestion that David is superior to Lei Feng as a model because the former seeks reward for his work and the latter sacrifices himself to a higher cause?

    • sinostand says:

      Superior – no. But the David model is definitely more effective and replicatable. Plus David has the added advantage of being real.

  3. Lorin Yochim says:

    Got it. Although, as you point out quite effectively in this post, David the real and David as portrayed in official are not exactly the same, sort of like the real man Jesus and Jesus of scriptural accounts.

  4. Great post. Looking forward to tomorrow.

  5. Potomacker says:

    The “David” model works well in China, in part, because the Propaganda ministry can readily reappropriate his work and lifestyle to serve the needs of the party and in doing so, his personal missionary work gains some cover.
    The most revealing aspect of this all is that nobody bothers to comment as to how well he teaches. How many effective teaching materials can he pack in along with his shaving kit? Clearly his most effective tool in all his work is his white skin.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      I would tend to agree with your first sentence. It seems, though, that David probably brings some skill as a teacher. Taking the limited facts available at face value, he is either very good at teaching English to his converts or he is a hell of a quick study with languages.

    • sinostand says:

      In fairness to him, he works in literally one of the poorest areas of China with a literacy rate of around 82%. So if he actually speaks English, he’s probably more effective than any Chinese teacher who would still be sticking around. One bit even said he teaches kids Chinese sometimes because their parents speak it so horribly. But as you suggested, who knows how much “teaching” is actually proselytism. Even if it’s a lot, the kids probably still come out much better in the end.

  6. Elijah says:

    Oopsie-daisey!

    You just managed to piss off the aggrieved Atheists AND fengqing flag wavers with one pithy article.

    Not only is there massive evidence that Fei Ling’s “journal” a propaganda fake, the moral of his story is always to serve the Party…. A message that is broadcast by the Party non-stop. Does anyone else feel even slightly suspicious of this. I mean it only takes the smallest whiff of common sense to figure it out.

    Secondly, no one likes to be reminded that Christians aren’t all Jew hating, gay-bashing intolerant sheeple. It’s such a great strawman to bounce ideas off of. The idea that someone who is profoundly Christian and actually does good work and converts by example rather than indoctrination is just inconceivable. It doesn’t match the zeitgeist man……..

    Anyways, fantastic article, always a pleasure to read.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      Someone is tilting at windmills. But perhaps I’ll be proven wrong when the aggrieved atheists and flag wavers actually arrive to comment. No question that Lei Feng is a propaganda tool in the service of Party legitimacy. Also no question that he is meant to encourage selfless behaviour. Presumably the heavenly reward will be doubled for those who can bash away at the Lei Feng straw man and convert muslims without breaking a sweat.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      And…proven wrong.

  7. jc.yin says:

    “they actually get something big in return for their sacrifices. They get the promise of heavenly reward from a higher power who’s always watching”

    What the fuck…. as if only Christians can perform good deeds because of “heavenly rewards”. This is such a fucking insult to those who do good deeds yet doesn’t believe in the almighty dictator.

    Are you saying that human beings are incapable of doing anything good unless they believe in God? Suck my **** Jesus, humans can be selfless whether it’s believing in socialism, fascism, liberalism or any other ideology.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      Easy, tiger. I’m not if Jesus’ generosity extends that far. I almost agreed with the final clause, but it occurred to me that there is one ideology that actively denies selflessness: Ayn Rand’s objectivism.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      “I’m not sure if…”

    • sinostand says:

      Well, I’m atheist myself, so obviously I don’t think humans are incapable of doing good if they don’t believe in god. (In fact, they can do quite horrible things in the name of god) But if you’re going to expect society as a whole to do the kind of good that requires sustained sacrifice without financial reward (not just occasional good deeds), believing someone is always watching you and that you do get some kind of awesome reward out of it is going to get a lot more people moving than telling them they should do it for the motherland just because…

  8. Elijah says:

    I’m a Christian in the sense that I take to heart what Jesus taught as a teacher, rather than the whole Son of God aspect. In my opinion, it’s those lessons which have the most impact on a person’s life out of the whole Bible, much more than the obscure verses written by people biased by their time and current societal standards.

