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From Cather Studies Volume 13

Where Pagodas Rise on Every Hill: Romance as Resistance in "A Son of the Celestial"


On 29 May 1900, the front page of the Pittsburg Press declared, “Reign of Anarchy Is Threatened in China.” The report beneath that headline noted the systematic killing of Christian missionaries and the “imminent peril” facing the foreigners who remained. When Pittsburgh’s leading afternoon daily printed that story, Willa Cather was living in the city, working as a journalist and aspiring to be a novelist. As the turmoil in China escalated over the summer, newspapers in Pittsburgh and across the United States enthralled readers with sensational accounts of the Boxer Rebellion.[1] For a wannabe writer of fiction, the headlines from China were ripe for exploitation, and Cather seized the moment. Before the insurgency concluded in September, she had published two thematically related compositions in The Library. The July issue included “A Chinese View of the Chinese Situation,” presented as an interview with a Pittsburgh-based Cantonese importer. Cather followed that up in August with “The Conversion of Sum Loo,” a short story revolving around a Protestant mission’s attempt to convert the family of a Chinese importer living in San Francisco.

The alacrity of Cather’s response in print to the Chinese unrest is impressive, but specious—she brought the seeds for these Pittsburgh publications with her from the Great Plains. In other words, Cather’s back-to-back write-ups in The Library during the Boxer Rebellion were products of a longstanding fascination with China, a preoccupation that began during her childhood and found literary expression in “A Son of the Celestial,” a short story she published in 1893 while a student at the University of Nebraska. To fully appreciate “A Chinese View of the Chinese Situation” and “The Conversion of Sum Loo,” therefore, demands reading them alongside the story Cather conceived seven years earlier in an entirely different region of the country.[2]

In Willa Cather: A Literary Life, James Woodress reduces “A Son of the Celestial” to “a covert attack on some of Cather’s own teachers” and dismisses it as “of no real importance” (79). To be sure, the text does not appeal to twenty-first-century sensibilities. Its racialized portraits and preposterous diction are abhorrent, and, in these respects, the story resembles the work of Frank Norris and Jack London, two of Cather’s notoriously nativist contemporaries. In light of these facts, it is tempting to condemn “A Son of the Celestial” as a piece of Orientalist juvenilia. Doing so, however, is shortsighted.

“A Son of the Celestial” is culturally and literarily important because of its anticipation of issues addressed by Cather in later—and more accomplished—works, its resistance to the xenophobia and anti-Chinese politics common in the American West at the end of the nineteenth century, and its international scope. This early story touches on concerns, historical and political circumstances, themes, and literary tastes that Cather continued to address in her correspondence, essays, fiction, and journalism for decades. It reflects, for instance, her fascination with empire and the influence Romanticism exercised on her artistic vision even as naturalism came to dominate the American literary scene.

In “A Son of the Celestial” Cather challenges the anti-Chinese sentiments voiced by nativists in the United States and traces the source of America’s cultural anxiety not to Chinese laborers but to individuals who pronounce Western civilization and religion (i.e., Christianity) to be superior to Eastern aesthetics and systems of belief. The critical and pluralist tone of “A Son of the Celestial” is echoed in “A Chinese View of the Chinese Situation” (1900) and “The Conversion of Sum Loo” (1900), pieces she published from Pittsburgh during the Boxer Rebellion.[3] Cather’s enduring sympathy for Chinese subjects and values in the 1893 and 1900 publications—despite changing political circumstances—is especially intriguing and warrants further investigation into “A Son of the Celestial.”


By the final decade of the nineteenth century, the United States had achieved its “Manifest Destiny” by using European immigrants to spread Western civilization and Christianity across the continent.[4] With the frontier no longer available for unrestricted settlement, expansionists had to look elsewhere to extend U.S. political and cultural influence. Elsewhere became the Far East and the Pacific.[5]

