June 10, 2008

Hate thy Neighbour

Filed under: China,culture,teaching — Kim @ 5:11 pm

We looked at Wilfred Owen’s well known WW1 poem Dulce Et Decorum Est in class today, and I tinkered around with things a bit to get the discussion going.

Before I explain my tinkerings, here’s the original poem:

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

I didn’t show the students the full poem straight off. I chopped off the last 4 lines…the ones with the “message”…which just left the graphic descriptions of the horrors of war.

I then asked students to decide whether it was, broadly speaking, an anti-war poem or whether it was designed to make readers feel pity for the poor English soldier and so hate the Germans/the enemy more, and thus, broadly speaking, a pro-war poem.

Most thought it was an anti-war poem, so then I surprised them by showing them these “last 4 lines”, baked earlier by me:

My friend, you would not then deny our cause is best
Or try to teach our children that humanity is one.
Here is the truth: Dulce et decorum est
To kill the Hun.

I had to explain that “the Hun” was a derogatory term for Germans during WW1, but after that they were all agreed that it was a patriotic poem aimed at stirring up raw passion against those who would gas “our boys”.

All of which is nonsense of course, and I admitted it and showed them the original ending and after some discussion we agreed that the original is more powerful/profound/humane etc. But the vastly different interpretations caused by the tweaked ending does indicate the ambivalence that can result from mere depictions of war.

And, yes, here comes the inevitable Chinese slant on this…I don’t watch CCTV that often, but when I browse through the channels here it’s pretty much odds on there’ll be one showing evil Japs doing despicable things to brave Chinese. I don’t watch these films/dramas so I can’t comment, but am I a cynic/pessimist for expecting that the “message”, the semantic tweak to depictions of war, is more along the lines of “Chinese are great and Japs are vicious scum” than “War is a disaster”?

Can anyone confirm/disprove my hunch?

1 Comment

  1. You need to watch Feng Xiaogang’s latest film, Assembly/集结号. It doesn’t deal with the Japs, starting, as it does, in the third civil war of ’45 to 49, then passing through Korea, but it does give a rather more honest and brutal portrayal of combat than is the norm.

    Otherwise, I think your characterisation of Chinese war film/tv is generally accurate.

    Comment by chriswaugh_bj — June 12, 2008 @ 8:23 am

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