Lei Feng, the famed half-real, half-fabricated communist model soldier — killed when a telephone pole fell on him more than 50 years ago — is making a dramatic comeback in China's cultural and political life, thanks to vigorous promotion by the Communist Party's new leader, Xi Jinping.
Within an hour of being anointed general secretary of the Communist Party, Mr. Xi quoted Comrade Lei during his inaugural speech to the nation in November.
"The time of one's life is limited, but it is limitless for one to wholeheartedly serve the people," Mr. Xi stated, quoting the famous saying of the deceased model soldier.
Since then, the entire nation has been the target of the latest propaganda campaign exalting the life and devotion of Lei.
The campaign was a prominent theme at the ongoing annual meetings of the rubber-stamp National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.
"[Lei's] power of faith [in communism], love for all, selfless spirit, and desire to excel are the best reflection of our national spirit. They are our 'national backbone,'" Mr. Xi told delegates to the meetings March 6.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the day Mao Zedong first learned of Lei, about seven months after the soldier's death Aug. 15, 1962.
On March 5, 1963, Mao launched a nationwide "Learning from Comrade Lei Feng" campaign.
Lei has since become a political icon in the nation and represented a perfect communist moral order that is characterized by unswerving devotion to communist ideology, selfless spirit in helping others, and, most important, a fanatic loyalty to the leader of the Chinese Communist Party.
On that fateful August day in 1962, Lei, then an obscure 21-year-old soldier in an army transportation unit stationed in the Northeast province of Liaoning, was killed in a traffic accident.
He had been directing a truck that was backing up. The truck struck a telephone pole. The pole fell on Lei, and a legend was born.
After his death, political commissars in his unit allegedly discovered volumes of Lei's diaries with 200,000 words of fanatical admiration for Mao, daily affirmations of his faith in communism, and his devotion to selfless deeds.
Mao's defense chief, Marshal Lin Biao, decided to make a hero out of the common soldier, whose devotion to Mao came as China was recovering from Mao's disastrous "Great Leap Forward," which tried to promote rapid advances in agriculture and manufacturing but resulted in massive famine and millions of deaths.
Lei's legend survived Mao's death in 1976 and spread in different sections of China's communist hierarchy through official propaganda.
However, China's populace has become increasingly skeptical about Lei and whether the model soldier of the propaganda campaign ever existed.
Many ask how Lei, who was nearly illiterate, could have possibly composed voluminous diaries with literary flourish. Others have questioned the authenticity of pictures shot by professional photographers of Lei doing good deeds, even though he was an obscure soldier until his death inspired the propaganda campaign.
Yet many newly discovered photos of Lei recently have gone viral on China's Internet, showing the utterly selfless, puritanical proletarian communist soldier riding a motorcycle in Tiananmen Square in what communists term a "petty bourgeois" outfit, highlighting his penchant for girls and the public spotlight.
To combat the widespread cynicism of the Lei myth, civilian and military officials have labored to "authenticate" Lei and his life's tales, insisting that his diaries were real.
Last month, scores of Chinese Lei experts from the army's General Political Affairs Department, the Party Propaganda Department and the National Education Ministry convened a much-publicized conference to celebrate the publication of a hard-hitting book that seeks to rebuke doubts about Lei. The book is called "An Eternal Monument: The Lei Feng Diaries and the Lei Feng Tales."
The book's announced central purpose is to "unequivocally protect the glorious image of Lei Feng, his spirit and his moral example."
As part of its effort, the Beijing government is promoting a Lei-themed computer game that allows players to advance to higher levels every time they carry out a good deed, such as darning a neighbor's socks.
Eventually, the video game player can reach the highest level by doing the most good deeds. His reward: the ultimate honor — a virtual meeting with Chairman Mao.
In promoting the Lei legend, the government two weeks ago surprisingly discovered an 82-year-old man named Zhang Jun who is said to be an army photographer who served in Lei's unit and who allegedly took more than 200 pictures for Lei before he died.
Propaganda officials directed a nationwide tour for the old man as part of the program to promote Lei.
But — during a speech March 5 on Lei at a military base, before an army audience in the Shenyang Military Region in Northeast China — Mr. Zhang suddenly collapsed and died of a massive heart attack.
His last words were: "I am devoting my limited life to the limitless cause of 'preserving Lei Feng.'"
Despite the setback of losing their alleged witness, the Chinese propaganda machine continues to promote the improbable communist hero, who is regarded by many in China as little more than a throwback to the Mao era that historians say claimed an estimated 60 million lives.
• Miles Yu's column appears Fridays. He can be reached at email@example.com and @yu_miles.