The turning of America’s colonial gaze overseas was aided by British adventure writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, and H. Rider Haggard. The exotic settings and imperial themes in their writing reinforced Britannia’s global mission and inspired similar notions in readers living in America. Owing to the popularity of such writers in the United States, Americans were well-versed in the discourse of imperialism before their nation actually became a global power. Among the Americans enchanted by stories and poems set in British India, the Far East, and the Pacific was Willa Cather. Rudyard Kipling was a particular favorite of hers. Against the growing popularity of naturalism, she championed his exotic subject matter and Romantic approach, and he left a discernable mark on her first stories, including “A Son of the Celestial.”[6]

Cather came to professional maturity amid the global upheaval occurring between America’s involvement in the Spanish-American War and World War I. In her early career as a journalist, she directly invoked imperial discourse and themes, especially in discussions of her literary tastes.[7] For instance, in a December 1894 article in the Nebraska State Journal, Willa Cather called on Rudyard Kipling (then living with his American wife in Brattleboro, Vermont) to return to the imperial themes of his earlier work:

Go back to the east [i.e., the Far East], Mr. Kipling. . . . Tell us of things new and strange and novel as you used to do. Tell us of love and war and action that thrills us because we know it not. . . . Go back where there are temples and jungles and all manner of unknown things, where there are mountains whose summits have never been scaled, rivers whose sources have never been reached, deserts whose sands have never been crossed. “Back to the land where the great sun is born.” You need fierce color and we have not got it to give you; you need wild action and you will not find it here [in the United States]. In your younger and better days, Mr. Kipling, you would not have missed this great war [the Sino-Japanese War, 1894–95] in the east. You would be doing something better than writing stories for the holiday magazines. (qtd. in Kingdom of Art 317–18)
This impertinent column captures the spirit of the age in which it was written and conveys the young columnist’s ennui with post-frontier American life, when the nation’s “fierce color” had faded and its “wild action” had been tamed. A devotee of British adventure fiction, Cather encourages Rudyard Kipling to further the Romantic legacy of the recently deceased Robert Louis Stevenson (who had died on 3 December 1894) by returning to the exotic locales and daring themes reflected in his earlier poetry and prose like Plain Tales from the Hills (1888), Soldiers Three (1888), and Barrack-Room Ballads (1892).

By the close of the century, Rudyard Kipling had unquestioningly returned to the subject matter and settings Cather outlines above. With the February 1899 publication in McClure’s Magazine of his poem “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands,” Kipling became forever associated with the idea of empire. Although this controversial ballad explicitly warns readers about the dangers attending imperialism and the responsibility colonizing powers have to better the economic, political, and social conditions in the territories they rule (e.g., “seek another’s profit / And work another’s gain” ll. 15–16), “The White Man’s Burden” incensed American anti-imperialists who read it as an exhortation for the United States to join European powers in empire building.

Despite the virulent reaction of antiexpansionists to Kipling’s sentiment, he remained highly popular in the United States—and for good reason. Like the Anglo-Indian poet, by 1899 the United States had deepened its association with colonialism. Between the 1893 coup in Hawaii and the publication of Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden,” the United States formally annexed the Hawaiian Islands, fought and concluded a war with Spain, and assumed control of former Spanish possessions in the Caribbean and in the Pacific.

As her reviews of Kipling’s work from 1896 to 1899 suggest, Cather never figured among the critics of America’s “friend from India” or his subject matter (qtd. in World and the Parish 555).[8] On the contrary, in the wake of U.S. military successes in the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, Cather celebrated his prophetic vision. In a column written from Pittsburgh for the Lincoln Courier on 24 August 1901, Cather reflected on the increasing relevance of Kipling’s work to Americans, particularly to the U.S. troops battling insurgents in Philippine jungles:

It is rather strange, when one comes to think of it, now that the eyes of all the world are turned upon Asia and the nations of the Orient, that the man who most nearly speaks the voice of the [American] people and the spirit of the times first called our attention to the old East ten or twelve years ago. Rudyard Kipling set the song of the East humming in a million brains, and long before he knew that bungalows and punkahs would ever figure in [U.S.] government expense bills, we began to use the names of them. Before Kipling’s day we knew as little about the mixed religions and mixed nations of the Orient as we knew about the etiquette of Tibet, and cared as little. (qtd. in World and the Parish 853–54)
From Cather’s perspective, the events Kipling had been describing in relation to British India, an enormous territory stretching from present-day Pakistan to Myanmar (Burma), provided a ready frame of reference for U.S. activities in Asia. At the very least, the challenges depicted in his work reflected the complications facing American troops in the Philippines.

