Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

views updated May 29 2018

Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

Enacted by U.S. Congress, May 6, 1882

Reprinted from U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Laws and Issues: A Documentary History

The United States begins a ban on Chinese immigrants

"In the opinion of the Government of the United States the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities…."

T he Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred any more Chinese workers from coming to the United States for ten years, the beginning of a ban on Chinese immigrants that lasted for sixty years. It was the first time the United States had enacted a law aimed at a specific national or ethnic group.

For much of the 1870s, the United States experienced difficult economic times. Jobs were hard to find. Many businesses failed as a result of a financial crisis that started in New York on September 18, 1873. On that day, a major bank in New York City, Jay Cooke and Company, closed its doors. The bank declared bankruptcy, meaning it could not afford to give depositors their money back. Railroads that had borrowed money from the bank to expand their network of tracks were unable to repay their loans. Consequently, the bank did not have money to give depositors making withdrawals. People with money deposited in other banks, fearing they might also lose their money, rushed to withdraw their deposits. Without money on hand to turn over to depositors, other banks also closed their doors. (In the 1870s, there was no government guarantee of deposits, as there is today.) The result was widespread panic by depositors, which led to several years of slow economic growth, as banks were unable to lend money to businesses to expand.

The effects of the economic slowdown were especially severe on the West Coast, where three railroad routes from the east to the west (a northern route ending in Washington; the middle route through Sacramento, California; and a southern route to Los Angeles) had been recently completed. Railroad construction workers, both Chinese and European American, were no longer needed and consequently became unemployed. Some unemployed workers blamed Chinese immigrants for their economic plight, on grounds that Chinese workers had taken jobs that might otherwise have been available to European American workers. In reality, the Chinese were blamed for an economic crisis caused by overly enthusiastic expansion by the railroads, over which Chinese immigrants had no control or responsibility.

The economic slowdown also changed the perceptions of many politicians toward Chinese immigration. In the 1850s and 1860s, Chinese workers had established a reputation as reliable, hard workers. They were credited with much of the dangerous, backbreaking work involved in building the Central Pacific railroad through the steep California Sierra Nevada mountains. The important role of Chinese laborers was recognized by the government in 1868, a year before the first railroad link between California and the East Coast was completed, when the United States signed the Burlingame Treaty with China. The treaty specifically protected the right of the Chinese to immigrate into the United States.

Attitudes toward Chinese workers were not universally positive, however, even before the economic crisis of 1873. Chinese immigrants tended to associate exclusively with each other. They had little interaction with European American workers. Some Europeans, such as miners and explosives experts from Wales, felt that Chinese workers competed with them for the same jobs and that the Chinese held down wages by their willingness to work for lower wages. At the celebrations in Utah marking completion of the transcontinental railroad (the railroad across the continent) in 1869, Chinese workers were excluded. This exclusion can be seen as

a symbol of an already well-established discrimination against Chinese people.

As economic hard times dragged on in the 1870s, some workers in California increasingly focused their anger and despair on immigrants from China. In the summer of 1877, a mob of European Americans in San Francisco attacked and killed Chinese workers and wrecked Chinese-owned laundries. That summer, an Irish immigrant named Denis Kearney (1847–1907), who owned a small hauling company, became the leader of a local association of workers called the Workingmen's Party. The organization was initially formed to protest a lack of jobs and to support a strike (a work stoppage aimed at gaining better pay and benefits) by railroad workers. But, as noted in The American Commonwealth, in fiery speeches to disenchanted workers, Kearney cast blame on Chinese workers (whom he sometimes called "Asiatic pests") for keeping wages low and making jobs scarce. He gave speeches that several times ended with the crowd turning into a mob and rampaging through San Francisco's Chinatown. Kearney was arrested several times, accused of urging a crowd to violence, but juries repeatedly found him not guilty.

Kearney's political influence grew, and in 1879, voters in San Francisco elected one of Kearney's followers, the Reverend Isaac Kalloch (1832–1887), as mayor. The Workingman's Party spread to other parts of California. The party replaced the Democratic Party as the chief challenger to the Republican Party, which controlled the state government. (Political parties are organizations of like-minded people who organize to get sympathetic politicians elected to office.)

