China's Iron Man Returns

Communist Party propagandists are reviving a legendary working-class hero to inspire patriotism, socialist zeal, and obedience among a populace that is less and less inclined to link nationalism to the fortunes of the party

A clear sky lies overhead, A wasteland underfoot,

A band of heroic men comes


Like a whirlwind, they sweep the plain ...

And throw themselves onto the

great oil field.

- Song from the ``Iron Man'' television series

HE ate boiled weeds, and gave away his paltry ration of steamed wheat bread during China's 1960s famine.

He slept on frozen earth with only his leather oilman's jacket as a cover.

He said: ``I'd rather conquer the oil fields, even at the cost of dying 20 years early.''

He was Wang Jinxi, the ``Iron Man'' of north China's vast Daqing oil field.

A Maoist cult figure, glorified for drilling the first well at Daqing in 1960 and ending China's dependence on oil imports, ``Iron Man'' Wang is again in the limelight.

Communist Party propagandists are resurrecting the legendary fur-hatted hero in an attempt to inspire patriotism, socialist zeal, and obedience among today's disgruntled public.

Massive protests against party power abuses last spring showed vividly how many Chinese, while deeply nationalistic, no longer link their country's fate to the fate of the Communist Party.

In an attempt to reverse this trend, China's leaders are reviving communist paragons like the ``Iron Man,'' who embody both ardent patriotism and a steely loyalty to the party.

``The leadership is trying to emphasize identification of party and nation,'' says Merle Goldman, a professor of Chinese history at Boston University.

The party has launched a mass campaign to infuse the public with the ``Iron Man spirit.'' Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin made a pilgrimage on Feb. 25 to Daqing oil field, where he chatted with the ``Iron Man's'' widow, Wang Lanying, and her children. ``People will never forget Wang Jinxi,'' Mr. Jiang said. Calling on the entire nation to study the ``Iron Man's'' spirit, Jiang said: ``With this spirit, it will be impossible for anyone to intimidate or overthrow us.''

The official press publishes articles almost daily extolling the ``Iron Man.'' And a nationally broadcast eight-part program entitled ``Iron Man'' was China's first television series of the new year.

``Iron Man's behavior was spiritual, selfless,'' says Wang Chitao, director of the ``Iron Man'' series. ``China needs this kind of spirit. A nation without spirit cannot survive.''

Myth mingles with reality in party lore about ``Iron Man'' Wang and other cult figures. But this much appears true: Wang Jinxi led the No. 1 drilling team that struck oil in 1960 at Daqing, in China's northeastern Heilongjiang Province.

The discovery of oil at Daqing was propitious for China. A deepening ideological rift between Beijing and Moscow had caused a sharp drop in China's oil imports from the Soviet Union, the major supplier of Chinese oil.

By 1963, Daqing gushers yielded more than half of China's production of crude oil, basically eliminating the nation's dependence on imports.

Pride in national self-reliance, a hallmark of Maoism and the ``Iron Man spirit,'' is one of the main messages of the propaganda campaign and television series.

This defiant, ``us-them'' attitude is echoed by Chinese hard-line leaders today as they face Western sanctions and the collapse of Communist rule in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Chinese leaders ``are rejecting what's happening in the outside world,'' says Ms. Goldman. ``They are promoting blind patriotism.''

``There is a sense of isolation, that they are the last holdout of communism.''

While stiffening to outer challenges to its rule, the party is promoting the ``Iron Man'' legend at home to glorify what it calls the ``Chinese soul.''

``Thirty years ago in Chinese history, there emerged a magnificent battle for oil,'' declares the baritone narrator of the ``Iron Man'' series.

``Thousands of oilmen were sent on an expedition, infusing a piece of wasteland with the astonishing soul of a grand nation.''

``Iron Man'' Wang exemplifies all the Maoist moral virtues that make up this Chinese soul - hard work, dedication, and self-sacrifice for the collective.

``Whenever it was cloudy and raining, the ``Iron Man'' would ride his motorcycle to one worker's home after another, repairing leaky roofs'' said Wang, citing stories told him by the ``Iron Man's'' fellow workers.

``Except for sleeping, he had no leisure time. His greatest enjoyment was to ask his wife to bring him a basin of warm water to wash his feet in.''

While leading the No. 1 drill team in the early 1960s, China suffered a severe, nationwide famine. ``Iron Man'' Wang, as portrayed on television, secretly spent his own salary to buy potatoes for his hungry crew.

Conveniently, the ``Iron Man'' is also fiercely loyal to the party. In one television program, he sobs as he begs his drill team to accept a party decision to stop work on an unsuccessful well.

By trumpeting the ``Iron Man'' as a model figure for Chinese to emulate, the party is drawing on an ancient practice of China's rulers.

In dynastic China, emperors set forth model Confucians, such as the archetypal virtuous widow, for Chinese to pattern their lives after.

This cultural tradition might make communist role models like the ``Iron Man'' slightly more palatable to Chinese than to people in the Soviet Union and other socialist countries, Goldman says.

But to many Chinese of the 1990s, especially young intellectuals, find such characters laughable.

To them, the party's effort to resurrect the ``Iron Man'' and another Maoist cult figure, the Army martyr Lei Feng, underscores the ideological decrepitude of China's leaders as well as their extreme isolation from the common man.

``Party leaders are looking backward,'' said a Chinese engineer on condition of anonymity. ``They will do anything to keep power in their hands.''

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