While Cather valued Kipling’s insights, it is doubtful that he would have captivated her for very long had he been simply an apologist for imperialism, rather than a writer of romances and poetry. She respected several realist writers but firmly believed the naturalism in vogue at the fin de siècle was a passing trend. In 1895 she claimed, “Romance is the highest form of fiction, and it will never desert us. If Stevenson did not accomplish its revival, some other man will. It will come back to us in all its radiance and eternal freshness in some one of the dawning seasons of Time. Ibsens and Zolas are great, but they are temporary. Children, the sea, the sun, God himself are all romanticists” (Courier, 2 November 1895, qtd. in Kingdom of Art 232–33). Despite realist aspects of Kipling’s writing and the prescience of his ideas, it is clear that Willa Cather prized him as a master of fiction’s “highest form” and sought to emulate him.

Cather introduces “A Son of the Celestial: A Character” with four ballad stanzas: sixteen lines of verse written from the perspective of Yung Le Ho, the titular “Character.” The introductory poem foreshadows events that will occur in the story. In addition to providing readers a hint of what will follow in the narrative, the epigraph calls attention to the exotic nature of the story, à la Rudyard Kipling. The ballad was a literary form intimately associated with the Anglo-Indian poet by the 1890s. Kipling was celebrated by his peers for his mastery of the ballad and for the range of meters he deftly employed. According to J. K. Buda, Kipling “took the ballad back to its roots and produced a hybrid form whose appeal transcended barriers of class, education, and cultivated taste” (“Kipling’s ‘The Ballad of East and West’”). Therefore, by simply choosing to open her short story with a ballad, Cather evoked Kipling. She reinforces the association to Kipling by sprinkling clichéd images of “the Orient”—"sunrise land,” “camels,” “Hwang-Ho,” “pagodas,” “idols”—liberally throughout the brief poem.

The tone and content of Cather’s introductory poem closely resemble those of Kipling’s “A Ballad of Burial” (1887, 1892). The speakers in each poem, for instance, instruct listeners where to take their corpses after they die. In Kipling’s verse, a soldier serving in the desert “Plains” of British India asks a favor of his audience: “If down here I chance to die, / Solemnly I beg you take / All that is left of ‘I’ / To the Hills for old sake’s sake” (ll. 1–4). Cather’s poem begins with a similar request:

Ah lie me dead in the sunrise land Where the sky is blue and the hills are gray, Where the camels doze in the desert sun, And the sea gulls scream o’er the big blue bay.
Where the Hwang-Ho glides through the golden sand, And the Herons play in the rushes tall, Where pagodas rise upon every hill And the peach trees bloom by the Chinese Wall. (ll. 1–8)[9]
Kipling’s influence upon Cather is manifest in the imagery she employs. Her poem reveals a sketchy but romanticized picture of China as she depicts the Yellow River (Hwang-Ho) flowing through deserts, under hilltop pagodas, and past trees blossoming within sight of the Great Wall. Almost two years after publishing these lines, Cather recycled several of the poem’s images for use in the aforementioned December 1894 column urging Kipling to abandon his American wife and return to the Far East. By adding a dash of hyperbole, Cather recast “sunrise land,”“desert sun,”“golden sand,” and “pagodas” from the poem as “the land where the sun is born,” “deserts whose sands have never been crossed,” and “temples and jungles and all manner of unknown things” in her open letter to Kipling.


In 1893 Willa Cather had yet to realize the potential of the midwestern landscape and its people, a lesson she would learn in a conversation with Sarah Orne Jewett thirteen years later. So, desirous of “things new and strange” and with Kipling’s “song of the East” humming in her own brain, she searched for an Asian setting for a story. Cather naturally trained her eyes on San Francisco, the most exotic (i.e.,“Oriental”) city in North America.[10] As a city built by proceeds from the 1849 Gold Rush and defined in the 1890s not only by its proximity to the Pacific and Asian markets but also as home to a famed Chinese community, San Francisco embodied America’s transition from pursuing its Manifest Destiny to performing the White Man’s Burden, the program of American imperialism that President McKinley described as “benevolent assimilation.”