Faced with growing unrest, California politicians in Washington urged the U.S. Congress to pass legislation banning more Chinese from entering the United States. The Congress passed such a law in 1879, which in effect blamed the victims of riots for causing disorder. President Rutherford B. Hayes (1822–1893; served 1877–81) vetoed the act, or refused to sign it into law, on grounds that it violated an 1868 treaty with China guaranteeing the right of Chinese to enter the United States as immigrants.

In 1880, faced with continuing anti-Chinese violence in California that the U.S. government seemed helpless or unwilling to prevent, the government of China agreed to modify the earlier treaty and allow the United States to suspend immigration of Chinese workers. In May 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

The act had five main provisions: (1) Chinese workers were barred from coming to the United States for ten years; (2) Chinese workers already in the United States were allowed to stay, and those who had been in the United States before the act was passed were allowed to return after a short absence; (3) Chinese workers who were in the United States illegally could be deported; (4) Chinese were barred from becoming naturalized citizens, or those who gain the rights of people who were born in the United States, such as the right to vote; and (5) some Chinese, such as students and merchants, could visit the United States temporarily. The act also made captains of ships pay fines if they helped Chinese immigrate illegally to the United States.

Passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act marked the first time that a specific national group was singled out for special treatment by being barred from entering the United States. There seems little doubt that racial prejudice also played a

large role in passage of the law. The Chinese were viewed as being fundamentally different than Europeans and as somehow inferior. They were not Christians, for example, which most European Americans had in common. Instead of letters, the Chinese language used characters (drawings that stood for whole words), which were unreadable to non-Chinese. Chinese immigrants tended to wear traditional Chinese costumes and to wear their hair in long braids; their appearance emphasized the difference between Chinese and Europeans in general. Most Chinese immigrants lived together in Chinatowns, where they regulated their own business and social affairs through associations apart from government institutions.

Things to remember while reading the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882:

  • In its preamble, or introduction, the act declared that it was the opinion of the government that "the coming of Chinese laborer … endangers the good order of certain localities…." This phrase refers to the riots in California directed against Chinese immigrants. Instead of focusing on controlling the riots, Congress decided it would be easier to ban any more Chinese from coming to the United States.
  • The number of Chinese who had immigrated to the United States by 1882 was relatively small, compared with other national groups. The 1880 census counted only about one hundred thousand Chinese in the United States. Most lived in their own communities, usually called Chinatowns. Many Chinese immigrants maintained the clothing and customs of their native land. They seemed strange and separate from European Americans—and therefore were an easy target for politicians looking for someone to blame for economic hard times.
  • One of the qualities that made many employers eager to hire Chinese workers for work in mines, construction projects, and in some factory jobs—their willingness to work hard for low wages—aroused the anger of European workers, who thought the Chinese were responsible for keeping wages low and jobs scarce.

Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

Forty-Seventh Congress. Session I. 1882. Chapter 126.-An act to execute certain treaty stipulations relating to Chinese


Preamble: Introduction.

Whereas, in the opinion of the Government of the United States the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory thereof: Therefore,

Good order: Peaceful environment, not marked by rioting or violence.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That from and after the expiration of ninety days next after the passage of this act, and until the expiration of ten years next after the passage of this act, the coming of Chinese laborers to the United States be, and thesame is hereby, suspended; and during such suspension it shall not be lawful for any Chinese laborer to come, or, having so come after the expiration of said ninety days, to remain within the United States.

Sec. 2. That the master of any vessel who shall knowingly bring within the United States on such vessel, and land or permit to be landed, any Chinese laborer, from any foreign port of place, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor , and on conviction thereof shall be punished by a fine of not more than five hundred dollars for each and every such Chinese laborer so brought, and may be also imprisoned for a term not exceeding one year.

Master of any vessel: Ship captain.

Deemed: Judged.

Misdemeanor: A relatively minor crime.

Sec. 3. That the two foregoing sections shall not apply to Chinese laborers who were in the United States on the seventeenth day of November, eighteen hundred and eighty, or who shall have come into the same before the expiration of ninety days next after the passage of this act, and who shall produce to such master before going on board such vessel, and shall produce to the collector of the port in the United States at which such vessel shall arrive, the evidence hereinafter in this act required of his being one of the laborers in this section mentioned; nor shall the two foregoing sections apply to the case of any master whose vessel, being bound to a port not within the United States by reason of being in distress or in stress of weather, or touching at any port of the United States on its voyage to any foreign port of place: Provided, That all Chinese laborers brought on such vessel shall depart with the vessel on leaving port.

