The Chinese Experience in 19th Century America

19th Century American Ideas About Other Peoples

Chinese Exclusion: The Process

Exclusion: Chinese Perspectives



Some 19th Century American Attitudes Toward Other Peoples

Beliefs people hold shape the way they view and interpret the world. The readings and illustrations used in this lesson explore some 19th century ideas and how they affected Americans’ response to Chinese immigration.

Start the lesson with a discussion about where we get information about places and people we have little or no direct contact with.


Questions that could be used for discussion:
  • What do the students know about China and the Chinese people?

  • Where does their information come from?

  • How do television, movies, fiction (old and new), parents and peers shape our impressions?

As students work through the activities, it is important for them to understand that the writings and cartoons used in this lesson not only reflect what people believed but also influenced what people believed.

One of the basic beliefs of the time was the conviction of the superiority of white civilization over all others, a belief that deepened and expanded over the course of the century. The excerpts from two mid-19th century Americans (Some Early American Attitudes) reflect this belief.

It is important for students to note the change in thinking from Benton to Hinton. One of Benton’s arguments for claiming the Oregon territory was to bring civilization to the Mongolians whose civilization had once been the most advanced. He felt that intermarriage and intermixing of whites and Mongolians would improve the Mongolians. At the time of his speech (1846), there were few Chinese in the western territories. By the time Hinton visited California in 1855, there were significant numbers of Chinese in California and economic and assimilation issues were becoming important in discussing Chinese immigration. Hinton reflects these growing arguments.

By the late 19th century, ideas about race found full expression in Social Darwinism which was widely accepted by white Americans. Because displays like this one claimed to be based on “scientific research,” people believed they were objective expressions of the truth, just as many people today equate science with truth. The poster “Types and Development of Man” was displayed at the 1904 World Fair in St. Louis. The description that accompanied the illustration has also been provided.

Questions to ask students as they look at this illustration:
  • How might the person who created this poster have decided where ethnic groups fell on the scale of development from prehistoric to modern? What criteria was he using? Are there similarities between groups in the bottom half and those the top half? Differences?

    Students may wonder why the Japanese fare better on this poster than the Chinese. At this time, Japan was modernizing using western technology and adapting western models of government, education, etc. This, in western eyes, indicated that the Japanese understood the superiority of European civilization. In addition, the Japanese are represented by a woman, implying all the connotations that “womanhood” carried — weakness and dependence.

  • Which of these ethnic groups were likely to be represented in the population of the United States in the 19th century?

  • Which three groups were denied access to the political and legal system of the United States in the 19th century? Where do these groups fall in this classification system of civilized and uncivilized peoples?

  • What is the message being conveyed by the picture in the middle? How do you think white Americans of upper class Protestant descent expected to fulfill this obligation to other groups?

    Refer students back to Benton to look for an example of this idea (“The sun of civilization must shine across the sea...”).

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