Cather cast a wayfarer named Yung Le Ho as the protagonist of the tale. Yung is an eclectic, as unique as the city he lives in. Cather describes him as “one of the few white-haired Chinamen . . . seen about the streets of San Francisco” who sat cross-legged in his stall “silent like the gods of his country, carving his ivory into strange images” (523, 524). In his dotage he sits speechless and still like a Buddhist statue, but in his youth Yung Le Ho meandered across much of Asia before heading to sea, like the Yellow River to which Cather alludes in the epigraph to the story. Though born and educated in “Nanking, the oldest city in the oldest empire,” Yung moved on to Soutcheofou where he lived among “the most beautiful [maidens] in the Middle Kingdom” (525). After Soutcheofou, he traversed Tibet and crossed into India, where he devoted ten years to studying sacred Hindu texts before falling in with “some high caste Indian magicians” (525). What he learned from them, Cather never reveals.

In San Francisco, Yung leads a furtive existence. Chinese by birth, Yung is a global citizen and a Renaissance man who knows “Sanskrit as thoroughly as his own tongue” (524). He is esteemed for his knowledge of Indian philosophy and is occasionally sought out by local scholars for his insights. While academics request his aid in interpreting esoteric texts, they never credit him for his intellectual assistance. When consulted about Sanskrit, Yung answers their questions, but finds “American schoolmen distasteful” pedants whom he feels are “Too muchee good to know muchee” (524). Dismissed by Californians as “a heathen Chinee who bowed down to wood and stone” (524), Yung is never invited to teach at a university. He is obliged, therefore, to earn his livelihood with his hands. As a craftsman, he makes a good living “carving . . . ivory into strange images and . . . sandalwood into shapes of foliage and birds” (524). Cather compares Yung’s talent for working with ebony, ivory, and silk to the skills of Michelangelo, but his creations never achieve the same spiritual or cultural status as Michelangelo’s Pietà or David. Rather than being displayed in cathedrals and other public sites, Yung’s work is purchased by wealthy homemakers in San Francisco “to adorn their drawing rooms” (524). His pieces are regarded as ornaments rather than treasured as art, and the artist receives little or no recognition. Yung is admired for his intellect and is paid whatever price he demands for his carvings, yet without acknowledgment of his expertise in Sanskrit or his talent as a sculptor, he remains essentially anonymous.

Despite generally disliking American academics, Yung befriends a former college professor known only as Ponter, who, to an extent, serves as Yung’s American doppelgänger. Like Yung, he is mysterious and peripatetic with a deep knowledge of Sanskrit. “Ponter was one of the most learned men who ever drifted into ’Frisco, but his best days were over before he came. He had held the chair of Sanskrit in a western university for years, but he could drink too much beer and was too good a shot at billiards to keep that place forever, so the college had requested his resignation” (525). Cather reveals to readers even less about Ponter than she does of Yung. After being driven out of an unspecified university, he bounced “from place to place until at last he drifted into San Francisco where he stayed” (525). In the story, Ponter is left to himself and ekes out a modest living. Exactly “[h]ow he lived,” Cather writes,“no one knew. He did some copying for the lawyers, and he waited on the table in a third-rate boarding house, and he smoked a great deal of opium” (525). It is, in fact, the opium that draws Ponter and Yung together:

Yung, too, loved the Smoke; perhaps it was that as much as Sanskrit that drew the men together. At any rate, as soon as Yung’s bazaar was closed, they went together down to his dark little den in the Chinese quarters, and there they then talked Buddha and Confucius and Lau-tsz [sic] till midnight. Then they went across the hall to the Seven Portals of Paradise. There they each took a mat and each his own sweet pipe with bowls of jade and mouthpieces of amber . . . and pulled a few steady puffs and were in bliss till morning. (525)
In the preceding passage, Cather draws upon exotic associations with opium, a narcotic closely associated with the British Empire’s activities in the Orient.