Collector of the port: Government official who collects taxes on imports and regulates international shipping in a seaport.

Sec. 4. That for the purpose of properly [identifying] Chinese laborers who were in the United States on the seventeenth day of November, eighteen hundred and eighty, or who shall have come into the same before the expiration of ninety days next after the passage of this act, and in order to furnish them with the proper evidence of their right to go from and come to the United States of their free will and accord , as provided by the treaty between the United States and China dated November seventeenth, eighteen hundred and eighty, the collector of customs of the district from which any such Chinese laborer shall depart from the United States shall, in person or by deputy, go on board each vessel having on board any such Chinese laborer and cleared or about to sail from his district for a foreign port, and on such vessel make a list of all such Chinese laborers, which shall be entered in registry-books to be kept for that purpose, in which shall be stated the name, age, occupation, last place of residence, physical marks or peculiarities, and all facts necessary for the [identification] of each of such Chinese laborers,which books shall be safely kept in the custom-house; and every such Chinese laborer so departing from the United States shall be entitled to, and shall receive, free of any charge or cost upon application therefor, from the collector or his deputy, at the time such list is taken, a certificate, signed by the collector or his deputy and attested by his seal of office, in such form as the Secretary of the Treasury shall prescribe, which certificate shall contain a statement of the name, age, occupation, last place of residence, personal description, and fact of identification of the Chinese laborer to whom the certificate is issued, corresponding with the said list and registry in all particulars. In case any Chinese laborer after having received such certificate shall leave such vessel before her departure he shall deliver his certificate to the master of the vessel, and if such Chinese laborer shall fail to return to such vessel before her departure from port the certificate shall be delivered by the master to the collector of customs for cancellation. The certificate herein provided for shall entitle the Chinese laborer to whom the same is issued to return to and re-enter the United States upon producing and delivering the same to the collector of customs of the district at which such Chinese laborer shall seek to re-enter; and upon delivery of such certificate by such Chinese laborer to the collector of customs at the time of re-entry in the United States, said collector shall cause the same to be filed in the custom house and duly canceled.

Of their free will and accord: Voluntarily and in agreement.

Attested: Affirmed to be true, usually by the signature or stamp of an official.

Sec. 5. That any Chinese laborer mentioned in section four of this act being in the United States, and desiring to depart from the United States by land, shall have the right to demand and receive, free of charge or cost, a certificate of [identification] similar to that provided for in section four of this act to be issued to such Chinese laborers as may desire to leave the United States by water; and it is hereby made the duty of the collector of customs of the district next adjoining the foreign country to which said Chinese laborer desires to go to issue such certificate, free of charge or cost, upon application by such Chinese laborer, and to enter the same upon registry-books to be kept by him for the purpose, as provided for in section four of this act.

Sec. 6. That in order to the faithful execution of articles one and two of the treaty in this act before mentioned, every Chinese person other than a laborer who may be entitled by said treaty and this act to come within the United States, and who shall be about to come to the United States, shall be identified as so entitled by the Chinese Government in each case, such identity to be evidenced by a certificate issued under the authority of said government,which certificate shall be in the English language or (if not in the English language) accompanied by a translation into English, stating such right to come, and which certificate shall state the name, title, or official rank, if any, the age, height, and all physical peculiarities , former and present occupation or profession, and place of residence in China of the person to whom the certificate is issued and that such person is entitled conformably to the treaty in this act mentioned to come within the United States. Such certificate shall be prima-facie evidence of the fact set forth therein, and shall be produced to the collector of customs, or his deputy, of the port in the district in the United States at which the person named therein shall arrive.

Faithful execution: Carrying out of an act in line with a law or a request.

Physical peculiarities: Unique physical features.

Conformably to: In accordance with.

Prima-facie evidence: In law, a demonstration that is legally sufficient on its appearance to establish a fact.

Sec. 7. That any person who shall knowingly and falsely alter or substitute any name for the name written in such certificate or forge any such certificate, or knowingly utter any forged or fraudulent certificate, or falsely personate any person named in any such certificate, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor; and upon conviction thereof shall be fined in a sum not exceeding one thousand dollars, and imprisoned in a penitentiary for a term of not more than five years.

Penitentiary: Prison.

