The Coming of the Chinese
Chinese immigrants had come to San Francisco as early as 1838, but large numbers
of Chinese only began to come in 1850 for the same reason many Americans were
flocking to California - the 1849 Gold Rush. The Chinese immigrants were mainly
peasant farmers who left home because of economic and political troubles in
China. Most intended to work hard, make a lot of money, and then return to
their families and villages as wealthy men. In this goal, the Chinese did not
differ from many immigrants who came to the United States in the 19th century.
Living together in communities and neighborhoods, they, like all immigrants,
maintained their culture. However, while many Americans looked down on all
immigrants, the Chinese were considered racially as well as culturally inferior.
Most Americans believed that the Chinese were too different to ever assimilate
successfully into American culture. This view was expressed and reinforced
by the stereotypic images of Chinese immigrants recorded in the media of the
The image of the Chinese that appeared in the media focused on aspects of Chinese
culture that appeared sinister and exotic to Americans. The Chinese were criticized
for following a different religion, using opium, playing different gambling
games (fan tan), speaking a different language, wearing different clothes and
styles, eating different foods, celebrating different holidays, and for living
in a bachelor society rather than as family men with wives and children. One
example of a cultural difference unacceptable to Americans was the queue (long
hair worn in one braid down the back) worn by Chinese men. This style had been
dictated by the Manchu conquerors when they captured China in 1644 and established
the Qing dynasty, making themselves rulers of China. The queue was considered
a symbol of Chinese submission to this non-native dynasty. For a Chinese man
to cut his hair was a capital crime punishable by beheading. Because most Chinese
immigrants expected to return home to China, it was necessary to maintain this
hair style. Americans, on the other hand, considered the hair style unhygienic,
unmanly, and uncivilized.
To understand the treatment of the Chinese in the 19th century, one has to
consider how white Americans viewed racial and cultural difference at the time.
During the 19th century, European Americans looked more towards the social
and natural sciences, rather than interpretations of the Christian bible, to
find explanation and justification for their notions of racial superiority
and inferiority. With scientific-sounding terminology and evidence, the theory
of Social Darwinism applied Darwin’s biological theory to social phenomena.
By the end of the century, the theory of Social Darwinism was widely accepted,
especially among the middle and upper classes who attended lectures on the
subject at libraries and museums, read books purporting the theory in book
clubs, and saw posters and exhibits like those reproduced in this lesson. The
theory held strong appeal for European Americans as it offered a scientific
explanation for the successes and failures of various groups of people as well
as individuals. Another old notion, that of noblesse oblige, also came into
play as European Americans sought to bring other “less fortunate” races
some of the advantages of European civilization without “polluting” their
own gene pool. The expression of these ideas is evident in the materials in
this lesson. Students can see how these ideas developed through the 19th century
and how they were applied specifically to the Chinese.
By the 1880s Chinese immigrants were being viewed not only as an inferior
and undesirable population, but also as an actual threat to American culture,
American government, and even the Caucasian race. Peoples of European background
could not understand how the Chinese could live in such crowded, poor conditions
and work so hard for such low wages. They concluded that the Chinese possessed
some super-human power, perhaps a result of their mysterious religion, their
strange and isolated culture, or induced by smoking opium which allowed them
to accept their situation and continue to work hard. Novelists wrote stories
in which Chinese characters were outwardly quiet and submissive but were inwardly
sinister and cunning. Some of these Yellow Peril novels predicted that Chinese
immigrants were part of a secret plan to invade and take over the government
of the United States replacing American culture with that of the Chinese.
These novels played on the worst racist fears of 19th century Americans who
feared the tainting of American WASP blood and heritage by people of other
cultures and races. Similar concerns were expressed with respect to African
Americans, Native Americans, and any group of immigrants whose culture or physical
appearance was deemed significantly different from that of WASP Americans.
Anglo-Americans acted to keep these groups separate from mainstream society
and used a variety of ways to do so—reservations, segregation, restricted
and exclusionary immigration policies, and schemes to deport people or send
them back to their place of ancestral origin.
Some Americans noted the hypocrisy of the nation’s treatment of immigrant
groups, Native Americans, and African Americans. The Bret Harte piece highlights
the different reaction to bad behavior depending on the race of the offender.
However, the majority of Americans during the 19th and well into the 20th century
viewed race and society through the lens of Social Darwinism. It was the widespread
belief in these ideas that helped in developing a national consensus and effort
to exclude Chinese people from the American population.