The heathen Chinee

The heathen Chinee

In Brief

"Wonder how they explain it to the heathen Chinee": this seems like some mildly racist language on Bloom's part, and it may very well be so, but his words recall an American poem written with exactly the opposite intent. He has perhaps encountered the phrase in one of three popular songs that used the poem's words while ignoring its anti-racist message. 

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In 1870, while living in northern California, Bret Harte published a narrative poem titled Plain Language from Truthful James that sought to undermine the racial prejudice shown toward Chinese workers in the western U.S. Quickly gaining fame, the poem was republished at least eight times in east-coast journals under the title The Heathen Chinee.

The poem begins with the eponymous James struggling in his rough-hewn and not very intelligent way to "explain" in "plain" language what is so "peculiar" about the Chinese:

Which I wish to remark,
And my language is plain,
That for ways that are dark
And for tricks that are vain,
The heathen Chinee is peculiar,
Which the same I would rise to explain.
The speaker proceeds to tell how he and his friend Bill Nye sat down to a game of euchre with a Chinese man. Ah Sin's smile was "childlike and bland," and the whites assumed that "He did not understand" the game, so they expected to easily take his money, especially as Bill's sleeve was "stuffed full of aces and bowers, / And the same with intent to deceive." But Ah Sin shocked them by playing quite well, and at last "he put down a right bower, / Which the same Nye had dealt unto me." At this clear evidence of cheating Bill exchanges glances with James and attacks the treacherous Chinaman. When the brawl is over the floor is littered with cards Ah Sin had been hiding, and an additional "twenty-four packs" are found in his long sleeves.

Harte intended for the poem to suggest that Chinese laborers were smart enough to beat Americans at their own corrupt games—he wrote later that  Ah Sin "did as the Caucasian did in all respects, and, being more patient and frugal, did it a little better"—but he greatly underestimated the malice and stupidity of his audience. He was dismayed when many American readers drew the dim-witted conclusion that what makes the heathen Chinee "peculiar" is his treacherous dishonesty. Interpretations aside, the poem was wildly popular. It inspired several anti-Chinese songs on the west coast, and Harte co-wrote with Mark Twain a playscript titled Ah Sin, which was performed for several months in 1877.

In Yellowface: Creating the Chinese in American Popular Music and Performance, 1850s-1920s (2005), Krystyn Moon writes that "three composers used Harte's Heathen Chinee as lyrics. Henry Tucker's Heathen Chinee (1871) was quite simple, with only three chords. F. Boote's and Charles Towner's versions had completely different sonic qualities, using both musical notation and instrumentation to denote Chinese difference. Both were written in minor keys, G and F minor respectively, which gave the lyrics a more ominous and eerie sound. Boote's Heathen Chinee (1870) even included diminished chords and a little syncopation, similar to devices found in Orientalist art music or blackface minstrelsy. Along with adding his own words in the form of a chorus to affirm the moral turpitude of Ah Sin, Towner, in his version of Heathen Chinee (1870), included orientalized sounds through the use of repeated notes in the bass clef and a recommendation that performers use a gong and a trumpet during the introduction" (40).

It seems possible that one or more of these song versions may have been performed on the British music hall stages that gave Joyce so many of the songs of Ulysses. If any of the songs did find its way onto such stages, its casual trading in racial stereotypes would have been right at home in that raucous low-brow atmosphere. Like the many depictions of black people drawn from minstrel shows in Ulysses, the image of a cunning Chinese card-sharp may arouse disgust in 21st century readers, but circumstances were different in 1904.  Bloom cannot be greatly faulted, when he sees an announcement of a priestly mission to China, for calling up his one familiar image of that utterly foreign people. And a man who can assent good-naturedly to the characterization of his own people as "Ikey" may be forgiven for perpetuating the name "Chinee."

JH 2022
 Hand-colored lithograph of Currier & Ives ca. 1871 showing Ah Sin playing a card, held in the Library of Congress, Washington. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

 Sheet music of Charles Towner's The Heathen Chinee held in the library of the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. Source: Moon, Yellowface (p. 41).