Homer in China
Chinese high school is a warrior culture. The students in my classes in Beijing were engaged in constant battle, which became clear when I took them slowly through Homer’s Iliad. The Greek society sung by Homer is based on competition for excellence in battle, which was rewarded by glory, honor, and prizes. My Chinese students, fighting their way through the literal and figurative tests of a competitive high school, understood that down to their bones.
Everyone attending Bei Da Fu Zhong, the high school where I taught for two years from 2012-2014, were high achievers, having fought to excel all their lives. They spent enormous time and money on test preparation. I disliked their preoccupation with tests, so I never gave them any, which mystified them. As far as they knew, doing well on tests was the only point of school. How could they win glory if they did not take tests? My argument—that a person might genuinely be interested in learning—seemed to them a quaint, if charming, frivolity. They could not afford to indulge in it.
I pushed the argument anyway; it was part of my job. Dalton Academy was geared toward students who intended to go to the United States for college. It was also an experimental program that tried to get away from a deadening focus on tests, in order to encourage creativity in students.
We plunged into both tasks on the first day of class. Beginnings are always challenging, and starting a discussion class was especially difficult for these kids. After years in the classroom, their voices had only been raised when they were sure of the answer.
“Was Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek armies, a good king?” I asked. Silence. I wrote the question on the whiteboard. “What do you think? Was Agamemnon a good king?” More silence. People looked down and fiddled with pens. The silence became so uncomfortable that one student, Janie, restively broke it.
“No,” she said with an angry air, as if it made her mad that she had been driven to speak. “He should not have take away prizes from best warrior Achilles and humiliate him. That is stupid. Good king isn’t stupid.”
We had started. It took time and lots of encouragement, but discussion has an almost physical momentum, especially among competitive people. Each expressed opinion calls forth an equal and opposite opinion. I asked Janie a few questions: “Why do you think Agamemnon did such a stupid thing? What might worry him about Achilles?”
Sam reacted with the opposite opinion to hers: “Good king should control powerful warrior or his authority is attack. Agamemnon is smart. Think Achilles problem.”
Anne agreed. “Achilles acting like child weakens. Good king must be strong.”
(My students understood English very well, but when it came to speaking it, they often ignored the parts they found strange, unnecessary, or confusing, such as articles, plurals, and tenses.)
Seeing Sam’s and Anne’s disagreement as a challenge to her, Janie turned on them combatively, saying with scorn that Agamemnon could have found a less stupid and greedy way to control Achilles if he was afraid of him. Sam swelled a little. Other voices came quickly forward to soothe the waters. Chinese students dislike disharmony in the classroom, and will try to heal it.
In the classes that followed, we spent some time with Achilles sitting in his tent, trying to decide which is the best life, short but glorious or long but obscure. I asked my students, “What do you think is the best life?”
A pause, and then someone, nearly whispering, ventured: “The best life has lots of money.” There were suppressed giggles.
“Okay, good,” I said. “Suppose you have lots of money. What do you do with money?”
“Buy things,” someone else said boldly, and got a laugh.
“All right. Obviously, you don’t want money itself, you want the things money can buy. What things?” I wanted to know.
Lots of ideas poured out at that: “Clothes, jewels, travel, a big house. . . .”
“Why do you want these things?” I asked. They thought that was a ridiculous question. There was no why about wanting things. You just wanted them.
Tom joked: “I want because my friends don’t have!”
“So,” I replied, “you want your friends to envy you, or to be impressed by you?” They looked at me with an “of course!” expression, which was tinged with a little surprised embarrassment—I gathered that people rarely said that aloud. “Why do you want that?” I pressed.
“I feel proud,” Tom answered, after a moment.
“You want glory and honor, like a Greek warrior?” He agreed, relieved that we were talking about the book again. Yes, he was like a Greek warrior that way.
Allen jumped into the silence and announced: “I want to be rock star.”
“Why do you want that?” I asked.
He grinned, sure he had figured out the answer: “Glory and honor!”
“Really?” I teased him back. “You don’t actually like music? It’s just a way to get money, glory, and honor?” Allen’s music was a byword around the campus. He played in a band every extra moment he had. He admitted that he loved music for its own sake.
I asked: “If you had to choose between money and music, which would you choose?”
This question seemed to hit a sore place. Faces turned downwards. Perhaps it named something that many of them hid within. They might like music, or art, or anything, but they had obligations to their families. All of them were only children, their family’s best hope for wealth.
“I won’t choose,” said Allen, bravely. “I want both.” The circle lightened, and I thought they would applaud.
Class ended and students stood up, chattering excitedly in Chinese. I took this as a good sign.
As the book and the semester progressed, there were a variety of reactions to how we were reading and talking. A few wrote the whole thing off as an easy credit because there were no tests and no one was forced to join the conversation. I believe they had spent so much of their lives looking at school as a source of glory, honor, and prizes—separate from the private personal places where their real interests lay—that they did not know how to treat it otherwise.
Lots of students, though, loved what went on in our class, even though they still thought it a charming luxury that they could not afford to indulge in very much. If an SAT loomed, work for my class was likely to be the first thing shorted. And yet the figure of Achilles became vivid in their minds. Living in their own warrior educational culture, they felt how angry he was when the glory, honor, and prizes he had worked for were taken from him. They understood, too, why his reaction to that was to wonder whether these things had ever been worth his life.
Homer’s answer to that question is not obvious, but perhaps it has to do with the scene at the end, one of the greatest moments in Western literature. King Priam of Troy comes into the Greek camp by night, alone, to beg Achilles to give him his son Hector’s corpse for burial. Achilles and Priam, Greek and Trojan, victor and vanquished, magnificent and broken, have both lost people they loved. And they know they will die soon. Achilles shares this mortal sorrow with the king of the enemy city. As one of my students put it, in a lovely English sentence: “Achilles and Priam weep together, in the dark, in the quiet of Achilles’ tent, with the army sleeping around them.”
My Chinese students and I concluded that Achilles’ lasting glory was not won on the battlefield. His greatest glory is that he grew great enough to feel for all human loss and sorrow, even those of his enemy. Possibly Confucius meant something like this when he put the quality of “ren (仁),” or “humaneness,” at the center of his answer to the question of what is the best life. If so—and it will be the job of people like my students, with learning in both traditions, to decide—then the insight is neither Eastern nor Western, but belongs to us all.