Opium was the most profitable internationally traded product in the 1800s, particularly for the British Crown. According to historian James Bradley, “opium accounted for 15–20 percent of the British Empire’s revenue” in the nineteenth century (The Imperial Cruise 274). Opium raised and harvested in British India was processed and then transported by British merchants to consumers in China. Policymakers in Europe had known of opium’s ill effects on human health since the sixteenth century (Derks 713), but the opium trade in China was too lucrative to abandon. As Bradley notes, Britain “grew fat on Chinese silver drained from the formerly richest country in the world. The sums were so enormous that Queen Victoria stands as history’s largest drug dealer” (The Imperial Cruise 276).

Fig. 2.1. Paul Frenzeny, Scene in a Chinese Opium Palace, San Francisco, Harper’s Weekly, 3 April 1880, p. 221, Online Archive of California,

As a principal commodity in the nineteenth century, opium was a common motif in literature and art. Kipling addressed the opium trade in several of his works, and in the passage quoted above Cather appears to have drawn upon one of his tales for inspiration. The name—“the Seven Portals of Paradise”—that Cather gives the opium den frequented by Yung and Ponter echoes “The Gate of the Hundred Sorrows,” a story Kipling wrote about an opium den in British India and included in his 1888 collection Plain Tales from the Hills.

In the 1890s opium was big business in San Francisco. Chinese immigrants to California brought opium with them, and it soon became popular with people of all persuasions. In 1875 San Francisco had made operating and frequenting opium dens a misdemeanor, but the law had little impact on the opium trade since importing it into the United States remained legal until 1905. In fact, as Chris Roberts notes for the San Francisco Examiner, at one point in the 1890s there were reported to be no fewer than three hundred opium dens in Chinatown (“The Country’s First War on Drugs,” 11 June 2015).


At the time Cather imagined the cross-cultural friendship between Yung and Ponter, relations between Californians of Chinese and European heritage were severely strained. In the contrasting profitabilities of Yung’s and Ponter’s employment, Cather embeds a source of anxiety among Californians in the 1880s and 1890s: the fear that cheaper Chinese labor would supplant European workers. The antagonism between these two groups in the nineteenth century led to negative depictions of Chinese in newspaper exposés and other publications, including Bret Harte’s 1870 poem “Plain Language from Truthful James,” popularly known as “The Heathen Chinee.” Visual representations of the tension were also plentiful (see figure 2.2).[11]

The anti-Chinese sentiment of the period was not limited to popular literature and magazine illustrations. In “American Naturalism and Asiatic Racial Form,” Colleen Lye notes that it “pervaded almost every social reform and radical movement in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries—organized labor, Populism, Progressivism, and socialism” (76). Leaders of trade unions and anti-immigrant groups like the American Protective Association lobbied Congress to prevent Chinese laborers’ entry into the United States. The pressure resulted in the Chinese Treaty of 1880, which seriously curtailed the immigration of Chinese laborers, and eventual passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which completely prevented unskilled Chinese laborers from entering the country.

As James Bradley explains with intended irony, the Chinese Exclusion Act was unprecedented in its intentions and scope:

From America’s inception in 1783 to 1882, a period of ninety-nine years, there had been no concept of illegal immigrants in the United States. That changed with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. For the first time in U.S. history, an immigration gate was erected with the specific goal of blocking non-Whites. Senator George Hoar of Massachusetts described the Chinese Exclusion Act as “nothing less than the legalization of racial discrimination.” But because of the dire race threat presented by the yellow men, most Americans had no problem with the new legislation. Twenty-four years old and just out of Harvard, Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed in 1882, “No greater calamity could now befall the United States than to have the Pacific slope fill up with a Mongolian population.” (282)

Fig. 2.2. The Coming Man—John Chinaman. Cartoon from Harper’s Weekly Magazine depicting hostilities between Irish and Chinese immigrants in California, 1869. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, the New York Public Library, New York Public Library Digital Collections.

