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The Chinese Exclusion Act was a United States federal law signed by President Chester A. Arthur on May 6, 1882 prohibiting the immigration of all Chinese laborers. In times of economic and geopolitical crises, the tensions existed between different ethnic groups and the Chinese Americans paid for the crisis. At the beginning, the law was only a “restriction law” (1882-1888). However, the “restriction law” was ineffective, followed by outbreak of anti-Chinese violence.  The confluence of local violence along with national exclusion and international expansion shifted the nature of US border control with a long-term policy of “complete exclusion law” (1888-1943).  The hostile political environment lay the grounds for the general public to embrace a racism against Chinese Americans.  The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943.


 “An act to execute certain treaty stipulations relating to the Chinese”, also called the Chinese Exclusion Act, was a discriminatory law signed in 1882 targeting Chinese Americans. [1] In the beginning (from roughly 1882-1888), the law only intended to impose restrictions on Chinese immigrants. This would quickly change, as between 1885 and 1886 the United States experienced an explosion in violence against Chinese Americans. The explosion did not materialize out of nowhere– for a long time, average citizens, who tended to be easily swayed by the court of public opinion, were exposed to a cascade of anti-Chinese sentiment. Under the long-standing influence of such sentiments, and various domestic/international crises, the tides of patriotism and Sinophobia were stirred to a fever pitch. The change in public opinion was enough to steer the United States off the course of simply “controlling immigration” and down the path of complete exclusion (1888-1943).

The vast differences in religion and culture, and the deeply ingrained history of racism in America, both contributed to the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the numerous instances of violence against Asian Americans. Whenever there was an economic or political crisis, white Americans would take out their anger on minorities. In America, this led to the labeling of Chinese Americans as the “Yellow Peril” and “heathens.” This attitude was mirrored in China, where Chinese citizens took retaliatory measures against American missionaries whom they saw as a “cult.” After the Chinese Exclusion Act came into effect, the political environment for Chinese Americans became increasingly dangerous, as racism against Chinese Americans was suddenly pushed into the open. With the support of China, Chinese Americans did organize some large-scale protests. This did not last long, however– the Qing government, afraid of losing economic benefits, soon effectively abandoned Chinese Americans. 

The Dark History of “Chinese Exclusion”

Violence against Chinese Americans had planted its roots in America long before the “Chinese Exclusion Act” came to be– but it reached its peak in the nineteenth century. From 1850 to 1906 there were 200 cases of Chinese Americans being forcibly expelled, and from 1849 and 1902, in Los Angeles alone there were at least 302 lynchings, of which about 200 of the victims were of Asian descent. Coordinated attacks against Chinese Americans were also not limited to violent forms of “attack”– many Chinese Americans were forced out of their livelihoods as well. For example, in 1852 in El Dorado, Chinese workers were driven out of mining sites. The same thing occurred again in 1853, when three thousands of Chinese gold panners were expelled from Shasta. In the 1860s, when the wealth from the gold industry dried up, Chinese miners took on the jobs that white workers were not willing to work, like jobs in lumber, on farms, or on ranches. [2]

On October 17, 1871, a series of grisly murders broke out in Los Angeles, of which most of the victims were Chinese Americans. In a chilling display of violence and ruthlessness, 15 of the bodies were left suspended in the air for all to see, and 7 or 8 more dismembered corpses were scattered in the streets. A week later 17 more Chinese Americans were killed and 2 others were stabbed to death. [3] To illustrate just how unfortunately commonplace the violence was, in April 1876, the white citizens of Antioch, California, burned down Chinatown in an attempt to run the Chinese residents there out of town. Around a year later, in March 1877 in Butte, California, a group of Chinese Americans was ambushed and killed. [2]

Figure 1, the largest lynching in US History took place in Los Angeles in 1871. source 

In those times, not many Chinese Americans knew how to speak English, and were also separated from mainstream American society through differences in clothing, food, lifestyle preferences, and upbringing (many Chinese Americans had just left a feudal society when they came to America).

