Historians usually do most of their research in libraries and archives, but sometimes you stumble on material in unexpected places. Like, for example, a subway station.
As I was making my way to Shanghai Disney at the beginning of this month, I had to switch metro lines at the Oriental Sports Center station, a large complex where three busy lines come together. I was carefully following the arrows on the floor to find the Disney-bound train when I looked up and saw a familiar face: Lei Feng.
Not in person; Lei Feng died in 1962. The Lei Feng in front of me was in the form of a gold plastic bust, marking the entrance to a massive “Learn from Lei Feng” exhibit that occupied a huge corner of the station concourse. “Learn from Lei Feng” has been a Chinese Communist Party directive since shortly after his death, and while this model soldier who declared his unswerving dedication to the revolutionary cause has been a presence in Party propaganda ever since, his prominence waxes and wanes. I’ve been collecting scraps of Lei Feng propaganda for several years, preparing for the day when I finish the book I’m working on and start writing one about him. Usually Lei Feng propaganda takes the form of a poster or two in a public park, but before me lay a feast of research materials. I veered away from the arrows directing me to Shanghai Disney, pulled out my phone, and started snapping photos.
Today, “Learn from Lei Feng” is something of a joke, treated as the high point of absurdist Mao-era propaganda. As Evan Osnos wrote for the New Yorker back in 2013, “Lei Feng” either didn’t exist or was a highly mythologized version of a real person. Movies made to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the “Learn from Lei Feng” campaign were box-office disasters, and when I tell Chinese historians that I’m interested in him, they look at me with puzzlement and disbelief. What is there to say about a figure so obviously created by the Party propaganda machine? (Plenty, I think, but we’ll see how that book project goes.)
Given the Lei Feng cynicism I’ve repeatedly encountered in China, I was surprised to see that I wasn’t the only person walking through the exhibit. Two men who appeared to be in their late fifties—who would have been children during the first decade of “Learn from Lei Feng”—were also examining the huge displays of photographs and text narrating the story of Lei Feng’s life for subway riders. Spotting me, the men walked over and asked if the three of us could take a photo together. I suppose the idea that a foreigner could not only recognize Lei Feng but also be interested enough in him to check out the exhibit was so remarkable that they wanted to obtain photographic proof of this encounter.
My head was a swirl of jet lag and confusion as my brain tried to process this unexpected encounter with Lei Feng, and I could do little more than smile for the photo and then bid the men goodbye. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to ask them a few questions. Why had they stopped to look at the exhibit? What did they think of Lei Feng? Later, I chastised myself for this missed opportunity.
But I wasn’t prepared; nothing in my plan for the day had included doing research inside a subway station. Now I know, though, to be more vigilant: Lei Feng can appear in the most unusual places at the most unexpected times.