Sec. 8. That the master of any vessel arriving in the United States from any foreign port or place shall, at the same time he delivers a manifest of the cargo , and if there be no cargo, then at the time of making a report of the entry of vessel pursuant to the law, in addition to the other matter required to be reported, and before landing, or permitting to land, any Chinese passengers, deliver and report to the collector of customs of the district in which such vessels shall have arrived a separate list of all Chinese passengers taken on board his vessel at any foreign port or place, and all such passengers on board the vessel at that time. Such list shall show the names of such passengers (and if accredited officers of the Chinese Government traveling on the business of that government, or their servants, with a note of such facts), and the name and other particulars, as shown by their respective certificates; and such list shall be sworn to by the master in the manner required by law in relation to the manifest of the cargo. Any willful refusal or neglect of any such master to comply with the provisions of this section shall incur the same penalties and forfeiture as are provided for a refusal or neglect to report and deliver a manifest of cargo.

Manifest of the cargo: List of the goods on board a ship.

Pursuant to: According to.

Sec. 9. That before any Chinese passengers are landed from any such vessel, the collector, or his deputy, shall proceed to examine such passengers, comparing the certificates with the list andwith the passengers; and no passenger shall be allowed to land in the United States from such vessel in violation of law.

Sec. 10. That every vessel whose master shall knowingly violate any of the provisions of this act shall be deemed forfeited to the United States, and shall be liable to seizure and condemnation on any district of the United States into which such vessel may enter or in which she may be found.

Deemed forfeited: Considered to have been given over to the government.

Sec. 11. That any person who shall knowingly bring into or cause to be brought into the United States by land, or who shall knowingly aid or abet the same, or aid or abet the landing in the United States from any vessel of any Chinese person not lawfully entitled to enter the United States, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and shall, on conviction thereof, be fined in a sum not exceeding one thousand dollars, and imprisoned for a term not exceeding one year.

Aid or abet: Help or actively support.

Sec. 12. That no Chinese person shall be permitted to enter the United States by land without producing to the proper officer of customs the certificate in this act required of Chinese persons seeking to land from a vessel. And any Chinese person found unlawfully within the United States shall be caused to be removed therefrom to the country from whence he came, by direction of the United States, after being brought before some justice, judge, or commissioner of a court of the United States and found to be one not lawfully entitled to be or remain in the United States.

Sec. 13. That this act shall not apply to diplomatic and other officers of the Chinese Government traveling upon the business of that government, whose credentials shall be taken as equivalent to the certificate in this act mentioned, and shall exempt them and their body and household servants from the provisions of this act as to other Chinese persons.

Credentials: Official papers describing a person's position.

Sec. 14. That hereafter no State court or court of the United States shall admit Chinese to citizenship; and all laws in conflict with this act are hereby repealed.

Sec. 15. That the words "Chinese laborers," whenever used in this act, shall be construed to mean both skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining.

Approved, May 6, 1882.

What happened next …

The Chinese Exclusion Act immediately reduced the number of Chinese immigrants from around forty thousand in 1881 to less than a thousand in the year after the act was passed. One impact was to create an oddly imbalanced society in Chinese neighborhoods, where men outnumbered women by a ratio of about twenty to one. Because Chinese men who had come to work were no longer able to bring wives into the United States, many Chinatown communities continued for many years with men living as permanent bachelors. Forty years later, in 1920, the ratio of men to women in Chinese communities was still about seven to one.

In 1892, Congress passed the Geary Act, which excluded Chinese immigrants for ten more years. In 1902, the exclusion of Chinese immigrants was made permanent. Chinese residents were required to obtain special certificates; without one, any Chinese found in the United States could be deported to China.

In 1942, the exclusion of Chinese immigrants had become an embarrassment. The United States had entered World War II (1941–45) against Japan after the Japanese navy bombed the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. China had been invaded by Japan a few years earlier, and consequently the United States and China became allies. The United States had to correct the uncomfortable situation of having an ally whose citizens were the subject of discrimination in immigration. On December 17, 1943, Congress repealed the Chinese exclusion laws. In their place, Congress set a numerical quota on Chinese immigrants, just as other countries had been assigned numerical quotas on the number of people allowed to enter the United States. The spirit of the old laws, remained, however: The quota for Chinese was set at just 105 people per year.

Finally, in 1965, explicit discrimination against Chinese immigrants was lifted. A new immigration law got rid of numerical quotas and concentrated on other standards for acceptance, such as family ties or a person having skills judged to be in short supply in the United States.

