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Comic actor's role of mode'l worker' shows shifting views
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Is a popular comedy actor a good worker? A Chinese actor who specializes in skits was named a city's "model worker" in honor of International Worker's Day, which was Friday.

That decision by the trade union of Shenyang was controversial, since China's model workers have traditionally been those whose behavior and work exemplified the virtues of altruism and diligence.

Shen He, 28, performs with the Northeast Chinese Folk Duet in Shenyang, Liaoning's capital. He's better known by his stage name, Xiao Shenyang (Little Shenyang).

He's not much to look at, and some consider him a bit effeminate. But he became an overnight sensation after performing a skit -- while wearing a skirt -- during the televised annual Spring Festival gala this year. His offbeat performance struck a chord with many viewers.

Nie Guangjun, vice director of the economic department of the Shenyang Labor Union, said: "Shen He enriched people's lives with his performance, bringing them happiness and contributing to social stability."

But many netizens and even media editorials took issue with the choice.

"Becoming a 'model worker' is an honor to all workers. The selection must be serious," said Guo Anqiang on www.opinion.people.com.cn. "Choosing [someone as] a 'model worker' is a sign of social values," he wrote. "If the choice is not proper, it would influence public attitudes."


In reality, the criteria for "model workers" are changing. In the old days, the stereotypical model worker was someone who did an ordinary job, with devotion and diligence.

One official hero of the old era was Shi Chuanxiang, who spent 40 years shoveling waste out of public toilets before they had modern plumbing. He was chosen as a model worker in 1959. Then President Liu Shaoqi once met him and said: "We are both servants of the people, just our jobs differ." A photo of the two shaking hands still appears in primary school textbooks.

Another bygone hero was Wang Jinxi, who was dubbed the "iron man". He started work in the Yumen Oilfield in the northeastern Gansu Province at the age of 15 and worked through fatigue, injuries and difficulties. In 1967, he was designated a national labor model.

But as society developed, the range of "model workers" expanded.

Xu Zhenchao from the eastern Shandong Province was so named in 2005 for his efforts to move up the ladder from dock worker to company manager.

In that year, a big name appeared on the list of model workers: NBA basketball star Yao Ming. Contributing to one's profession became the prime standard for selection.


Zhou Xiaohong, dean of the Sociology Department of Nanjing University, said these changes signal an evolving view of what constitutes work.

"In the past, work meant labor. Jobs requiring tiring labor done in harsh environments were respected by society," he said. In that era, individual achievement was downplayed, because it was regarded to be against the benefit of the nation.

"Recognition of personal achievement constitutes progress in society," the professor said.

Xu, the national model worker in 2005, noted that standards for the honor were actually rising. Candidates "need more than professional knowledge; they should be leaders in all aspects of life."

"Shen earned his fame over years of hard work," said netizen Feng Wei on www.eastday.com. "He has many supporters and his job is also to serve the people. Why shouldn't he win?"

But others worry that these change mean that unsung workers who toil in anonymity will get lost in the shuffle.

"Many ordinary people worked at the grassroots level for years," said Guo Anqiang. "The award to Shen is unfair to them."

"If Shen could win, why don't all those famous singers and movie stars in Hong Kong all mount the honor stage?" said Gu Jun, a professor with the sociology department of Shanghai University.

(Xinhua News Agency May 1, 2009)

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