On February 18, 1875, Republican Congressman Horace F. Page submitted the draft of a law that would restrict “undesirable” groups from immigrating to the United States. Among those “undesirable” groups were Chinese workers (who would often work for less than white workers), “immoral” Chinese women, and Chinese criminals. The Page Act, using moral purity as an excuse, ratified an act that effectively limited the passage of Chinese women into the United States, forcing many Chinese men to return to China, thereby protecting the competitive power of whites in the labor market. In doing so, they also assured that there would not be a significant population of Chinese Americans in the West. As a result of restricting the immigration of Chinese women into the United States, early Chinese immigrants lived in an all-male society.

The United States’s constitutional system was not designed for a world in which men were saints, and so uses policy and law to temper the innate evil of human nature. The character displayed by the people is never purely the result of personal character, but it is also the product of the institutions present in the system. Of the two, the latter is arguably more important. Justice and injustice directly give rise to systematic discrimination, which in turn gives rise to acts of cruelty, which once again, only increased the suffering experienced by Chinese Americans.

The signing of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 seemingly sent a signal to the general populace, triggering a wave of patriotism and anti-Chinese sentiment. The so-called “exclusion movement” was carried out using both violent and non-violent methods– on one hand, Chinese workers were forced to leave their jobs, and business owners were pressured to fire their Chinese employees– on the other hand; Chinese miners, businessmen, lumberjacks, farmers, and housewives alike were threatened at gunpoint to leave– or else. [2, 3] The movement was termed “exclusion.” In reality, it intended nothing short of destruction.

The First Method: Brutal Violence

In 1885, anti-Chinese sentiment swept through the West, taking shape in the form of the expulsion and killing of Chinese Americans. On February 6, in Eureka, California, thousands of people surrounded Eureka’s Chinatown and set it on fire, driving out at least 300 Chinese Americans in the process. One of the expelled individuals, a 25-year-old businessman, Wing Hing, with the support of the Chinese government and also representing 52 other Chinese Americans, sued the city of Eureka for violence and property damage [4, 5, 6].  

On November 3, the mayor of Tacoma, Jacob Weisbach, personally led a mob of 500 armed individuals who went from house to house, threatening and driving out Chinese Americans, and setting fire to Chinatown. On September 2, in Wyoming’s Rock Springs, vigilante mobs committed an even more brutal string of atrocities. At least 28 Chinese mine workers were killed, 15 suffered serious injuries, 26 went missing after being chased into the mountains, and 75 houses were destroyed as Rock Springs’s Chinatown was razed to the ground. In Seattle, the survivors from the Eureka and Rock Springs attacks won about $500,000 in reparations from the US government. [4, 5] However, just one case of reparations was not enough to stem the overwhelming waves of hate and violence against Chinese Americans in this country. Just a year later, in December of 1886, a horde of whites marched through Denver’s Chinatown, seeking out and attacking Chinese Americans. The attacks were exceedingly cruel and savage– one of the victims ended up with his brains blown out on the street. [2]

Figure 2, The 27 men that were charged with conspiring to expel the Chinese Americans of Tacoma. None of them were convicted. source

The Second Method: Non-Violent But No Less Sinister

Truckee was a small logging town in northern California, of which about one-third of the population was of Chinese descent. The Chinese Americans, a low-income earning group, lived segregated from the whites. Under the direction of Charles McGlashan (a writer, lawyer, and gubernatorial candidate), whites used a strategy we will refer to as “starvation,” which consisted of a system of strict economic policies and public shaming designed to force Chinese workers out of their livelihoods. Employers who hired Chinese workers were insulted, had their names published in newspapers, and were often forced to fire popular Chinese workers. With no way to earn money and no way to survive, Chinese Americans left the area in droves. [4, 7] The loss of opportunities for Chinese Americans was at the same time coupled with extreme violence, as Chinese communities were burned and the people in them shot and killed.

