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For China's Young, the Craze for Hero Never Cools

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Dong Yue gets up at 5:50 a.m. for an hour-long bus trip across the city to her school. The six-year-old springs up the minute her alarm clock goes off, though she often dozes off during the bus ride.

For Dong, a first-grader at Haidian Experimental Primary School in western Beijing, being punctual at school is important.

Dong and her classmates all cherish the stickers their teachers give them for punctuality, concentration in class, high quality schoolwork and active participation in classroom activities.

Every 10 stickers can be swapped for a certificate of merit and for every five certificates of merit, the children can get awards ranging from sweets to erasers, pencil sharpeners and exercise books.

Unlike their parents who were scolded as kids for being late or disrupting class, Dong and her classmates face losses of stickers, and are always given chances to make up by helping clean their classroom or contributing hand cleaning gel to their class.

Among Dong's heroes are NBA player Yao Ming and Olympic champion hurdler Liu Xiang. "Canada is good, but they don't have our heroes," she announced proudly after a visit to Alberta early this year.

At six, Dong admires Yao, the 7-foot-6 NBA star playing for Houston Rockets, mainly for his fame and the honor he has done to China.

Though Liu Xiang limped off to a trail of tears amid public expectation for another Olympic gold last year, Dong idolizes him for his past glory as well as his perseverance to get back to the track.

She knows nothing, however, of Lei Feng, Mao Zedong's model soldier who spent all his time and money helping complete strangers and inspired her father's generation.

Role models of the past

Many Chinese born in the 1960s and 1970s recall their younger days when they were encouraged to learn from Lei. "Every day, I prayed the old lady living next door would tumble downstairs so that I could help her," said Dong's father, Dong Fuhai.

A famous joke of those days described how an elderly woman complained she was "helped" to cross the same street, back and forth, five times in an hour by children eager to do "good deeds" the way Lei Feng did.

Many proudly wrote down their "good deeds" in diaries.

Retired Beijing primary school teacher Liu Mingmei laughs as she recalls an embarrassing scene in 1982, when at least half of the students in her class wrote in their essays that they had "picked up a wallet" on their way to school and had turned it in to their teacher.

"When my colleagues read those essays, they all asked, jokingly,' Liu, what have you done with all those wallets?'"

Other role models that inspired generations of Chinese included Liu Wenxue, who died at 14 in 1959 while preventing a man from stealing chilli that was collectively owned by a farming community in his home county of Hechuan, today's Chongqing Municipality. The man strangled Liu to death.

"When I was a kid, most people were poor -- so some attempted to steal," said Ma Xiaofang, 50. "We volunteered to patrol the cropland at night and sometimes caught thieves red-handed."

Ma, who was eager to become one of Mao's "red guards", said she was never scared. "We were taught to 'fight courageously with criminals' and 'sacrifice ourselves to save others' if necessary."

These clauses were written in Chinese students' codes of conduct for many years, until education authorities deleted them in 2003 to better protect minors and avoid pointless sacrifice.

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