    I don’t rely on my beliefs to tell me what is right and wrong, I use that to reinforce it. IE: A taxi cuts me off while I’m on a motorcycle, what should I do? I want to take a tire iron to the driver’s head, but I know that’s wrong because it would be an over-reaction, impact more than just our lives and it could end up killing the guy. I look at the teaching’s of Christ (comes from Khristos in Greek – Christus in Latin – which means “Anointed One” which is a translation from the Hebrew word for Messiah, which is a title, not a name) and straight-away one of the most famous sayings jumps out “Turn the other cheek”.

    Boom! Done!

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      I don’t quite understand what you mean that you don’t “rely on your beliefs to tell [you] what is right and wong.” If you already have an innate sense of right and wrong and, presumably act appropriately, why do you need those beliefs? If you follow the teachings of Jesus the man, why would you call yourself a Christian? And why do you begin speaking of Christ when you proclaim your belief in the teachings of Jesus absent the “whole son of god aspect”? As your comment makes clear, there is an important way in which Jesus and Christ are not one.

  9. Potomacker says:

    As cynical as is my nature, this guy is doing what I cannot imagine doing myself under such spartan and marginalized conditions. Teaching proper putonghua to the Chinese! I have no doubt that such skills are even more useful than basic English lessons to the children on the fringes of China’s economic development. I lift my glass to him and count him amongst the saints.

  10. Joel says:

    I’m late to the party but I’ll probably link to this whole series anyway. Glad you’re drawing attention to an underreported China story. This bit stood out to me, though, in a bad way:

    While on the surface people like David seem just like Lei Feng, they actually get something big in return for their sacrifices. They get the promise of heavenly reward from a higher power who’s always watching.

    I see this general idea a lot, and I’m not saying the motives of others are unknowable, but think this is wrong for a few reasons: it’s a blunt assertion about someone’s motives from afar, it’s inaccurate regarding Christian motivations, and it’s suspect because it often functions as an anti-Christian ad hominem polemic (which is ironic, given that it’s about ulterior motives).

    How can we presume to know David’s primary motivation, let alone that of millions of Christians serving in self-sacrificial ways around the world? Especially considering that the appeal to selfishness — the idea that you should sacrifice to do good things now because God will pay you back in the afterlife — is contrary to the basic content of Christianity and the primary, selfless example of Jesus. Yes, there is some talk of future ‘rewards’, etc. within Christianity, but in a drastically redefined sense and not as a primary motivator. The same could be said for the Santa Claus-esque stalker idea of God “always watching” — not a primary motivator within Christianity.

    I mean, whether you believe it or not, imagine: Christians believe they have been loved and shown grace and mercy in unfathomable amounts. This naturally leads to a desire to treat others the way you’ve been treated, including by sharing knowledge of and access to all this love/grace/mercy/etc. with those who don’t have it. Within Christianity, everyone has inherent value; love, charity and justice are imperatives; there is a special concern and mandate for the poor and oppressed; yet it’s not possible to ‘earn’ God’s love by doing good things… just to mention just a few things – I could go on. What sort of motives would grow out of all that?

    My point is, if our thinking is, “Oh, he’s a Christian, therefore his motivations are probably XY&Z”, then we need to use ‘XY&Zs’ that actually reflect the actual content of Christianity, because then we’d have a better chance at accurately assuming things about individual Christians like David.

    Anyway, interesting series. Sorry I’m late.🙂

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      I agree with what you say about the “heavenly reward” angle, Joel. If this were the view Christians (and it is certainly the view of some), it would be suspect if not reprehensible. On the other hand, I think you’re engaging in the same kind of generalizing, though in a positive direction, most plainly in using a phrase like “actual content of Christianity.” Of course you’re aware of the problems of essentialism and in a blog comment stream I’ll gladly forgive you in exchange for the same consideration. At any rate, perhaps what we ought to pay attention to is not the actual content of christianity but, rather, what Christians here and there actually do and say, not to mention the unintended consequences of those doings and sayings. And now I’ll get out of here before neologisms start to fly off of my keyboard unencumbered.