In June of 1886, McGlashan established a new labor party organization with the goals of “[burying] monopoly… corruption, and protect[ing] the rights of the American laborer and free[ing] our state from the Chinese evil.” Hard-bent on achieving his goals, especially the last one, McGlashan doubled down on the enforcement of his policies. White employers who dared to hire Chinese workers continued to be condemned, harsher than ever. McGlashan’s starvation tactic was highly effective– in 1886 only a few Chinese Americans remained in Truckee. [7]

A common thread running through McGlashan’s starvation tactic is the fear and contempt toward Chinese workers. In the eyes of the labor movement, Chinese Americans were seen as a blight on their cause– they couldn’t assimilate into white society, and they didn’t participate in strikes. In reality, the choice to participate in a strike was mostly determined by self-interest, and Chinese Americans and white workers rarely had interests in common. Furthermore, Chinese Americans were not part of white unions. It should also be known that Chinese Americans did have their own labor unions, and would organize when encountered with injustices. In 1867 the Chinese workers of Central Pacific Railroad Company went on strike in the high mountains. They had three demands: 1) maximum working hours of ten per day, 2) a raise from $35 per month to $40 per month, and 3) the foremen could not beat the workers. These demands were designed to assure them the power to find other work if they were dissatisfied with their current jobs. In response, the company stopped the shipments of food and other daily necessities. Trapped on the high mountains, with no food and no water and no way to leave their camp, they were forced to surrender. Just eight days after the strike began, they agreed to return to work. Out of this ordeal, though, they did earn a $2 pay raise.

On September 10, 1893, the Chinese Americans of California organized a general strike, to strike back at the violence that was specifically targeting Chinese Americans all over the West. Laundries, restaurants, and other stores all closed their doors, as only white workers were left. For maybe the first time, the normally seemingly industrious and docile Chinese American population picked up their weapons and formed self-defense forces.

Previously, since the Chinese Americans posed a huge threat to the Irish in the labor market, Chinese Americans had thought that most of the people participating in the Chinese exclusion movement were Irish. However, it quickly dawned on them that this movement was unlike any that had ever occurred before– it was not a temporary movement, nor was it restricted to a few groups of people. Large groups of people, in fact overwhelming amounts of them, hated them and wanted them gone– and were willing to do anything to get that. [8] 

Years of Anti-Chinese Sentiment Culminates in the Chinese Exclusion Act

American law enforcement turned a blind eye to crimes against Chinese Americans, as legislators on Capitol Hill continued to enact measures restricting the Chinese population. California senator John Franklin Miller introduced a bill that would prohibit Chinese workers from entering the country for two whole decades. In late March of 1882 the bill passed through the Senate and was sent to President Chester A. Arthur, awaiting his signature. Arthur ultimately vetoed Miller’s bill. [9, 10]

Figure 3, John Franklin Miller (1831-1886) was a lawyer, businessman, and Union general. He also served as senator for the state of California from 1881 until his death in 1886. source

Arthur’s veto launched a widespread protest as people took to the streets to denounce his decision. On the West Coast, in several Californian cities, portraits of Arthur were set on fire. On the East Coast, John Kelly, then-boss of Tammany Hall, and Carter Harrison, mayor of Chicago, raised objections to Arthur’s veto. New York’s Central Labor Union and the Washington Labor Party also harshly condemned Arthur’s actions. The head of the Philadelphia Knights of Labor, John Kirchener, organized tens of thousands of people in protest. In Milwaukee, cigar manufacturers marched through the streets with “Coolie labor is the curse of civilization!” banners. [9, 11]

Near the end of the Qing Dynasty, the Chinese economy flagged, and the general well-being of the people took a nosedive. Between 1840 and 1900, American and British banking and transport companies facilitated the immigration of more than two million Chinese workers (including both free and indentured laborers) all over the world. In 1850, Chinese workers began to come to the US of their own volition.  Many Chinese workers, because they were very poor and knew little of the ways of the Western world, were taken advantage of in the immigration process. During the immigration process, poor Chinese workers accumulated debts to contractors– a prime opportunity for debt collectors, who soon came to rely on them for profits. Even family members could not be expected to be allies– the agents who arranged for the immigration of Chinese workers were often distant relatives or acquaintances. In some cases, detailed contracts were signed regarding immigration and/or employment, but in other cases, people were abducted and sold to their relatives. Still others were so poor that they readily agreed to working as indentured servants. All these Chinese Americans, who came over as indentured servants, were free in name, but in actuality worked like slaves.

In San Francisco, the Six Companies (a group of six important Chinese organizations) worked together to issue border permits. In an agreement with the transport companies, they decreed that only those Chinese Americans that had paid off all their debts could board ships returning to China. The Six Companies also negotiated on the behalf of Chinese Americans with the American federal government and various city governments. [12, 13, 14]

On April 17, 1882, Congress began debating on whether or not to reduce the ban on Chinese workers entering the country from twenty years to ten years. The idea was proposed by Horace F. Page, a Congressman representing California in the House of Representatives.

