British Prime Minister David Cameron visited Beijing on a diplomatic visit today.
He and his British colleagues were all wearing small poppy flowers made of red paper pinned to their chests.
It’s a British tradition. But apparently not one that went down well with their Chinese hosts.
“I think its a question of mutual cultural misunderstanding,” said Joanne Waley-Cohen, who chairs the department of history at New York University.
“The wearing of poppies is a big deal in Britain and people do it to remember those who’ve fallen in war and British people wear poppies specifically at this time of year–on the days surrounding November 11th.”
In the US that’s Veterans Day. In the UK, it’s known as Armistice Day. The anniversary of the armistice that ended the First World War.
“And the point about the poppies is that many poppies grew across the fields of Flanders where so many of the flower of British manhood and all those things had died during world war one – famous poems were written about the poppy fields of Flanders,” Waley-Cohen said.
The most famous such poem, In Flanders Fields, written by a Canadian soldier–Canadians wear poppies too–begins:
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row.”
Nowadays, not everyone in Britain understands the root of the poppy symbol. But it’s a powerful symbol nonetheless, much like the American flag pin is for politicians in the United States. But Joanne Waley-Cohen said China views the poppy through a different lens.
“The whole of their recent history draws on the history of the 19th century in which Britain aggressively sold opium, which is derived from poppies, to China – ushering in the age of imperialism, and a hundred and fifty hiatus in Chinas status as a world power,” she said.
Waley-Cohen said China sees the period stretching from the Opium Wars with the British during the 19th century -up until the proclamation of the People’s Republic in 1949 -as a time of national humiliation.
“Opium was both the substance in every meaning of the word and the symbol of the humiliation of China.”
Tough timing for Prime Minister David Cameron and his diplomatic delegation. But a British official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that they had told the Chinese they would wear their poppies all the same.