Monday, 15 November 2010

The Diverse Significances of the Humble Poppy

A clash of cultural symbols, by turns amusing and interesting, took place last week the day before Remembrance Day. The symbol was the poppy. For English speakers (and the French as well, I imagine), the poppy conjures up images of Flanders, the Somme and crosses row on row. For the Chinese, on the other hand, it conjures up the collective memory of the two Opium Wars and humiliation at the hands of foreign powers. Read about the aforementioned clash here.

In fact, I had a much smaller-scale version of the same clash the following day. A number of my students (the overwhelming majority of whom are Chinese) inquired after the flower I was wearing (I had been to a service earlier in the day). I explained to them its significance and, having done that, told them the name of it. Immediately, electronic dictionaries appeared and a flurry of typing ensued, whereupon a collective, almost simultaneous, gasp went round the classroom. Shock registered on a number of faces, followed by questions and remarks such as, "But...but...isn't it illegal?" "You must not have this flower. It is bad" and the like.

That such things can have such divergent associations in different cultures fascinates me, diplomatic incident or no. What intrigues me particularly in this case is the fact that, contrary to his advisers, David Cameron still wore the thing. Of course, cultural associations don't de facto trump each other, but it has become an almost reflexive habit of us Westerners over the past forty-or-so years to give automatic deference to other cultures before our own. Cameron's breaking of the mould is slightly refreshing and I can't help wondering if it's a precedent for something.


Matthias said...

I agree. I know of people supposedly Christians who attend a staunch Protestant church,who are Chinese ,when visiting my colleague and her husband (their son) refused to enter the hosue until they had put the black labrador outside. This is feng shui but if they are Christians are they not meant to out away this belief in bad luck

GAB said...

Interesting, Matthias. I must admit I know very little about feng shui or what the basis for it is, so can't really comment on what these folks did. I would be interested to hear how they understood it though.

I'm all for enculturation of the gospel. I think it's a danger for missionaries, and very difficult for them, to draw the line sometimes between bearing witness to Christ and bearing witness to their particular culture. But there is a line to be drawn when certain practices are at odds with the gospel. The trick is working out where that line is. I'm still trying to work out where it was in the Chinese rites controversy in 1715. I've no idea where it is in regards to something like feng shui (though would probably err on the side of caution subject to greater knowledge).