Congress’s decision was soon met with active opposition: While the Senate was busy deliberating on its decision, the Representative Council of Trades and Labor Unions (Trades Assembly) formed a “the League of Deliverance” in San Francisco. Their plan was to provide a personal card issued to stores with a 10-cent membership activation fee, and a monthly inspection fee of $1, to restrict any organization or individual from hiring Chinese workers. The alliance demanded that all Chinese Americans leave the country within a certain time, and warned that if they were met with resistance from Chinese Americans, they would use force to achieve their goals. [9, 15]  

Figure 4, Horace Page (1833-1890) was an American politician and representative from California. He was most known for using racist ideas to defend his own standing in Congress. source

On April 28 the Senate passed the amendment (32-15, 29 members abstained). Eight days later, on May 6, Arthur signed the amended law. It was widely believed that if he had vetoed the new version of the law, his political career would have likely come to an end. While controversial, the amended law was seen as a convenient tactic to placate the clamoring labor movement. [9, 16]

Figure 5, President Chester A. Arthur, 21st President of the United States. Republican. He was originally President Garfield’s running mate and took office upon Garfield’s death.  In 1881 Garfield was assassinated. Just a day after Garfield’s death on September 19, Arthur assumed office. He signed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. Source

In 1882, after about four years of widespread anti-Chinese sentiment, the United States passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, reversing the agreement in the 1868 Burlingame Treaty, which had lifted many restrictions on immigration between the US and China. Some members of Congress even called for the repeal of the treaty. [2]

The Scott Act

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 restricted the entry of both skilled and unskilled Chinese workers. Chinese diplomats, businessmen, and their servants could still enter the country provided they had valid identification. [1]

As mentioned before, the original goal of the Chinese Exclusion Act was simply to restrict the flow of Chinese immigration. Many factors arose that brought an end to this policy, in which Congress, representing “the will of the people,” were partly to blame. Once the Exclusion Act itself was passed, subsequent bills followed, each more severe than the last, piling up yet more and more justification for discrimination against Chinese Americans. The 1884 amendment to the Chinese Exclusion Act was particularly severe, declaring that the law applied to all people of Chinese descent, regardless of their country of origin. What was more devastating to Chinese American communities was the amendment’s prohibition on the wives of Chinese workers from entering the country, forcing many Chinese workers to carry on lives in a new land without their families. [17]  

In February 1886, in California’s San Jose, thousands of citizens converged in an anti-Chinese protest, of which about three thousand of them signed a petition demanding that the government repeal the Burlingame Treaty. They also wanted a law that would prohibit any future Chinese immigration. A month later, five thousand representatives of the anti-Chinese movement, from all the different levels of society, met in Sacramento. This time they upped their demands, from just prohibiting future immigration to prohibiting Chinese Americans with IDs from entering the country. Once again they called on Congress to put an end to all Chinese immigration. [17]

In order to thwart Congress’s plans for further exclusion, the Qing government sent one of their ministers, Zhang Yinhuan. He was to negotiate a new treaty with the United States, using “self-restriction” to fulfill the US’s exclusion demands. President Grover Cleveland called on Secretary of State Bayard to negotiate with the Qing officials. The negotiation process, full of haggling and bargaining, was finally completed two years later, and the resulting agreement was signed by both Bayard and Zhang on March 12, 1883. Both of the primary negotiators soon presented the finished treaty (the Bayard-Zhang Treaty) toward their respective governments. The treaty mandated that there would be no immigration of Chinese workers within the next twenty years, and restricted the entry of Chinese Americans returning to the United States. Chinese Americans who left the country and wished to return were required to carry official identification that marked them as immigrants. Exceptions were made for businessmen and scholars, who were permitted to bring family members to the US; and people with more than $1000 in property, who were also allowed to enter the country. The last provision of the treaty paid $276,619.75 in reparations for the violence that Chinese Americans had experienced at the hands of white Americans.