As Senator Hoar recognized—and Theodore Roosevelt explicitly demonstrated—economic motives played a lesser role in passing the Chinese Exclusion Act than racism did. Like Senator Hoar, Cather perceives discrimination at work behind the passage of the anti-Chinese legislation. Accordingly, in “A Son of the Celestial,” she traces the reason for the legislation not to fears for the economic livelihood of native-born Americans, but to cultural motives: Wise Yung! It was not because of the cheapness of Chinese labor that the Chinese bill was enacted. It was because the church and state feared this people who went about unproselyting and unproselyted. Who had printed centuries before Gutenberg was born, who had used anesthetics before chloroform was ever dreamed of. Who, in the new west, settled down and ate and drank and dressed as men had done in the days of the flood. Their terrible antiquity weighed upon us like a dead hand upon a living heart. (526)

In this political aside, Cather ascribes the motivations behind the anti-Chinese legislation to a national inferiority complex and suggests that government agencies and the Protestant Church view the history of technological innovation and cultural advances in China as threats to the core cultural framework in the United States. Cather recognizes that American racists regard Chinese immigrants’ customs—their ways of eating, dressing, and worshipping—as threats to Western European identity and ways of thinking. In the story, she uses Ponter to illustrate this cultural anxiety.

A key ingredient to the turn-of-the-century anti-Chinese sentiment was the “notion of Chinese unassimilability . . . the notion of persistent difference” (Lye 74). In the passage above from “A Son of the Celestial,” Cather toys with this notion, implying that the fear is not simply that Asian immigrants will not assimilate to American customs, but that Chinese cultural traditions may corrupt America’s identification with European culture and threaten the predominance of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Beyond worrying that Chinese immigrants will take jobs from Euro-Americans or that they will resist assimilating to Euro-American culture, illustrious Americans at the turn of the century feared that the United States would eventually become an Asian nation culturally. Lye discusses the prevalence of this paranoia in academic circles. Typical of the pseudoscientific reasoning popular at the time was an argument proffered by Stanford University sociologist Edward Ross who warned in “The Causes of Race Superiority” (1901) that Asian efficiency would manifest itself economically, reproductively, and culturally and would eventually wipe out Western European thought and culture. Asian organization and efficiency, the “efficiency of average units,” as Ross words it,“will trump inventive genius” associated with the Anglo Saxon (qtd. in Lye 75). As troubling as Ross’s generalization is, it was a widespread conviction in the United States at the fin de siècle.

In a telling passage, Cather’s fictional academic in “A Son of the Celestial” voices biases similar to those expressed eight years later by the actual professor, Edward Ross. Despite being described as “one of the most learned men who ever drifted into ’Frisco” (525), Ponter subscribes to absurd prejudices about the lack of Chinese creativity and feeling. Although he was a scholar of Sanskrit with a cursory knowledge of Chinese, Ponter regards William Shakespeare’s Hamlet as the paragon of literary genius and attempts to share it with Yung Le Ho. After Ponter read the “whole of Hamlet” to Yung one night, Yung replied,“[I]t is a great book, but I do not understand. If I were a young man I might try, but it is different. We [Chinese] cut our trees into shape, we bind our women into shape, we make our books into shape by rule. Your trees and women and books just grow, and yet they have shape. I do not understand” (526). Ponter reacts violently to Yung’s unenthusiastic response: “[D]—n you! You are a terrible people! I have come as near losing all human feeling . . . as ever a white man did, but you make me shudder, every one of you. . . . You ought to be a feeling, passionate people, but you are as heartless and devilish as your accursed stone gods. . . . You are dead things that move!” (526–27).

With Ponter labeling all Chinese as zombies incapable of appreciating the genius of William Shakespeare, Cather evokes the paranoid rhetoric associated with the anti-Chinese movements and social Darwinists like Theodore Roosevelt and Edward Ross. She does so by touching on two facets of the complex discourse of “the Asiatic” figure: plurality and inhumanity.

In the age of the “Yellow Peril,” Chinese and other Asians were vilified and labeled “Mongolians” or “Asiatics.” In the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the stereotypical “Asiatic” in the United States was “the coolie,” the indentured laborer from China who was typically imagined en masse rather than individually. Lye explains: “The coolie is a figural variant of modernity’s economic masses; by definition, the coolie lacks individuality. Asiatic racial form is indissociably plural” (75). In his anger precipitated by Yung’s dispassionate reaction to Hamlet, Ponter does not simply berate Yung, but all Chinese: “[Y]ou are a terrible people” (527). Yung concedes that his own difficulty to fully appreciate Hamlet is due to his age rather than his ethnicity. Nevertheless, based on a single man’s response to his reading of Hamlet, Ponter criticizes an entire people. He refuses to consider the possibility that he may be at fault, that his translation of Hamlet into “doggerel Chinese” (526) may be deficient.

