Xu Honggang is a Chinese hero for changing times.
Remember Lei Feng, the army truck driver whom Chairman Mao chose in 1963 as a role model for the people?
Lei, who was accidentally killed by a falling telephone pole in 1962, was portrayed as the embodiment of the selfless individual serving his comrades and his leader. He even washed his comrades’ socks.
“Learn from Comrade Lei Feng,” Mao Tse-tung, China’s powerful Communist Party boss, urged 31 years ago today. And around this time each year, all over China, the nation’s youth strive to perform good deeds, though few go as far as sock-washing.
On Feb. 15, for example, the Beijing Youth News reported that 28 students of the Youth League Branch of the No. 112 Middle School cleaned the house of an elderly woman and cooked her a batch of dumplings.
But this year, another hero, also from the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, has been added to the Chinese pantheon.
The story of Xu Honggang and his heroic battle with a gang of robbers speaks to a different, less-innocent China.
Unlike the nation at the time of Mao and Lei, this is a get-rich-quick China, where corruption is rampant and violent crime causes a growing fear. This is a what’s-in-it-for-me, “market economy” China, where newspapers are full of accounts of citizens who refuse to come to the aid of their compatriots even when they are in dire straits.
“Mao’s time was an age of idealism, when Lei Feng was the perfect hero,” explained a young Chinese official over a recent dinner. “Now, we have entered the era of materialism. These days we need a hero who will do something even when there is no chance of profit.”
Throughout Chinese history, leaders and sages have sought to shape society by holding up individuals as exemplars of virtue.
The tradition derives from the teachings of Confucius, whose system of ethics for a stable society became the basis for centuries of Chinese government.
Confucianism emphasized virtue, selflessness, duty, patriotism, hard work and respect for hierarchy, both familial and societal. His disciples reinforced its lessons by popularizing stories about people who represented particular virtues.
Chinese children learn at an early age of such heroes as Mu Lan, a woman of the 6th Century who disguised herself as a man and served 12 years as a soldier so that her father, too ill to report for military duty, would not be disgraced or punished. Mu Lan’s story provides a lesson in both courage and filial devotion.
And every summer, the Dragon Boat festival marks the drowning suicide of Qu Yuan, a poet and Cabinet minister from the 4th Century BC who is the archetype of the loyal government servant. Qu killed himself when his sovereign’s failure to heed his advice led to national disaster. The annual boat races, and the accompanying sacrificial tossing of rice into the water, symbolize the effort to save the revered man’s body from the fishes.
Much as the story of the young George Washington and the chopped-down cherry tree promoted honesty to early Americans, such heroes have served to inspire the people and unify the country.
For a Chinese leadership struggling to inspire today’s youth, Xu the hero surfaces at a welcome time.
His legend has been spread and burnished by dozens of glowing newspaper stories published in recent weeks that give essentially the same account of the incident:
The leader of a PLA army communications squad from Yunnan province in the mountainous south, Xu is in his early 20s, square-jawed and handsome. He was riding a long-distance bus in Sichuan province last Aug. 17 when several hooligans began harassing a young woman, demanding money.
When the woman refused to give them money, the ruffians threatened to strip off her clothes and throw her out the window. None of the nearby passengers--including the woman’s husband, quaking with fear at her side--rose to help as the toughs, according to the front-page version in the People’s Daily, shouted: “No money! Push her out!”
They were about to do just that when Xu, asleep in the back of the bus, was awakened by the commotion.
Without the slightest hesitation or hint of fear, Xu shouted at the men to free the woman. The men, shocked by the challenge, released her but then turned on Xu.
Thus commenced, in the words of the People’s Daily’s glowing version, the “battle between justice and evil” on the bus from Niujie town, Yiliang County, Yunnan province to Yunlian County, Sichuan province.
Knives flashing, the thugs descended on Xu, stabbing him 14 times and opening up his stomach until--the news accounts are quite specific on this detail--"his intestines came out of his body.”
Inspired by Xu’s example, other passengers jumped into the fray. The driver stopped the bus and managed to disarm one of the men. The criminals fled.
Critically wounded, his insides trailing, Xu pursued the fleeing villains.
“One meter, two meters, 10 meters,” continued the People’s Daily account, " . . . leaving a 50-meter trail of blood, Xu finally collapsed on the highway.”
According to the Beijing Youth Daily’s report, when police arrived at the scene, Xu at first refused treatment.
“I’m from the PLA,” he reportedly said. “Never mind me. Chase the criminals!”