In May 1888, the Senate approved the Bayard-Zhang Treaty, provided that two amendments were added. The first amendment would remove the provision that allowed returning Chinese Americans to reenter the country, and the second amendment stated that under the condition that the treaty was not amended, the ban on Chinese immigration would continue indefinitely. The Six Companies and Hong Kong and Cantonese businessmen supported these restrictive measures in the treaty, but opposed the twenty-year ban on immigration. White Americans opposed to the exclusion act also spoke out against the treaty, claiming it would seriously damage the businesses and resources that they depended on for survival. The treaty was even less well-received in China, where Chinese citizens vandalized Zhang Yinhuan’s residence in retaliation. Faced with angry responses from both at home and abroad, the Qing government opted to reject the two amendments. In the tense international environment that followed, the New York Herald opted to publish the news that the Chinese government had turned down the treaty on September 1, 1888, despite the fact that the Qing government had not made any official announcements. [18, 19] Many members of Congress, however, were still intent on their goals of Chinese exclusion. On September 3, 1888, Pennsylvania representative William L. Scott proposed that the treaty provisions be ratified and signed into law, regardless of whether or not the Chinese approved.

As 1888 drew to a close, election season came into full swing. The competition between the sitting President, Grover Cleveland, and his Republican challenger, Benjamin Harrison, was fierce. The principal issue of that year was the economy, which threw the issue of Chinese exclusion to the sidelines. On October 1, Cleveland signed the Scott Act, without much protest. [18, 19, 20]

Figure 6, William Lawrence Scott(1828-1891)was a Democratic member of the United States House of Representatives from Pennsylvania. source

The Scott Act of 1888 banned the immigration of Chinese workers, and also stripped Chinese Americans with legal residence permits of the right to reenter the country after traveling to China. The Scott Act affected at least twenty thousand Chinese Americans, of which about 600 of them were denied entry when they arrived back on American shores. Chae Chan Ping, a resident of the state of California from 1875 to 1887, was one of those 600. Before returning to the United States, he had obtained a legal certificate that would allow him to return to the United States. In a twist of bad luck, he returned to San Francisco a week after the Scott Act took effect. When he arrived, the port officials informed him that the validity of his certificate had been revoked.

Chae Chan Ping, however, was not satisfied with that answer. With the support of the Six Companies, he raised $100,000 for his court case and sued the United States (Chae Chan Ping v. United States, 1889). He argued that the Scott Act and the refusal of his entry was unconstitutional, as it violated previous extraterritorial trade agreements with China. The California circuit court disagreed, ruling that Congress could change existing treaties anytime they wished. Ping’s case was then taken to the Supreme Court, where they ruled that even though the Scott Act had violated previous international agreements, the government (specifically Congress) had the power to take whatever action they thought suitable to curb immigration, as the power to regulate immigration was a fundamental part of a country’s sovereignty.

The Chae Chan Ping case established Congress as the ultimate authority on immigration issues. [21, 22] American immigration officials were given the power to detain any Chinese passenger who arrived in San Francisco. Once detained, they were brought to a two-story building near the wharf of a shipping company to have their documents inspected. The maximum capacity of the building was only 500 people, yet the Chinese were penned in like sheep there, staying for weeks at a time, with no contact with the outside world. [23] It was reported by newspapers of the time that the conditions there were worse than some prisons. Not only were the Chinese workers there kept in horrible conditions, they could also be randomly picked off by officials and permanently separated from their families. [21, 24]

The Chinese Exclusion Act was only intended to be a restrictive law designed to appease both the supporters and opponents of Chinese exclusion. When it became apparent that the law in its original application was ineffective, and did not put a stop to the violence against Chinese Americans, the US government decided to adopt a unilateral long-term policy of complete exclusion. The change in policy marked a major shift in the type of legislation passed, how immigration laws were enforced, and the purpose of these laws.

The Debate Between Supporters and Opponents of Exclusion

The Chinese Exclusion movement can be separated into three levels. On a local level, it was the efforts of the supporters of the exclusion movement to prevent competition between white and Chinese workers in the job market; on a national level, Chinese immigration was prohibited and Chinese people who were already residents of the United States were prevented from becoming citizens; on an international level, the act was meant to exclude China from immigration policy talks, turning all bilateral policies into unilateral policies. [25]

 There is no doubt that crowds are unconscious. But their unconsciousness may hide the secret of their power.

—Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind

The supporters of the exclusion movement maintained that Chinese Americans were sojourner, even going as far as insinuating that they were unloyal and inherently un-American. In reality, though, any person who dares to leave all they’ve ever known to come to a new land embodies the essential risk-taking, enterprising American spirit just as other immigrants.

That being said, it is worth taking a more in-depth look at the motivations for immigration during that period, and it is true that many Chinese workers did plan to make some money and then leave. The “make money and leave” mindset was at least partly shaped by ancient Chinese tradition, in which the man of the family was expected to carry on the bloodline and support the family. However, history tells us that many early European immigrants did the same as these Chinese immigrants, and were not as harshly criticized for it. [26, 27] To their credit, the so-called “sojourner” mentality described here was less of a problem in the early history of immigration and only became a negative thing when it became apparent that it could be weaponized against Chinese Americans. It is also important to understand when discussing this “sojourner” mentality, that many immigrants do not immediately make up their mind to stay in a new country forever when they first arrive. It is, after all, a dangerous and unfamiliar situation for the immigrants involved, and as a result, many have a “wait-and-see” attitude toward staying in a country. They may stay, but they also may not. That choice is ultimately up to personal freedom, one of the pillars of American ideals– it would be more of a shame to restrict our dearest ideals in the name of keeping people here than losing some to the flow of emigration, would it not?

Chinese Americans came from an ancient culture, which had once been the height of culture and modernity. As a result, white Americans were especially afraid of Chinese Americans, who they viewed as heathens and diabolical creatures, unusually hardworking, cunning, and patient. One missionary wrote: “Beneath the genteel Confucian exterior of Chinese scholars there is only deceit, foolishness, savagery, crudeness, arrogance, and a deep-rooted hatred of anything foreign.” [28, 29] In this way, racism against Chinese Americans was quite different from the racism toward other races in the United States– for example, whites considered Native Americans and African Americans a stain on their vision of America, but they did not fear those groups taking over America the same way they feared Chinese Americans doing so. [30] Native Americans, African Americans, and other groups endured horrible treatment, but Chinese Americans were entirely cast outside the net of American-ness. [31]

American/Western culture was perceived much the same way back in mainland China. Many Chinese people and the Chinese government felt that their culture was threatened by the influence of Christian missionaries, and so took steps to protect it. Emperor Kangxi, who ruled from 1661 to 1722, allowed Christian missionaries into the country. His successor, Emperor Yongzheng, did not look so kindly upon the work of missionaries and revoked Kangxi’s edict in 1724. Following Yongzheng’s reversal in policy, the Qing government ordered missionaries to abandon their faith and leave China, and confiscated their property. [32] In the next 120 years, Christianity was publicly denounced as heresy, yet many missionaries continued secretly preaching their faith. The punishments for being caught preaching Christianity were severe: deportation, imprisonment, or even the death penalty. Among the common people, persecution of Christianity became the norm. [32]

In 1840, under pressure from international firepower and treaties, China finally allowed the building of churches in certain open ports. Foreign powers assured the safety of missionaries in these open ports, where they were outside Chinese jurisdiction. However, once they set foot in the interior, they would be persecuted just the same as before.

Despite the efforts of missionaries, though, Christian ideas never really took root in China except during the Taiping Rebellion. The leaders of the Taiping Rebellion were greatly influenced by Christianity and made it their mission to spread Christian ideas. However, the Taiping Rebellion soon ended in defeat for the Taiping army and the religious ideas it helped propagate soon dissipated.

From 1860 to 1900, assault cases against missionaries numbered in the thousands, with serious cases (including unrest and riots) that required the attention of the highest diplomatic channels numbering in the hundreds. [32] At the same time anti-Chinese sentiment was boiling over into violence, people in China were taking out their fear, suspicion, and desires for revenge on American missionaries. [33] The persecution of Christianity in China was just as cruel and illogical as the widespread anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States. On both sides of the world, the majority dealt with those they saw as the enemy violently, and were determined to be rid of them.

