Harte, who is known to have repeatedly opposed racial discrimination since as early as 1863, intended the poem to be a satire of the prevalent prejudice among Irish laborers in northern California against the Chinese immigrants competing for the same work. However, the predominantly white middle-class readership of the Overland and the periodicals that reprinted it — including the New York Evening Post, Prairie Farmer, New York Tribune, Boston Evening Transcript, Providence Journal, Hartford Courant, and Saturday Evening Post (published twice) — interpreted and embraced the poem as mocking the Chinese. Following the September 1870 publication, the poem was included in a book by Harte titled Poems, released in January 1871. Several periodicals and books would republish the poem with illustrations.
The Heathen Chinee, as the poem was most often called, was recited in public among opponents to Chinese immigration, and Eugene Casserly, a Senator from California who was "vehemently opposed to the admission of Chinese labour", apparently thanked Harte in writing for supporting his cause. Harte's poem shaped the popular American conception of the Chinese more than any other writing at the time, and made him the most popular literary figure in America in 1870.
When asked about it in later years, Harte called the poem "trash", and "the worst poem I ever wrote, possibly the worst poem anyone ever wrote."