Thursday, March 22, 2012

Learn from Comrade Li Zicheng, Maybe

Resurrection and Insurrection

The little-known Shun Dynasty, which lasted for about a year between the Ming and penultimate Qing Dynasty, was headed by a peasant shepherd named Li Zicheng, who declared himself emperor. The capital was Xi'an, where I went for summer vacation last year. I could wax poetic about the city wall in that amazing city, which is also near to where a much earlier emperor buried his terra-cotta army, but I am writing to talk about how Li Zicheng, not Lei Feng, seems like the ideal icon to resurrect during this time. 

First, a word about Lei Feng from the Wall Street Journal:
A sock-darning do-gooder Communist soldier who died 50 years ago isn’t ideal fodder for an Internet meme, but Lei Feng (雷锋) has been all over Chinese websites this week, as officials diligently work to promote his memory — once actively instilled in schoolchildren across the country — as a model of party loyalty and moral fortitude. This week, Xinhua journalists went to interview elementary-school students who are learning more about the “spirit of Lei Feng” in honor of the anniversary of his death, as well as family members who still recall an era when Lei Feng’s name had more power.”When I was a young worker, we’d all be called in the factory to learn from Comrade Lei Feng,” one woman in her 50s told Xinhua. Now, she says, her grandson says, “I want to learn from America’s Bill Gates.”

Feng is the subject of numerous propaganda posters and you can learn a great deal about the mythology that has sprung up around him on a website that sells those posters.

A well-written blog post by Jeremy Goldkorn offers a critique of the recent campaign to resurrect Comrade Lei Feng, though. Maybe, instead of agreeing or disagreeing with any particular perspective, I wish to offer an alternative. (Any English teacher here can tell you that "maybe" is how many students begin their declarative sentences.)

The Chinese government already issued a silver coin in 1990 with Li Zicheng on it. The portrait above has the feel of a propaganda poster. Nobody knows for sure if and how he died, but he may have ended his life as a monk at Shashan Temple in Hunan. There is a Beijing Opera about him called "Banner of the Daring Prince." He represents the ancient, traditional culture of China, but has that modern-day revolutionary spirit and may have even been a Cinncinatus.

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