Figure 7, The Yellow Peril, born out of the paranoia and racial prejudice of the Western world. At the height of Chinese exclusion, many seriously believed that East Asians posed a threat to Western civilization. source

Take up the White Man’s burden– Send forth the best ye breed… To wait in heavy harness, On fluttered folk and wild– Your new-caught, sullen peoples, Half devil and half child.

——Rudyard Kipling, The White Man’s Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands. Kipling’s poem urged the United States government to take control of the Philippines. [34]

White supremacists believed that it was “the mission of [their] race, trustee, under God… to administer government among savage and senile people.” [34] For some extra context, this quote came from Charles Warren Fairbanks, an American senator and Vice President to Theodore Roosevelt. Such views, though they may seem unthinkable to many of us today, could hardly be called rare in their time. In fact, the anti-Chinese movement, in its time, was far from obscure and incredibly inflammatory. Mary Kenworthy, “Mrs. Kenworthy” in the newspapers, saw the Chinese exclusion movement as akin to the struggle to end slavery. She is quoted, saying: “I know that my heart has been at work… for… my people and my country.” As a woman and a mother, she wished for her children to live in a free country. In her mind, though, a “free country” entailed saving them from the shame of having to compete with “slaves,” which included Chinese Americans. [35]

Figure 8, A cartoon portraying eastern and western immigration. On the left the European immigrants bring “art” “industry” “capital” and “government” with them, on the right Chinese immigrants are portrayed as an enormous, venomous snake. Immigration East and West. The Wasp (San Francisco), Vol. 7, 1881. 

Much of the ideas that contributed to the Chinese Exclusion Act could be attributed to racist ideas, particularly race theory. Back in the glory days of Chinese civilization, in which it was seen as emblematic of the Asian race, Westerners looked upon East Asians as white. But as the Industrial Revolution expanded and made the West the prevailing power of the time, East Asians became yellow, the color of sickness and death.

In the late 18th century, race theorist Johann F. Blumenbach (1752-1840) put forward his famous concept of “scientific racism.” Using skull morphology analysis, he separated humans into five races: Caucasian (the white race), Mongolian (the yellow race), Malay (the brown race), Ethiopian (the black race), and American (the red race). He believed that the difference between the races did not merely consist of physiological differences, but also reflected the differences between morality and intelligence, civilization and savagery, and perfection and imperfection. [36] It was in this way that nothing more than pure and unadulterated racism earned the prestige of science.

Figure 9,Blumenbach’s classification of the five races. source

Racism did not spring out of one mind, spontaneously– it is almost always cultivated through the thoughts of many in a society. From 1870 to 1890, Chinese exclusion had the support of both parties, and a strong foundation in the people. In the hearts of racist individuals were sowed the seeds of prejudice, with a propensity for extreme violence– but when the domestic and international environment was friendly, these seeds tended not to sprout. Yet when the economy staggered or international relations were strained, tensions between groups inevitably began to rise.

The ever-present debate between the supporters and opponents of the Chinese exclusion movement was complicated and often contradictory. The supporters of the movement were often white supremacists, and were firm in their belief that Eastern and Western cultures could not mix. At the same time, even the supporters of the Chinese exclusion movement were not otherworldly monsters or cold-blooded animals– some saw Chinese Americans as subhuman, and for others their sympathy just did not extend to those they perceived as the “other.” Typically we may not think of racism and warm, human qualities as existing in the same person, but these are actually not mutually exclusive.

White supremacy was also not just limited to the supporters of the Chinese exclusion movement, but it was well disguised. When racial tensions came into conflict with personal and capital interests, the opponents of the Chinese exclusion movement suddenly rose up, advocating for equal rights and opportunities for everyone. To understand the motives of many of these opponents of the exclusion movement, we need not look further than what they did for a living. Many of them were businessmen and missionaries, and saw Chinese American immigrants as a source of money and opportunity. The businessmen were primarily concerned with material resources and economic benefits, and feared losing Chinese luxury products, the lucrative Chinese market, and the profits brought on by a never-ending flow of cheap Chinese labor. Despite the fact that many missionaries harbored a good amount of racial prejudice against Chinese Americans, they could not help but jump at the chance to convert “pagans” and “infidels.” In addition to the businessmen and missionaries, some Republicans opposed the exclusion movement in the name of rebuilding race relations after the Civil War. Big-picture and global-minded American elites also strongly opposed the exclusion movement, as they believed curbing international interaction was detrimental to the goals of American overseas expansion. [30, 37, 38] Regardless of whether their intentions were noble or ignoble, or whether there were ulterior motives behind their actions, the opponents of the exclusion movement played an important role in the eventual repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act. [37]

