U.S.-China relations at the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act

Society & Culture

On May 6, 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed a law that for the first time singled out a specific nation — China — and denied its citizens entry into the United States.

"A Statue for Our Harbor," a political cartoon published in 1881.

This Week in China’s History: May 6, 1882

Anti-Asian violence in the United States has soared in recent years. According to a March 2021 report from California State University at San Bernardino, violent crimes against Asians and Asian Americans in major U.S. cities rose by nearly 150% in 2020, even as officially defined “hate crimes” fell nationwide by 6%. The trend was especially dramatic in large East Coast cities, where reported anti-Asian hate crimes rose by more than 100% in Boston, 200% in Philadelphia and Cleveland, and more than 800% in New York City.

Much of the increase is ascribed to the COVID-19 pandemic, which originated in China. Labels like “China virus” and “kung flu” exacerbated fears and fueled racism toward, in particular, people of East Asian ancestry. (Underscoring the irrationality, it seems clear at this point that the virus arrived on the U.S. East Coast via Europe.)

The idea that individuals of Asian descent were disease vectors who could literally or figuratively infect America is sadly not new. This week, we look back to May 1882, when President Chester A. Arthur signed a law that for the first time singled out a specific nation — China — and denied its citizens entry into the United States.

Significant Chinese immigration to the United States began in the middle of the 19th century. The so-called “coolie trade” brought many thousands of Chinese laborers abroad every year, often against their will as indentured servants (or worse). Trafficking in Chinese labor was investigated on numerous occasions as a form of slavery — this column wrote about one notable incident from 1855, the Waverly Incident). Most notably, from 1865 to 1869, tens of thousands of Chinese worked to construct the railway that would link the east and west coasts of the U.S., a story Gordon H. Chang tells movingly and in brilliant detail in Ghosts of Gold Mountain (and in a more scholarly collected volume, The Chinese and the Iron Road, which Chang edited with Shelley Fisher Fishkin).

The growing United States saw Chinese labor as a solution to its appetite for labor, but there was a catch. The Qing empire had never encouraged emigration, and had sometimes explicitly forbidden it. Ironically, given the future course of events, the U.S. sent an ambassador to China to guarantee the right of Chinese to freely emigrate. Signed in 1868, just a year before the transcontinental railroad was completed, the so-called Burlingame Treaty (named for American ambassador Anson Burlingame) was not intended as a measure to open the U.S. to immigration — although it did that — but to ensure that China wouldn’t shut the tap that could slake America’s thirst for cheap labor.

One provision of the Burlingame Treaty was that it outlawed the involuntary transportation of Chinese to the United States, a measure that was intended to counter trafficking and kidnapping. Only voluntary migration was ensured. Even so, the American demand for labor had a sinister side: in the wake of the civil war, low-cost agricultural labor was sought to replace newly emancipated African-American labor, in addition to the demands of the expanding country.

The Burlingame Treaty achieved its goal of bringing Chinese labor to the U.S., but almost as soon as the treaty was enacted, many Americans began to reconsider the idea.

In April 1870 — just two years after the treaty — factory owners in North Adams, Massachusetts, hired 75 Chinese men to break a strike. Word spread that Chinese were stealing jobs, accepting lower wages than could be paid to white Americans. Despite the fact that in the 1870 census just 0.17% of the U.S. population was found to be Chinese (about 63,000 people, almost all of them in the western states, out of 38 million), political action to stop Chinese immigration began.

The 1875 Page Act exploited the language about “voluntary migration” to erect barriers. Formally, the law prohibited immigration of contract workers and prostitutes, but since most Chinese men were assumed to be indentured and most women were taken to be prostitutes — and proving otherwise was difficult — its effects were far wider than that. Still, since the Burlingame Treaty had allowed only “voluntary” migration, the law was seen as legal. (One consequence of the Page Act was that the already low percentage of women among Chinese migration to America fell even further, to the point that many Chinese communities in American were nearly entirely male.)

Anti-Chinese rhetoric intensified over the 1876 U.S. presidential election, a close and racially fraught campaign centering on Reconstruction in the South and westward expansion. Although the Pacific states were sparsely populated, tight electoral math made their handful of electoral votes crucial, so both major parties pandered to anti-Chinese sentiment on the West Coast.

Rutherford Hayes was elected president despite losing the popular vote. In 1879, he vetoed a bill limiting the number of Chinese who could be on board any ship arriving in the U.S. to 15, on the grounds that it contravened the Burlingame Treaty. But Hayes ordered the Burlingame Treaty renegotiated. In 1880, the Angell Treaty was signed, granting China some additional trading privileges in the U.S. but, crucially, giving the U.S. the right to “regulate, limit, or suspend” Chinese immigration.

Congress wasted little time. Eighteen months after the Angell Treaty was signed, a bill proposing a 20-year ban on Chinese immigration overwhelmingly passed the Senate and House, and landed on the desk of President Chester Arthur. Like Hayes before him, Arthur at first exercised his veto power, fearing that the bill violated the new treaty’s permission to suspend, but not prohibit, immigration. Congress promptly sent a new bill calling for a 10-year ban.

On May 6, 1882, Arthur signed the bill, which went into effect three days later, banning “skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining” from coming to the United States for 10 years. In effect, almost no Chinese were able to legally immigrate. At the time, there were just 105,000 Chinese in America, about 0.1% of the population.

The law went beyond immigration. Chinese who were already in the United State were excluded from U.S. citizenship, and if they left the U.S. — for instance, to visit family in China — they would need to obtain a reentry certificate. Since this certificate would be subject to the new act’s requirements, in practical terms any Chinese living in the United States were cut off from their relatives.

In a now-famous letter published in the New York Sun, a Chinese student described his reaction to a subscription campaign to support the Statue of Liberty, still awaiting a pedestal to take its place in New York harbor. Saum Song Bo wrote:

“My countrymen and myself are honored in being thus appealed to as citizens in the cause of liberty. But the word liberty makes me think of the fact that this country is the land of liberty for men of all nations except the Chinese. That statue represents Liberty holding a torch — which lights the passage of those of all nations who come into this country. But are the Chinese allowed to come? Are the Chinese here allowed to enjoy liberty as men of all other nationalities enjoy it? Free from the insults, abuse, assaults, wrongs and injuries from which men of other nationalities are free? By the law of this nation, a chinaman cannot become a citizen. Whether this statute against the Chinese — or the Statue of Liberty — will be the more lasting monument to tell future ages of the liberty and greatness of this country, will be known only to future generations.”

Saum Song Bo’s questions were answered, starkly, in the decades to follow. Subsequent laws clarified that the exclusion applied not only to Qing subjects, but to any ethnic Chinese, regardless of national origin. The original 10-year ban was extended in 1892, and again in 1902, when not only were Chinese forbidden from immigration to the United States indefinitely, but any Chinese living in the country were required to obtain residence certificates, without which they faced deportation. Violence, including lynchings, of Chinese and Chinese Americans were common enough that they raised protests in China (a topic I will take up next week).

Not until 1943 — when China was a wartime ally of the United States — was the ban on Chinese immigration lifted. In that year, a token quota of 105(!) Chinese nationals were permitted to immigrate. Not until 1965 was large-scale immigration of Chinese allowed.

I commonly refer readers to important books and articles on the topics of these columns. This time, I refer with anticipation to a book not yet published: Columbia historian Mae Ngai’s The Chinese Question is expected to be published in August, and promises a comprehensive history of Chinese immigration to the United States.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.