The poppy: a symbol of sacrifice or oppression?

Here’s a quick lesson in cultural differences:

In England November 11th is a day to remember all the lives lost in military combat. A solemn occasion marked by two minutes of silence in which people across the nation pause to reflect on the human cost of war. However, in Chinese popular culture the date is reserved for Singles Day, or guang gun jie. I have heard different explanations for why this is so. Some say it’s because in China single men are known, rather harshly, as ‘branchless trees’ and November 11th, when written as 11/11, is visually reminiscent of such trees. But it may be simply because the date contains four ‘ones’. Perhaps both explanations are true.

Also, if a British expat in China were to honour the Remembrance Day custom of wearing a poppy on his lapel he would likely cause offence since poppies remind Chinese people of the Opium Wars. In case you don’t already know, the Opium Wars lasted from 1839 to 1860 and started when British forces invaded China to protect the lucrative export of opium to that country.

Although Remembrance Day is a time to remember the casualties of all wars it is often closely associated with World War I (because the Armistice was signed in the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month) and World War II. Those who sacrificed their lives in these wars can be said to have died for a noble cause – the defence of their country. However, the Opium Wars are a reminder of the many shameful wars of conquest which Britain has fought in its history. Today Britain and the USA are waging a so-called ‘War on Drugs’, assuming the status of ‘Good Guys’ resisting the evil designs of drug lords around the world. But back in the 19th Century Britain was global drug hustler Number One. The British government was a brutal cartel whose actions make Scarface look like a Boy Scout. It literally invaded a country so it could sell dope to the people there. The Opium Wars were motivated purely by financial profits and resulted in senseless destruction and a monumental waste of human life.

So here’s a thought. While we remember our war dead let’s not forget the crimes against humanity – even the genocides – that we British have instigated and condoned throughout our past. Let’s ensure that we don’t allow such despicable actions to happen under our flag again.

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