Tensions between the country of residence and the mother country became a prerequisite for racial conflict and often violence. Much of the tensions between the two countries could be explained by the political situation at the time, in which an expansion-hungry United States, hoping to throw open the doors to Chinese trade and other resources, was met with resistance. China, meanwhile, was bogged down by pressures from various Western countries and their own agricultural economy and burdening bureaucracy. In 1870, after the death of Anson Burlingame, a “golden period” of America-Chinese relations ended.

In 1879 President Hayes spoke on the issue of Chinese immigration and foreign policy, calling it “a matter of great indifference to the great mass of our people.” His statements, though, belied clear evidence of what was happening on both the international and domestic stages– around the same time as Hayes’s statement, Harvard cancelled its only Chinese course, and trade between the United States and China had fallen from nine million USD to one million four years prior. The New York Times even wrote that “We have very few commercial and diplomatic relations with China.” Back in China, American businessmen declared bankruptcy in slews and withdrew. During this time Russell & Company (a subsidiary of John P. Cushing’s business empire), once a titan of China’s river transportation business, sold its steamships to a company under Li Hongzhang. Chinese competitors, keen on foiling American business expansion, dried up the wellspring of business opportunities in China. Faced with no options for business advancement in China, American industry moved toward Japan instead. [33]

Chinese immigration laws made clear the United States’s distaste and oftentimes fear of Chinese immigrants, yet welcomed European and Canadian immigrants with open arms. [39,40] Throughout this article, we have spoken mainly of the efforts made by white Americans to oppose the exclusion movement. What actions did Chinese Americans undertake to defend their rights? That question is difficult to answer because historians have long neglected to deeply research this area of history. However, we do know that Chinese Americans did actively seek the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act throughout the years it was in effect. In 1892 one hundred and ten thousand Chinese Americans organized in civil disobedience to protest the Geary Act, which required all Chinese Americans to carry a resident permit (which were likened to “dog tags”) or face deportation or hard labor. In 1905, in a powerful show of solidarity, Chinese immigrants all over the world teamed up to resist the Chinese Exclusion Act.

However, we also must note that all of these movements were carried out with the support of the Qing government. As soon as the Qing government withdrew their support, these movements immediately lost their thunder. The Qing government, same as many of the opponents of the exclusion movement in the United States, was not motivated out of the good of their hearts. Once the Qing government succeeded in obtaining their desired commerce agreements, they had no trouble abandoning Chinese Americans to their own devices (please see the articles on the second and third decades of the Chinese Exclusion Act).   

In addition to protests, Chinese Americans also looked to litigation as a way of rewriting the narrative against them. These efforts, fortunately, are plentiful and easily found in nineteenth century court records. Chinese Americans also fiercely challenged the derogatory stereotypes and the “sojourner” narrative that was used to undermine their right to be seen as Americans, and advocated the common humanity and equal standing of all ethnic groups. Nineteenth century Chinese Americans toiled with dedication and tenacity in their longing to be seen as American, but unfortunately could not escape the hatred and slaughter of their time.

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!                                       

 —Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus

True to the poem engraved at her base, Lady Liberty raises her torch to all those who would pass through her gates. Just like many others who sought the land of the free, Chinese Americans stepped onto this land, wide-eyed and full of wonder, with hope in their hearts. Instead they were shown the worst face of America– the blood and tears, and the deep-seated racism that still mars the image of a great nation. Racism has occurred everywhere since the beginning of time, but it is all the more ironic and tragic in a nation which has proclaimed itself to equality and justice for all. Make no mistake, racism has caused millions of people now and throughout our history a great deal of pain. But through that pain, we are blessed with great diversity and therefore diverse perspectives, the catalyst for a place dedicated to the free exchange of ideas– which is to the benefit of everyone. This is why it is important to study the history of Chinese Americans, even if it does not personally affect you: The story of the Chinese Exclusion Act is not just the story of Chinese Americans, it is a sorrow for all Americans.

  • Xin Su