“Heathen Chinese” was a popular phrase in America and Europe in the 1800s and early 1900s, as exemplified by Bret Harte’s 1870 poem “Plain Language from Truthful James” which was widely republished as “The Heathen Chinee.” Harte had actually intended the poem as satire, and indeed later described it as “the worst poem I ever wrote, possibly the worst poem anyone ever wrote,” but that fact was entirely lost on his American audience.

Which is why I 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 am free to maintain.

Sandy Lydon’s Chinese Gold describes the harassment of a Chinese family in a fishing village near Monterey and provides another example of the use of this phrase in the year 1897, quoted from Pacific Grove Review:

A witness correctly observed that, to the onlookers, the desire of the Chinese family to eat in private “was of no consequence–they were only ‘heathen Chinese.’” (346)

18 responses to “About

  • alephlordofchaos

    I stumbled across this blog while looking up heathenism, which I also have an interest in, and I would to ask: what does “heathen” or “heathenism” to you?

    • heathenchinese.wordpress.com

      Well, the “heathen” in this blog’s title is only tangentially related to “heathenism,” which isn’t my tradition–that term refers specifically to reconstructed pre-Christian Northern European religions (usually Germanic, though not necessarily so). I’d recommend Óðrœrir Heathen Journal for more information on European heathenism.

      The word “heathen” in this blog’s title is being used in the same sense as the word “pagan,” a label also historically applied to Chinese religious practices by European and Euro-American Christians. That is, it’s an outside label (with little more established meaning than “non-Christian”) that I’m comfortable with reclaiming for my own use.

      • alephlordofchaos

        I see. What would you say your tradition is about besides polytheistic worship?

      • heathenchinese.wordpress.com

        Good question. Generally, traditional Chinese culture considers filial piety, respect for the dead (specifically one’s own ancestors, of course, but also for the power of the dead in general), and the avoidance of “bad luck” (which can often be caused by spirits of the deceased) to be important.

        Daoist philosophy is pretty complex, but I do find it interesting. I think it’s useful to take a step back and see that humans are not the center of the universe, and that we are subject to processes outside our control. For example, the Dao De Jing talks about how apparent opposites such as beauty and ugliness only exist in definition to one another, and therefore each creates the other. The Dao De Jing applies the same view to order and disorder within human society.

        The concept of “wu wei” or “non-action” that the Dao De Jing advocates shouldn’t be reduced to total passivity; nonetheless, I’m not sure how I feel about it yet. A certain amount of “action” is obviously natural and necessary; with that in mind, I’m interested in how Chinese religion and Daoism have historically intersected with warrior traditions, secret societies, rebellions, etc. I also have a strong interest in how Chinese religion was and is practiced overseas here in California specifically.

        I’m interested in history because it affects the present. To a certain extent, I believe in the concept of Fate. Fate is partially (though by no means wholly) the chains of cause-and-effect and consequence interwoven through generations. That’s not to say that I believe in the total predestination of specific events, merely that I’m unsurprised to see that certain limitations are inescapable and that many cycles and patterns repeat themselves. I know that’s rather vague, but these are still ideas I’m trying to figure out.

        Finally, Chinese culture is obviously not “environmentalist,” but Daoism has often been associated with hermits living in wild areas. I think that reverence for plant/animal life and the land is a good idea.

      • alephlordofchaos

        What is your assessment of paganism in general, and do you refer to your traditions as pagan?

      • heathenchinese.wordpress.com

        Use of the word pagan: in the sense that I’m using the word “heathen” as a synonym to “pagan,” I obviously do use such words as adjectives to describe my practices. I don’t tend to use “pagan” (or “heathen,” for that matter) as a noun to describe myself…I find it much more useful to say that I practice “Chinese polytheism” or that I’m trying to learn about “Chinese traditional religion,” and then describe what I do specifically. Which is mostly making daily offerings of incense accompanied by prayer.

        Assessment of paganism in general: both that question and “paganism in general” are too broad in scope for me to feel like I have anything useful or specific to say.

  • Elenor

    Good show on your adventure into receiving lingqi from the gods, taking interest in Chinese folk belief. There are many temples in California which need interested members to support restoration and development, especially in rural areas such as Oroville, Maryville, Weaverville… The history of these temples has yet to be fully written.

    You’re right that no “reconstructionist” approach is needed nor appropriate with Chinese religion, even on the frontier in remote California. This would especially be worth advising because that grand universe incorporates many initiatory strands for which such a project would be misapprorpriatory. The three teachings of Buddhism, Confucianism, and especially Daoism infuse Chinese religion and maintain a dynamic relationship with the popular religion, but are indeed independent societies. Chinese popular temples are the democratic ground within which all such believers meet, so the engagement of everyone with these temples is especially important for social harmony…

    Hope to hear your reports. Heaven and Earth bless you and your family.

  • benebell

    Love your site. Great information, great resources, and great writing. Thank you for this.

  • ht

    I just want to say, keep up with the good stuff. I’m a historian who works on local history and local religion in north China. As a white guy in China I often feel the reverse of what you describe here, after all, I’m only a “heathen laowai”… So I support the sentiment and I support the pursuit of all related to Chinese religions. 加油!

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  • Julian Dawson

    I’m of primarily Western European descent, but I’m slowly transitioning into polytheism–specifically with an interest in Chinese and Gaelic polytheism. I have a partially built shrine to Guan Yu or Guan Di, and I have, for a few years now, profoundly respected the indigenous religion of China.

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