In “A Son of the Celestial” college student Willa Cather focuses her literary imagination on a Chinese immigrant in San Francisco. The result is not pretty. As I mentioned in this month’s reminder post, the late 19th century saw the rise of anti-Asian sentiments in American politics and cultural life, including literature.
I’ll repeat what I wrote in that post, “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.”
Throughout this short character sketch, you can see the tensions and contradictions of how Yung Le Ho is presented by someone who is fascinated by Chinese culture and heritage, but who nonetheless “others” him as less than red blooded white Americans.
“A white man has got pretty low down”
Ponter, the white American in the story, says, “A white man has got pretty low down, Yung, when he takes to the Smoke and runs with a heathen. But I like you, Yung, as much as a man can like a stone thing.” Yung is depicted as unfeeling, like the “little ivory gods” that he carves. “Day after day he sat in his stall, cross-legged and silent like the gods of his country.”
Ponter lives with Yung and yet he cannot see beyond the stereotypes.
Yung Le Ho is an old(er) man, “one of the few white haired Chinamen who were to be seen about the streets of San Francisco.” This may be reference to the fact that many Chinese immigrants were younger men who came to America as laborers or merchants in search of opportunity.
The representation of Asians as unfeeling, cold, and calculating devils who have some sort of mystical knowledge is one of the primary anti-Asian stereotypes that I’ve seen in my own consumption of books and movies. From Dr. Fu Manchu to World War II movies, Asians have been portrayed as, at best, incapable of having a range of human emotions (e.g., “if a Chinaman can love”) to heartless killing machines carrying out their mission like automatons. (Whereas when American GIs kill in WWII movies, they do it with passion and patriotism. But I digress.)
“Dead things that move”
The narrator lists many positive qualities of Yung: he has a good work ethic with standards comparable to “Michael Angelo,” professors consult him, he’s well travelled, he speaks multiple languages, and has advanced learning, yet he will only ever remain a “heathen Chinese,” part of a group of people who are called, “dead things that move.”
Words are harmful enough and reading this character sketch had me vacillating between revulsion and trying to make sense of the almost laundry like list of stereotypes. There is one line that I found particularly chilling,
“You were not a bad fellow Yung, but your heart has been dead these last six thousand years, and it was better for your carcass to follow suit.”
This brings to mind Roosevelt’s horrifying statement about “dead Indians.” In a speech given just seven years before Cather wrote this piece he said,
“I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every 10 are,” Roosevelt said during a January 1886 speech in New York. “And I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth” (source: Indian Country Today).
Roosevelt was not the first nor the last to use this phrase.1 Words dehumanize people, and words such as the above can lead to violence and give those who commit the violence a sense of righteous mission.
According to Ponter, Yung was better off dead. Given that Ponter considered Yung the best of his community, what does that say about the value of other Chinese people in the community? Such a sentiment is an open invitation to treat them poorly or worse. These white supremest sentiments are still at work in America today as seen in the continued devaluation of and violence against non-white people.
“The Conversion of Sum Loo”
I came across an article by Mary R. Ryder that mentioned Cather later “reworked” this story and published it as, “The Conversion of Sum Loo” in The Library in 1900.2 I’m going to adjust our reading schedule and move up “The Conversion of Sum Loo” for May. (The initial list was pure chronological order and “Sum Loo” wasn’t scheduled until February 2023.) I’m thinking it’ll be interesting for us to read these two pieces back-to-back and do some comparison/contrast interpretation.
Take that, professor!
At the risk of reading Cather’s life into her fiction, which I think is a slippery slope and an often useless or even harmful exercise, I did think her swipe at academics was noteworthy. She writes,
“The professors had a good deal of respect for Yung, though they never told anyone of it, and kept him completely obscured in the background as professors and doctors of philosophy always do persons whom they consider “doubtful” acquaintances.”
I can’t help but think of Cather the college student who hailed from the sticks perhaps feeling a bit snubbed by the cultured class of professors and other educated elites that she encountered at university. Or could this be a reference to her friend and classmate Louise Pound somehow being snubbed? Pound would go on to become a linguist and would be the first woman to serve as president of the Modern Language Association.
What do you think?
What did you think of “A Son of the Celestial”? Please leave a comment below. Let’s talk!
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. Jump in anytime!
1 Folklorist Wolfgang Mieder explores the origins and use of this horrid saying in his article, “‘The Only Good Indian Is a Dead Indian’: History and Meaning of a Proverbial Stereotype.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 106, no. 419, Jan. 1993, pp. 38–60. EBSCOhost, doi:10.2307/541345.
2 Ryder, Mary R. “‘All Wheat and No Chaff’: Frank Norris’ ‘Blix’ and Willa Cather’s Literary Vision.” American Literary Realism, 1870-1910, vol. 22, no. 1, 1989, pp. 17–30. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27746373.
I wrote my comments immediately after reading the short story some time ago, and I appreciated reading your comments. I will share my comments without revision, as my response, written without research or study, admits from the beginning that it deserved deeper analysis. Yet, maybe it offers a different perspective…
Interpreting this story demands more than simply reading it can provide. The opening poem–tho’ not particularly good–alerts readers to what will follow. It is a character study of a man, but a man more godly than human.
It is also a study of East vs West–two intelligent men of different cultures. Each represents their own culture, but both have turned away from their own culture.
I particularly focused on the reference to the traditional explanation for racial bias–the resentment caused by Chinese workers taking jobs away because they accepted cheap wages–but Ponter identifying a deeper explanation–the fear of their differences, some deeper knowledge.
That’s a great point about both men having turned away from their own culture. I didn’t think much about Ponter as a character, but saw him more as a narrative device. This is definitely something to ponder. Thank you!
I didn’t find Cather’s story as objectionable as some of the Yellow Peril stories I’ve read. It does have some very nice imagery which seems like a step up in writing quality from the stories (chronologically) thus far. Definitely interested in reading “The Conversion of Sum Loo” to see how this plays out.
Tangential note: I lived in Pound Hall for 95% of my time on UNL’s campus (part of the Cather-Pound-Neihardt complex that sadly no longer exists…).
Yikes. Well, that’s good to hear (I guess!). I am more familiar with the films that touch on the theme than stories.
One of my friends who lives in Lincoln posted a video of the buildings being demolished. I haven’t been back to campus in probably 10 years. It must be so different.
[…] the response post for last month’s story, I mentioned we were going to switch up our reading order a bit. Our […]
[…] Overall, I thought this an intriguing and more nuanced piece. Cather is disrupting the “dead things that move” idea presented in “Celestial” by depicting Sum Chin’s […]
[…] last two stories we read, “A Son of the Celestial” and “The Conversion of Sum Loo,” were set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, a […]