The journalism and literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries imagined Chinese as inhuman or villainous. Colleen Lye points out that, unlike “savage” brutes (e.g., Magua in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans) depicted in earlier American literature, “the coolie signifies a different kind of monstrous presence, not the ambivalent pleasure of the body’s libidinal release but the efficient prospect of its mechanical abstraction” (76). In his tirade, Ponter expresses a notion similar to the monstrous mechanical abstraction Lye describes. By labeling Yung and all Chinese, as “dead things that move,” he insists that Chinese are automatons incapable of feeling.

Although Ponter gets the “last word” in the story by virtue of outliving Yung, Cather’s narration does not support his racist generalizations. By the end of the story, she emphasizes Yung’s individuality and shows that he is capable of feeling even though he may not articulate his emotions as passionately as Ponter would like.[12] Immediately following Ponter’s diatribe (526–27), Yung smiles and takes up his opium pipe and drifts off to vivid dreams of his homeland, which then haunt him the rest of the day (527). Yung’s “dreams of the sea and the mountains and forests and the slopes of sunny land” betray a profound, but unexpressed, attachment to his home country, a land he left in his youth and can only imagine returning to after death. His deep affection for his homeland serves to silently refute Ponter’s nativist attack, as does the similarity between the content of his dream (i.e., sun and sea) and Cather’s linkage of these universal subjects to Romanticism (see “On Nature and Romance” 233). In Cather’s world, Yung’s affection for nature proves him to be a Romanticist.


Today Willa Cather is celebrated for her fiction set on the Great Plains, but early in her career she was unmindful of the creative possibilities of her homeland.[13] As reflected in the 1894 plea for Kipling to return to writing about Asian subject matter, she preferred “things new and strange” to the familiar landscape of her childhood. So, inspired by British adventure writers, this daughter of the landlocked American prairie (who had yet to make her first intercontinental voyage) turned her imaginative gaze to San Francisco—North America’s gateway to Asia, where Manifest Destiny would soon make way for Benevolent Assimilation.

“A Son of the Celestial” is not merely an attempt to capitalize on America’s growing appetite for the exotic. It is a seminal act of resistance—an urtext condemning the racist ideology and cultural anxiety informing U.S. politics. With this story, Cather uses Romanticism to counter bigoted notions of Chinese otherness and to deconstruct the justifications for Chinese exclusion. While living in Pittsburgh at the height of the Boxer Rebellion, she drew once more from that text and its ideas to challenge essentialist narratives of Chinese cruelty and duplicity circulated in the American press and seized upon by American politicians to justify hegemonic foreign policies in China and the Philippines.


An earlier version of this article (entitled “Willa Cather’s Imperial Apprenticeship: Rudyard Kipling, the Celestial Empire, and San Francisco”) was published in Japan in Studies in English Language and Literature, vol. 20, March 2012. The revised article is the result of research supported by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research (Kakenhi) number 16k02501.

