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Liang Jun

From : China Daily

On her 79th birthday in March, Liang Jun received a large print of the Chinese character for long life, or shou, made up of 1-yuan notes.

Liang Jun, the country's first woman tractor driver, shows off an old note that marked her as a member of the pioneer batch of model workers in 1950. [China Daily]
No longer in circulation, the notes date back to 1962 and carry a picture of a sprightly girl driving a tractor.

Even with her wrinkles and gray hair now, there is no mistaking Liang's bright eyes and confident smile on the note.

Liang is the country's first woman tractor driver and was chosen to form its pioneer batch of model workers in 1950.

She is still excited when she recalls being received by the late Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai for the accolade.

"It seems like it happened only yesterday," Liang says. "I never thought I'd have the chance to meet the leaders, let alone shake their hands and talk with them.

"Model workers are also common workers the only difference is we always choose to work the hardest and are too busy to think about rest."

"Many model workers are gone, but people still give them a thumb-up when they are mentioned."

Indeed, authorities first gave the honor to hardworking citizens who made significant contributions to the country.

The title was considered to be one of the most prestigious under the old planned economy and often brought with it promotion, better housing and political benefit.

The model worker is meant to help inspire the masses with the virtues of hard work, modesty, patriotism and unshakeable commitment to the national cause.

The nationwide selection for model workers began in 1950, Liang says, and is carried out once every five years with those chosen invited to Beijing for a reception by the country's leaders.

The model workers of each age offer unique characteristics and are talented in various fields, but the award ensures that they remain a part of the country's history even as a number of them live in relative obscurity.

Other than Liang, the recipients include those like oilman Wang Jinxi, village Party secretary Guo Fenglian, ticket seller Li Suli and utility service worker Xu Hu.

But model workers now do not necessarily have to be laborers in the traditional sense. There are also those who work in air-conditioned rooms and drive luxury cars.

Basketball star Yao Ming, for example, was selected as a model worker in 2005.

"The evaluation of model workers needs to be revised in a timely fashion society needs more high-quality people who can contribute with the requisite knowledge and techniques," says Zhou Yunlong, professor of the Northeast China Institute of Electric Power Engineering.

Model workers should continue to excel in their fields and reflect the highest values society holds at a certain stage, he says.

"Although Yao is not a laborer, he works very hard and worked his way to win honors for the country," Zhou says.

"China's model worker program has shown diversified development from being based solely on manual workers," says Zhou Tianyong, professor at the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.

Still, with the country's swift development, many industries in recent years have reduced their labor input through improved production techniques and mechanization.

Inevitably, many model workers were also phased out from their sectors, but others have found new vocation, such as Xu Hu, who is now general manager of a local property management company.

The government has continued to keep the honor alive with various measures to improve the lives of retired model workers.

To that effect, Liang Jun's post-retirement years have been relatively easy.

Keeping up-to-date with the news is her main hobby. She is also a member of a chorus group and is active in charity work.

"Labor union leaders and many old friends often visit me during holidays, which means society still remembers us," she says.

"China is getting stronger day by day. My biggest hope is to watch the upcoming 60th anniversary of the founding the People's Republic of China."