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CGED Research Seminar Series

“The Heathen Chinee”: Chinese Migration and the American West in "The Way We Live Now" and the Late-Victorian Periodical Press


Speaker: Jessica Valdez, Associate Professor, School of English, HKU

Respondent: Julia Kuehn, Professor, School of English, HKU

Moderator: Alvin K. Wong, Assistant Professor, Department of Comparative Literature, HKU

Date: 29 September 2021 (Wednesday)

Time: 5:00 PM

Delivery: via Zoom

This paper argues that Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now (1875) formally re-enacts an American poem about anti-Chinese prejudice as a means to problematize conceptions of democratic citizenship and “free” labor. Bret Harte’s 1870 poem – “Plain Language from Truthful James,” but popularly known as “The Heathen Chinee” – was originally intended to satirize anti-Chinese sentiment in California in the 1870s; however, “The Heathen Chinee” became part of an transatlantic discourse of Christian civilization that “heathenized” Chinese migrants and advocated their exclusion from the liberal, democratic state. The character type became particularly important in conceptualizing the limits of liberal democracy, as some writers argued that Chinese immigrants, constrained by their “despotic civilization,” could not become democratic subjects. By revealing the novel’s re-workings of the poem, “The Heathen Chinee,” I argue that the novel both ironizes and participates in practices of liberal, democratic exclusion.

Jessica R. Valdez is an associate professor of English at the University of Hong Kong. Her interdisciplinary research offers new ways of thinking about the novel, media, empire, and colonialism in nineteenth-century literature and culture. She is currently working on a book-length project called, Despots and Democrats: China and America in Nineteenth-Century British Literature. Her first book, Plotting the News in the Victorian Novel, came out in 2020 with Edinburgh University Press.

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