  11. Joel says:

    I wouldn’t say I’m generalizing, because when I reference the “actual content of Christianity”, as in, the life and teachings of Jesus as portrayed in the NT (with lots of room for disagreement/interpretational wiggle room in there but broadly orthodox), I’m not appealing to what the average self-identifying American Christian’s opinion is on X topic, or what interpretation would gain the most votes among Sunday morning pew fillers. American Christianity in general is quite syncretized, meaning its integrity is compromised due to an inappropriate melding of Christianity with American culture; it’s part Christianity, part America. Jesus’ harshest words were for the religious leaders of his day, and I think it would be the same were he to show up incarnate in the 21st century.

    As for the actual “sayings and doings” of large numbers of Christian — that’s not a bad point, but I think your underlying assumption is off. Do we really think most people who do it are going to make significant, sustained sacrifices for large chunks of their life merely because they think they’re going to get some “reward” in the afterlife? That’s just a popular anti-Christian caricature, imo. My paragraph above about Christian beliefs that underlay their motivations comes not just from the “actual content of Christianity”, but from the hundreds of Christians I’ve known and the dozens I currently know who are self-sacrificially serving around the world. That’s who I was thinking of when I wrote that particular paragraph: what [hundreds of] Christians [I’ve known personally] here and there actually do and say.

    The sharpest and harshest critiques of Christianity as it is practiced by self-identifying Christians comes from other Christians, not outsiders. Outside criticism, while often furious, is also often way wide of the mark due to a lack of understanding about that which they criticize. When I hear people rant against Christians or Christianity, I often think, “Well, you missed, but I could rephrase that for you and make it much more damning.”

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      Perhaps I was too brief above. Your second paragraph more or less states what I meant when I said “the actual sayings and doings.” Where we differ, and I think this was clear over on your blog when I brought up Canadian residential schools, is on what I called unintended consequences above. You’re right that I’m obviously talking about missionaries, and this may be an unwarranted essentialism. However, the original post is about a missionary, unless the facts are misrepresented.

      Anyway, about unintended consequences, the story of the fellow in this post probably sounds quite romantic to some, and of course his apparent self-sacrifice is admirable enough. Perhaps he is pursuing the kind of actual Christianity you promote. If I were to give a generous reading of what this Christianity might be, I would say that it would have to be a critical Christianity to be in the spirit of an actually existing Jesus. To my way of thinking, this would involve not only the teaching of English and Putonghua, but also a radical questioning of linguistic/cultural hegemony and exploitative social relations. Otherwise what we would have here is an apparently well intentioned and clear thinking Christian man unaware of his role in the world. We might say the same about the many critical commentators out here who seem unaware of what the teaching of English in China is all about. All in all, with respect to actual Christianity, think Paulo Freire and I might be able to get onside.

      Finally, on “the sharpest and harshest critiques of Christianity,” both outsiders and insiders give trenchant critiques of Christianity. This is also true, for example, of commentary on the topic of politics and mainland China. Some observations, both inside and outside, are laughable. Still, valid critique comes from many different positions.

  12. Alliana says:

    “no one likes to be reminded that Christians aren’t all Jew hating, gay-bashing intolerant sheeple. It’s such a great strawman to bounce ideas off of. The idea that someone who is profoundly Christian and actually does good work and converts by example rather than indoctrination is just inconceivable…” <— Elijah

    ohhh… that means i'm hated by a lot of atheists then, if that is to be believed. i shall be expecting an assassination by the time i graduate.😄

    "I’m a Christian in the sense that I take to heart what Jesus taught as a teacher, rather than the whole Son of God aspect." <— still Elijah

    so you're one of those people? interesting. i know one and we get along rather well.

    "As cynical as is my nature, this guy is doing what I cannot imagine doing myself under such spartan and marginalized conditions. Teaching proper putonghua to the Chinese! I have no doubt that such skills are even more useful than basic English lessons to the children on the fringes of China’s economic development. I lift my glass to him and count him amongst the saints." <— finally a different person, Potomacker

    well said. i share the man's faith and yet i doubt i will be able to duplicate that, or something even close to that.

    and to the writer of the post (i have not forgotten you), thank you for sharing. the way you compared david and lei feng was interesting to say the least and i enjoyed it.

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