Did you know …

  • The treatment of Chinese immigrants was the subject of intense diplomacy between the United States and China for many years, with the Chinese government taking an active interest in the fate of citizens who had emigrated to the United States.
  • In 1868, the United States and China signed a treaty governing Chinese immigration. The treaty was called the Burlingame Treaty. It was named after Anson Burlingame (1820–1870), one of the diplomats who negotiated the agreement. A native of Berlin, New York, Burlingame was a congressman from 1855 to 1861, when he was appointed to represent the United States in China. His tact and understanding of Chinese issues was appreciated by the Chinese government. In 1867, he was named to represent China in a mission that included visits to several European countries and the United States.
  • In 1868, Burlingame represented China in negotiations for a treaty with the United States. One clause of the treaty protected the right of Chinese to immigrate to the United States and assured that China would not be treated differently than other countries with respect to immigration. The treaty was effective for a decade, but in the late 1870s, anti-Chinese feelings ran so strong in California that the Congress tried to exclude Chinese immigrants altogether. China finally consented, in 1880, to modify the Burlingame Treaty, paving the way for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

For More Information


Bryce, James. The American Commonwealth. London and New York: Macmillan, 1889. Multiple reprints.

Chin, Ko-lin. Smuggled Chinese: Clandestine Immigration to the United States. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999.

Lee, Erika. At America's Gates: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era, 1882–1943. Charlotte: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

LeMay, Michael, and Elliot Robert Barkan, eds. U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Laws and Issues: A Documentary History. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Web Sites

"Asian American History Timeline." Ancestors in the Americas: A PBS Series Exploring the History and Legacy of Asians in the Americas. (accessed on February 21, 2004).

Chinese Exclusion Act

views updated May 29 2018

Chinese Exclusion Act

United States 1882


The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first law passed in the United States that excluded a people of a specific ethnicity from immigrating to the country. It was the culmination of several decades' worth of agitation on the part of white workers in the United States, as well as violence directed against Chinese workers. The initial time period covered by the statute was 10 years; at the end of that time period, the law was renewed in 1892 for another 10 years, and in 1902 the law was made permanent. The act was not repealed until 1943, after China became an ally of the United States during World War II.


  • 1863: The world's first subway opens, in London.
  • 1869: The first U.S. transcontinental railway is completed.
  • 1873: Typewriter is introduced.
  • 1876: Four-stroke cycle gas engine is introduced.
  • 1878: Thomas Edison develops a means of cheaply producing and transmitting electric current, which he succeeds in subdividing so as to make it adaptable to household use. The value of shares in gas companies plummets as news of his breakthrough reaches Wall Street.
  • 1881: In a shootout at the O.K. Corral outside Tombstone, Arizona, Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan Earp, along with "Doc" Holliday, kill Billy Clanton, Frank McLowry, and Tom McLowry. This breaks up a gang headed by Clanton's brother Ike, who flees Tombstone. The towns-people, however, suspect the Earps and Holliday of murder. During the same year, Sheriff Pat Garrett shoots notorious criminal William Bonney, a.k.a. Billy the Kid, in Fort Sumner, New Mexico.
  • 1883: Brooklyn Bridge is completed.
  • 1883: Foundation of the League of Struggle for the Emancipation of Labor by Marxist political philosopher Georgi Valentinovich Plekhanov marks the formal start of Russia's labor movement. Change still lies far in the future for Russia, however: tellingly, Plekhanov launches the movement in Switzerland.
  • 1883: Life magazine begins publication.
  • 1885: Belgium's King Leopold II becomes sovereign of the so-called Congo Free State, which he will rule for a quarter-century virtually as his own private property. The region in Africa, given the name of Zaire in the 1970s (and Congo in 1997), becomes the site of staggering atrocities, including forced labor and genocide, at the hands of Leopold's minions.
  • 1889: Indian Territory in Oklahoma is opened to white settlement.
  • 1893: Henry Ford builds his first automobile.

