“A Son of the Celestial” Willa Cather Short Story Project • April 2021 Reminder

A Son of the Celestial WCSSP2

Hi Everyone! Apologies that I’m a day late with the reminder post for our monthly Willa Cather short story and for being a bit MIA on the blog. School and spring yard work has been keeping me busy. I am LOVING my school work and it feels great to have my hands in the soil again, but I’ve missed you all!

Up this month for the Willa Cather Short Story Project Phase 2 is “A Son of the Celestial.” This story was published in The Hesperian, issue number 22, published on January 15, 1893.

A content warning is in order for this story. It is racist and full of late 19th-century derogatory stereotypes about Chinese people.

“A Son of the Celestial” is set in 1880s San Francisco. The “Chinese bill” mentioned in the story is no doubt referring to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This racist, white supremest act prohibited new Chinese laborers from immigrating and prohibited Chinese people from becoming citizens. Those already living in the States were classified as permanent aliens. An earlier law, the Page Act of 1875 prohibited the entry of Chinese women. A harsher law would be passed in 1924 that prohibited a wider range of work categories and also prohibited immigration from additional Asian countries. Asian hate has a long and official history in the United States.

After a quick skim of this story, I thought about skipping it for our reading project. I decided not to for several reasons. As a Cather fan, I do want to read everything she wrote, which is the whole point of this project. Another reason was not to avoid history. Not that we can completely avoid history or current events. We can only stick our heads in the sand and pretend we don’t see things we don’t like. The people who are on the receiving end of hate don’t have that luxury, nor should any of us. I do believe that seeing or hearing about hate against any group, slowly eats away at the humanity of all of us. As a reader who is both a fan of Cather and a history enthusiast, it didn’t feel right to skip this story.

Cather was certainly not alone or original in her stereotypes. The 1880s saw the beginnings of a literary trope called Yellow Peril stories that depicted Chinese as mysterious opium smoking men who worked hard, lived in squalor, and had mysterious superpowers that were tied to their ancient traditions and religion. They were depicted as outwardly submissive but inwardly cunning and evil. This trope would “flourish” in the 1920s and beyond.

For a writer who would eventually depict other immigrant groups with such understanding and grace, A Son of the Celestial” is a cringe-worthy read. It makes me wonder what type of stories Cather would have told had she grown up in San Francisco. Would she have written novels in the Yellow Peril line, or would she have come to understand and appreciate the Chinese people in her world? She was not writing from any personal experience in this story but seemed to be trying her hand at writing a fictional story about contemporary attitudes based on the cultural zeitgeist.

Do you think Cather subverts the Yellow Peril trope in anyway or does she double-down on it? Can you see similarities with other Cather short stories or novels?

Here’s a link to the full text of this short story on the Willa Cather Archive: https://cather.unl.edu/writings/shortfiction/ss022

What’s next?

Read A Son of the Celestial” sometime this month and then come back to discuss it on the response post I will share on April 28th, the last Wednesday of the month. Feel free to read now and comment here if you can’t wait until then!


New to this blog? Learn more about the Willa Cather Short Story Project here. In a nutshell, we’re reading one Cather short story a month. I remind everyone of what story we’re reading on the first Wednesday of the month and then share a response on the fourth Wednesday of the month. Jump in anytime!



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3 replies

  1. I’ve rea two of Amitav Ghosh’s books about the Opium Wars and have new insights into how the opium industry was damaging to India and China. Little known fact FDR’s grandfather was an opium trader in the US and women took Laudium for their monthly issues. Where did it begin? Not with the ceremonial opium, only when it was made a commodity for otheer coutries to become addicted.

  2. This is a very important story for exactly the reason it is horrible. Cather is reflecting what white Americans felt at the time and it would be a shame not to read or to censor this story. Historical context is everything. I don’t think the story reflects on Cather’s thoughts about the Chinese, as much as she is reflecting, and very well, what the relationships actually were between whites and Chinese. Like you say, we can’t put our heads in the sand. No, facing the past honestly is how we move forward.

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