Symbolic Roles in Bret Harte’s “The Heathen Chinee”

Subject: Literature
Pages: 2
Words: 336
Reading time:
2 min

“The Heathen Chinee” is a poem by the American writer Bret Harte that has a profound historical implication. The writer was counter to any type of racial discernment. Evidently, the poem was inscribed as an ironical perception of the preconception that Irish employees had against Chinese settlers in northern California at that point. Nevertheless, the wide-ranging public and the authors and editors as a group comprehended it as an elegy against Chinese migrants and used it in demonstrations against these migrants. In his poem, Harte tries to carry the stereotypical idea that the Chinese are cunning and always have something to hide. For that peculiar reason, he emphasizes the plain language and states that any tricks are vain. A particular dose of satire is contained in the title of the poem itself where the Chinese are called “heathen.” The overall message that is hidden under the unceasing irony is the seriousness of the prejudice with which the society turned toward the Chinese.

The fact that the general society believed “The Heathen Chinee” to be the anti-Chinese anthem only proves the fact that Harte’s ironic approach was more than successful. The symbolic roles of the three characters are the response to the racial discrimination as the reader sees that both Caucasian and Asian are cheating, but it only counts foul when it is the Chinese being dishonest, not the Irish. Even though Harte had no intention to, he managed to become the catalyst for a wave of debates that were full of hate toward the Chinese. Another interesting peculiarity of the poem is the constant recurrence of the words “the same” which could be a clever nod to the fact that most people consider Asians to be all looking and behaving the same. With this double entendre, the author of the poem mocks biased people, and then ironically deceits them by pressing the levers of public hatred, proving once again how easy it is to provoke prejudice in an individual.