When news of Xu’s heroism spread across the rugged countryside, several thousand peasants came to the Yunlian County Hospital, near the Yangtze River city of Yibin, to pay tribute to the young soldier. The hospital staff created a special 24-hour watch team to help pull him through.
By this time, reports of his exploit and of his admirable humility had reached Beijing, far to the north.
In Xu, Chinese leaders saw an ideal model for the worrisome new generation that seemed to have lost the old-time spirit of self-sacrifice and altruism. As soon as he was well enough to travel, they summoned him to be festooned with medals and heaped with honors and titles such as “Model of a Loving People,” “Guard of the People” and “Brave Young Hero.”
The railway ministry gave special permission for his train to stop longer than usual at stations along the route, so that he could be seen by adoring crowds.
The People’s Daily reported that on Sept. 16, in Mianchi County, Henan province, “thousands of soldiers and people gathered at the station to meet him.”
In interviews, Xu’s personal modesty was found to be as astonishing as his heroism.
He said he owed a debt to the inspiring example of the older generation in his home region in Yunnan, a famous cradle of PLA soldiers. He praised the bus driver who helped him fight the criminals, and the doctors and nurses who treated him. He said he wanted no special treatment for his deed, only to be allowed to return to his unit as a common soldier, doing his duty.
“I don’t consider myself as a hero,” he said. “I am still a son of the people in the Wumeng Mountain area and an ordinary soldier.”
When he first returned to his military unit, he reportedly refused a car offered by local officials. On the train, he gave up his seat to a woman carrying a child.
On Feb. 5, Xu met with President Jiang Zemin, who gripped his hand long and hard. The president encouraged Communist Party officials, soldiers and ordinary Chinese to “learn from Xu Honggang.”
Newspapers carried long interviews, including an extraordinary Feb. 18 article in the People’s Daily that covered nearly half the front page. Xu was even invited as a guest on a popular television game show.
During the last week, a time normally devoted to honoring the memory of Lei Feng, new hero Xu was in Beijing delivering inspiring talks to students.
Xu’s heroic apotheosis does not mean that he has been tapped by the government to replace Lei Feng.
Guan Changdi, vice director of the Lei Feng Memorial Hall in Fushun, Liaoning province, said in a telephone interview that the memorial still averages 1,000 visitors a day. In March, he said, near the date of Mao’s call to “emulate Lei Feng,” the crowds swell to 5,000 to 6,000 a day.
As useful heroes, Lei and Xu are alike in several respects, explained a young intellectual in the Foreign Ministry. They both are considered model soldiers of the PLA. Both are peacetime soldiers, whose deeds are not related to battlefield exploits.
The basis for Lei’s fame was a diary he purportedly wrote detailing modestly his everyday good deeds.
Most foreign Chinese scholars and even many Chinese now believe that the diary was a fake, created as a propaganda tool by Mao or his aides.
For many middle-aged Chinese, however, this knowledge does not diminish their respect for Lei.
“When I was young I believed every word of Lei Feng,” a Chinese newspaper editor admitted. “Even now, I still weep when I see the movie about his life.”
Lei’s heroism was more a collection of relatively mundane acts. Mao chose him to emphasize simplicity and ordinary, selfless dedication.
In the conformist Mao years, the kind of person who does his duty without complaint and also performs a raft of good deeds, on the order of helping old ladies to cross streets, was a useful role model.
The problem for today’s Chinese leadership is that because he is a dead do-gooder, Lei’s example is losing its power. Somehow, after a brief flurry in March, the good deeds that it inspires do not last; neither do the selflessness and lack of complaint. As a popular saying has it, “Lei Feng comes in March but leaves in April.”
Xu, on the other hand, is a living hero who can inspire not only by his acts but also by his presence. He also has other virtues attractive to today’s youth.
Handsome as a matinee idol, he is China’s own, living action hero, similar to the heroes in the kung fu movies so popular here. By his brave acts on the bus, he also stands in contrast to the worrisome trend of indifference to people in distress.
To emphasize this point, the Legal Daily newspaper on Feb. 23 listed a series of shocking incidents in which people refused to come to the aid of fellow citizens.
In one July, 1993, case, for example, the newspaper reported that when a man was murdered on the dance floor of a Hunan discotheque, the other customers simply wiped up the blood and continued dancing.
The young Foreign Ministry official said that in his own family, there had been a near-drowning at a Beijing reservoir because onlookers had refused to jump in the water to help without being paid.
Loading his plate with lemon chicken from a sumptuous buffet table, the young man shook his head. “At a particular time in history,” he said, “you need a hero who fits that time, someone willing to sacrifice for the benefit of others.”
In his mind, selfless Xu Honggang, China’s living action hero, might be just that person.