 1. According to Judy Crichton in America 1900: The Sweeping Story of a Pivotal Year in the Life of a Nation, over three hundred foreigners were killed in China during 1900, and missionaries accounted for the majority of these victims (180). (Go back.)
 2. Cather reuses several images and passages from “A Son of the Celestial” in “The Conversion of Sum Loo.” Less obvious are the ways the 1900 pieces from The Library echo the sentiment and tone of the 1893 story, which I explore in “Willa Cather, Cultural Imperialism, and ‘The Coming Man.’” (Go back.)
 3. In “The Chinese Connection: Cather and Pittsburgh’s Chinatown,” Li Zhu and Tim Bintrim discuss the significance (and journalistic rarity) of Cather’s sympathetic characterization of Yee Chin in the 1900 interview and a 1902 profile titled “Pittsburgh’s Richest Chinaman.” In chapter 3 of this volume (“The Boxer Rebellion, Pittsburgh’s Missionary Crisis, and ‘The Conversion of Sum Loo’”), Bintrim revises this estimate, arguing that the 1900 interview was staged and questioning Cather’s motivations for the 1902 profile, which erroneously claimed Yee Chin’s wife died in 1900. (Go back.)
 4. In 1889, when he published The Winning of the West, Theodore Roosevelt already referred to the matter of continental expansion in the past tense (24). Six months after Cather published “A Son of the Celestial,” Frederick Jackson Turner conclusively “settled” the matter of Manifest Destiny. With an eye on the 1890 Census data, the University of Wisconsin historian declared the American frontier closed in “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” a lecture delivered to the American Historical Association on 12 July 1893, during the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. (Go back.)
 5. The first step in expanding American hegemony overseas was inventing an argument for it. As Edward Said notes in Culture and Imperialism, ideologies of expansion and “the cultural correlatives well precede the actual accumulation of imperial territories world-wide” (58). Imperialism is rooted in the imagination, and material culture responds to the call. (Go back.)
 6. Her surviving correspondence reveals a lasting fondness for the Anglo-Indian writer as well as a marked distaste for the poetry of Edgar Lee Masters, a noted anti-imperialist. Cather disparages Masters in letters to Robert Frost; see Cather to Frost, 17 December 1915 (Selected Letters 213) and Cather to Frost, 20 January [1936] (Selected Letters 214). In a 9 April 1937 letter to E.K. Brown, Cather likens Kipling’s 1897 novel Captains Courageous to his early stories (Selected Letters 213–14, 530). (Go back.)
 7. There are surprisingly few overt references to imperialism in Cather’s mature fiction. As Deborah Karush recognizes in Innocent Voyages, direct commentary on imperialism in Cather’s fiction is fairly limited and relegated to the “margins of her narratives” (24–25). (Go back.)
 8. In a 4 August 1896 letter to Mariel Gere from Pittsburgh, Cather claims, “I have talked 46 minutes with Rudyard Kipling, which alone was worth coming here for” (Selected Letters 39). Based on Kipling’s situation at the time, Bintrim doubts that this conversation could have taken place, which he argues in an unpublished conference paper of June 2017,“Her First Fibs: There Were Two.” Thomas Pinney, the editor of Kipling’s letters, confirmed Bintrim’s suspicion by email,“So far as I can tell, Kipling never went west of the Hudson during the four years of his Vermont residence” (email to Bintrim, 8 November 2015). Nor could the conversation have occurred over the telephone. According to conservator Kelly Carlin of the Landmark Trust, which curates Kipling’s Vermont estate today, there was no telephone at Naulakha in 1896. She explained that the Kiplings “apparently did not like telephones and banned them from their houses” (email to Bintrim, 12 November 2015). (Go back.)
 9. In “The Chinese Mortuary Tradition in San Francisco Chinatown,” Linda Sun Crowder notes that it was common for Chinese living in California to have their remains shipped back to China (where they would be venerated according to Chinese belief) for permanent burial (197–98). Exactly how Cather came to learn of this custom is unclear, but Western American publications that Cather is known to have read, such as The Overland Monthly, referred to this practice. (Go back.)
 10. As James Woodress notes, however, Cather had not yet visited San Francisco before writing this story (146). (Go back.)
 11. For an illuminating overview of the imagery relating to Chinese Exclusion, see Michele Walfred’s website Illustrating Chinese Exclusion. (Go back.)
 12. Early in the story, Ponter is introduced in the following sentence: “There was one American whom Yung took to his heart and loved, if a Chinaman can love, and that was old Ponter” (524–25). I view the phrase “if a Chinaman can love” in this sentence to be an intentionally ironic aside by the narrator. This prejudiced statement—to which Ponter seems to subscribe—is refuted near the end of the story when Yung dreams of the “sunny land” of his home, immediately after Ponter criticizes him for being unable to feel the sun’s fire (526–27). (Go back.)
 13. Nebraska and the rural Midwest play little role in Cather’s literary production before she moved to Pittsburgh. This began to change after “Eric Hermannson’s Soul” was published in 1900. (Go back.)


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