Event and Its Context

The discovery of gold in California inspired not only American "49ers." Many Chinese peasants had been displaced by the Red Turban Rebellion, and they suffered under extremely high taxes levied by the Qing government to pay indemnities to Western imperialist powers as a result of the First Opium War (1843). This was coupled with hardships caused by the extensive flooding in the rich delta areas and resulted in large numbers of peasants being drawn to the promises held by Gam Saan (Gold Mountain) in the United States. The success achieved by early migrants who returned to their villages with the money they made in Hawaii and in the United States spurred more migration to America. Labor recruiters posted circulars in many villages in China, promising high wages. In 1860 a Chinese laborer who made $2 to $3 a month in China could make $30 a month working on the railroad in the United States, plus have clothing and housing provided by the American employers. This wage differential, and the other promised amenities, made immigration to the United States extremely attractive to struggling Chinese peasants.

Some Chinese peasants paid their own way to the United States, as they were able to gather enough money on their own or to borrow from family members or other villagers. A substantial number of Chinese men immigrated to the United States as contract laborers by borrowing money from a broker to cover the cost of transportation, and then paying off that loan plus interest out of earnings in the United States. There is little documentation that Chinese workers were kidnapped or coerced into immigration, so few Chinese immigrants could properly be labeled "coolies" (from the Chinese term Ku Li, meaning bonded servant), despite the popular depiction during this time of the typical Chinese laborer. The few who did come to the United States as bonded laborers were banned by law in 1862, in the midst of a war over slavery. In a pattern that would be repeated over and over with the Chinese, however, little distinction was made between bonded and free Chinese laborers; many Americans applied the divisive term to all Chinese workers.

Although some Chinese were initially warmly received in the United States, the increasing numbers of "Celestials" (one of the least objectionable names by which natives of China were known) engendered greater levels of hostility. By 1852 white miners were able to persuade the legislature of California to pass a law levying a tax of $3 per month on "foreign" miners who did not attempt to become citizens. (Chinese immigrants were prevented from applying for naturalization because of the 1790 law that limited those eligible for naturalized citizenship to "white" persons.) This foreign miners' tax remained in force until passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1870. Although this law was mainly aimed at protecting the civil rights of the newly freed African Americans, provisions also were made to prevent the imposition of discriminatory penalties, taxes, licenses, or other exactions, which were initially applied to the Chinese. By the time this occurred, however, the state of California had collected over $5 million through this tax, a sum representing over 25 percent of all state revenue. Most Chinese miners during this early time period worked for themselves in placer mines (the stereotypical mine claim in Gold Rush California), shoveling sand into pans or rockers and then washing it away, looking for the heavier gold particles. Like other miners, however, the Chinese were soon looking for other work as the surface mines quickly played out.

As this was happening, the impetus to construct railroads in California was growing stronger. In 1866 the Central Pacific Railroad began to recruit Chinese laborers to construct a rail line from Sacramento east. According to historian Alexander Saxton, the railroad kept some 10,000 Chinese men employed in boring and blasting the tunnels through the Sierra Nevada, as well as laying track across Nevada and much of Utah. Many of these Chinese laborers remained employed in railroad construction, because after joining the Union Pacific Railroad at Promontory Point in Utah, the Central Pacific built feeder lines north and south in California. Chinese workers who left the railroad construction industry often provided labor on California farms, which were moving from pastoral pursuits into cash crops; the Chinese provided the strong backs for clearing land, digging ditches, building dikes and irrigation systems, and harvesting crops. Chinese workers who could not find work in either of these two fields, or who chose not to, drifted into the cities in the West, where they often found jobs in industries being established in western cities, worked as domestics, or opened laundries. "Chinese laundries" are an American invention, as in patriarchal Chinese society, women were expected to perform household chores such as laundry. In the western portion of the United States, single men comprised a large portion of the population, and the entrepreneurial Chinese saw an opportunity to make money by providing a needed service. Chinese men provided this service because there were so few Chinese women in the United States; only one in every 13 Chinese immigrants was female. To ensure the return of prodigals, the Chinese government often kept wives and children at home to help sojourners resist the temptation to become permanent residents in the United States. Chinese custom at the time provided for the patrilineal division of property among all sons, who were in turn responsible for supporting their elderly parents. The immigration of Chinese females was further restricted in 1875, with the enactment of the Page Law that forbade the immigration of Chinese prostitutes. This effectively banned most Chinese females from immigration to the United States, as no effort was made to ascertain whether a particular Chinese female was a prostitute or not; it was simply assumed that all Chinese females who attempted to immigrate to the United States were prostitutes. This law, coupled with antimiscegenation laws that were passed by several states at about the same time, made it extremely difficult for the Chinese to marry and establish families in the United States. Many whites undoubtedly felt that allowing large numbers of Chinese to establish families in the country would encourage their permanent settlement, which they wished to avoid.

