Chinese Immigration Background

Evidence of Chinese immigration in American can be traced back to as early as the 1770’s, but in the 1850’s an exponential amount of Chinese immigrated to the U.S. At first, the U.S. accepted the massive influx of Chinese immigrants in the 1850s, but by 1870s white laborers began significant protests against Chinese immigrants because they were seen as job competition. A ban on Chinese immigration became a part of the 1880 presidential election, and in 1882 the President Chester Arthur administration enacted the first law restricting immigration based solely on race and nationality directed towards Chinese laborers. The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) grew out of American nativism combined with protectionist attitudes among white workers.

The Chinese emigrated from China because of high unemployment due to enormous population growth and unavailability of cultivatable land. From 1787 to 1850, the total of China’s population grew by 47%, which made it impossible for many Chinese to own enough farm land to support themselves. Guangdong Province had the highest population growth at 79.5%; most Chinese immigrants came from this province.[1] Industrialization in China would have eliminated laborers dependency on agriculture to be economically successful, but European imperialism greatly limited access to the education, technology, and markets that fueled the industrial revolution. European intervention began with the Opium Wars (First, 1839- 1842, and Second, 1856-1860). Opium Wars created political instability in China and economic dependency on both the U.S. and Great Britain.[2]

Most Chinese who immigrated were young, single men who did not want to establish permanent residency in the U.S. and would therefore send money to their families or save money and then return to China. These immigrants became known as “sojourners” because their journey was seen as temporary.[3] The initial reason why Chinese immigrated to the U.S. was because gold was discovered in California, known in China as “The Gold Mountain,” in 1848. Two years after the discovery of gold in California, the San Francisco Customs House reported 450 Chinese immigrants, a year later 2, 716, and by 1851 20,026. These statistics means in two years, from 1850 to 1852, the number of Chinese immigrants coming through San Francisco increased by 4,450%.[4]

The railroad and agriculture industry also provided jobs for sojourners. It is estimated around 37,000 Chinese laborers worked on the Transcontinental Railroad that was completed in 1869. Southern plantations also offered five year contracts to Chinese immigrants to replace slave labor lost after the Civil War.[5]

Sojourners were widely accepted by the U.S. because they were seen as a very cheap labor resource. The Burlingame-Seward Treaty (1868) demonstrates the acceptance of Chinese immigration by capitalists. In 1868 Anson Burlingame, the appointed minister to Qing Empire, installed a more cooperative economic policy between the U.S. and China to replace the previous imperialistic one. Although the Treaty did not grant the possibility of naturalization to Chinese immigrants, it guaranteed them the liberties and religious freedoms in American society. Despite this treaty, nativist resentment increased against Chinese immigrants by the early 1870s.[6]

Chinese immigrants’ willingness to work under grueling conditions, which undermined a series of labor strikes in the 1870s, eventually led to white laborers resenting Chinese workers. White laborers organized strikes to increase their wages and improve working conditions. The most effective way for a company to break a strike in the 1870s was hiring a Chinese immigration agency to provide Chinese immigrants to replace strikers. This common tactic used by U.S. companies promoted a conflict between white laborers and Chinese immigrants that ultimately resulted in massive protests rallying around the idea that the U.S. government should protect the interests of white men and not Chinese foreigners.[7]

Evidence of the importance of Chinese immigration in U.S. domestic politics can be found in the Morey Letter incident that threatened James Garfield’s campaign. During the 1880 election, a fraudulent letter addressed to H. L. Morey was discovered that supported the Burlingame-Seward Treaty and was signed by Garfield. The letter was a scandal because it essentially meant that Garfield wanted to continue to allow for the flow of Chinese immigration to the United States, which both Democrats and Republicans opposed.[8]

The Chinese Exclusion was a dominant aspect of US politics during the 19th century.

The Chinese Exclusion was a dominant aspect of US politics during the 19th century.


The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) was the first policy passed by the federal government that barred immigration solely on the basis of race and occupation.[9] Initially, the U.S. had an open door policy towards China, but by the 1870s nativism and job competition among whites led to a groundswell of anti-Chinese sentiments. The Chinese exclusion Act was ratified by the Chester Arthur administration and was widely welcomed by most of white society.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted the popularity of the bill in Congress; only 5% seemed opposed.[10]

Chinese Hand Laundries in Alexandria


[1] Benson Tong, The Chinese Americans (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2003), 19-22.

[2] Tong 19-22.

[3] Sucheng Chan, Chinese American Transnationalism: The Flow of People, Resources, and Ideas between China and America during the Exclusion Era (Pennsylvania: Temple University Press, 2006), 5-9.

[4] Tong 19-22.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Andrew Gyory, Closing the Gate: Race, Politics and the Chinese Exclusion Act (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 26-29.

[7] Gyory 37-42.

[8] Gyory 183-189.

[9] “The Chinese Exclusion Act was approved on May 6, 1882. It was the first significant law restricting immigration into the United States”, (Accessed December 7, 2014).

[10] “China for the Chinese” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 30, 1882; (Accessed December 7, 2014).

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