Lei Feng was born on December 18, 1940, to a farmer's family in Wangcheng, central China's Hunan Province. At the age of 7, he lost all the members of his immediate family and was adopted by a distant relative. He graduated from middle school in 1956 and then worked as a tractor driver on a local farm. He went on to be a bulldozer driver at the Anshan Iron and Steel Co. and in 1960 he joined a transportation unit of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) based in northeast China.
Lei was killed on August 15, 1962, while directing a truck as it backed up. A pole struck him on the head.
Lei had a habit of keeping a diary to detail his deeds and experiences, which was published after his death and became one of the bestsellers of the time.
According to Lin Ke, a secretary of late Chairman Mao Zedong, China Youth magazine approached Mao in February 1963 to write an epigraph for their special coverage on Lei. Mao wrote "Learn from Comrade Lei Feng" in traditional calligraphy.
The magazine published Mao's writing on March 2, 1963. Three days later, it was republished by People's Daily, PLA Daily, China Youth Daily and Guangming Daily. The news media later published handwritten epigraphs by other Party and state leaders, finally immortalizing the solider as an emblem of selflessness and devotion.