In Brief

Chinese immigrants in late 19th century Australia, Canada, and America were often called "Celestials" because of an old name for China, the Celestial Empire. Bloom applies the name to people in China as he stands outside St. Andrew's church contemplating the announcement of a Catholic mission to that country.

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In the popular media of the day, Chinese workers were sometimes called Celestials with pejorative intent. But what a strange slur! Just as the racist-sounding phrase "the heathen Chinee" derives from a poem by Bret Harte that decries racism by showing the eponymous protagonist to be as clever as white Americans, this scornful name echoes Chinese people's highly complimentary self-appellation. China was called Tianchao, the Empire of Heaven, for many centuries, and emperors were styled the Son of Heaven. Why would westerners have applied the term to overworked and despised immigrant laborers in a spirit of mockery? Perhaps it was because the Chinese empire had been humiliated and weakened in the opium wars of the mid-19th century.

Just as with "the heathen Chinee," it is impossible to know from Bloom's brief allusion where he locates himself on the emotional spectrum between sympathetic admiration for "Celestials" and mocking contempt. But Joyce does show his inclination to stand outside the ethnocentrism of his own culture and wonder about a different culture's perspective. Bloom supposes that, to the Chinese with their own exalted ideas of Heavenly order, the arrival of Catholicism would not seem like a god-sent revelation: "Rank heresy for them."

JH 2022
  Source: karen-shepard.com.
Detail from Eighty-seven Celestials, ink on silk painting attributed to Tang Dynasty artist Wu Daozi (680-759 AD). Source: archive.shine.cn.