In the imaginations of many white Americans, Chinese workers replaced African American slaves on the lowest rung of humanity. Chinese workers were supposed to be living on a diet, consisting of rice and rats, that any self-respecting white man would reject. The imagery that Chinese workers could subsist on fewer rations than white workers remained a part of American labor ideology for an extended period of time. Samuel Gompers utilized this vision in a speech and article published in the American Federationist, entitled "Meat v. Rice," to plead the case for permanent Chinese exclusion in 1901. Chinese were also imagined as replacing African Americans as laborers in the cotton fields of the American South. At the Cotton States Exhibition held in Memphis in 1869, Cornelius Koopmanschap boasted that he could provide planters with all the labor they needed, directly from China, for as little as $10 or $12 dollars a month. Also in 1869, Chinese laborers were imported to North Adams, Massachusetts, to break a strike of shoemakers there; later in the century, African Americans would often be used for the same purpose. This brief contact with Chinese workers by a small portion of the white working class was kept alive by the daily and labor press and became the impetus for labor's support for the Chinese exclusion legislation when it was introduced. The Chinese worker was, in fact, excluded from consideration for membership from the Knights of Labor, the most egalitarian labor movement in the history of the United States to that point and an organization that readily admitted African Americans. Although the Chinese faced opposition from whites wherever they chose to try to make a living, the opposition was strongest where their numbers were the greatest—namely, in San Francisco, California.

In 1876 the mayor of San Francisco, Andrew Jackson Bryant (1823-1882), decided the time was propitious to settle the Chinese question. The presidential election that fall would be a close one, and the House and the Senate were split between the two parties. Both Democrats and Republicans would be looking for a political issue that could gain them votes. California political leaders quickly jumped on the bandwagon, and in the midst of an economic depression this issue became the leading issue in California politics. The problem with this development for California's white workers, however, was that other issues that concerned them, such as the enforcement of the eight-hour workday, were given short shrift by politicians in the state.

California politicians were not the only beneficiaries of this development, however. In San Francisco the Workingman's Party and its best-known demagogue, Denis Kearney, capitalized on much of the opposition to the Chinese. Kearney's dramatic oratorical style proved to be very popular in the nightly meetings held in empty lots near San Francisco's Chinatown. Kearney was regularly arrested for inciting violence (mainly against the Chinese); just as regularly he was acquitted. The Workingman's Party in California faded into obscurity after 1879, in part because the Democratic Party appropriated its biggest issue, the exclusion of Chinese.

The Democratic Party in California had been able to use the advocacy of the exclusion of Chinese to reestablish the party there, and this strategy was quickly utilized on the national level, as well. The appeal of the exclusion of the Chinese to workingmen, who found their status threatened by the increased importance of industrial capital, led many to abandon the Republican Party and vote Democratic because of this issue. This, of course, prompted many Republican politicians into the advocacy of Chinese exclusion and contributed to the abandonment of the advocacy of equal rights for former slaves.

Key Players

Gompers, Samuel (1850-1924): Gompers was the first president of the American Federation of Labor (1888-1924). Although Gompers himself was an immigrant (a Jew of Dutch parents, born in England), he advocated placing restrictions on all immigrants because he believed that their presence drove down the wages for American workers and immigrants already present in the country. Although unsuccessful in restricting immigration from Europe, Gompers contributed to the successful drive to continue the restriction on immigration from China.

Kearney, Denis (1847-1907): A native of County Cork, Ireland, Kearney rose to prominence in San Francisco in 1877 when he began addressing workers and the unemployed in vacant sand lots in the city during the depression. His speeches quickly devolved from denouncements of the power of monopolies, however, to denunciations of the Chinese. He began most speeches with the words, "The Chinese must go." Kearney helped found the Workingmen's Party (San Francisco, 1878), which was influential in helping form the new California constitution that year, although provisions denying Chinese certain civil liberties were later thrown out by the courts. The popularity of these anti-Chinese laws made the final passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 much more palpable to politicians, however.

See also: American Federation of Labor.



Chan, Sucheng, ed. Entry Denied: Exclusion and the Chinese Community in America, 1882-1943. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.

McClain, Charles, ed. Chinese Immigrants and American Law. New York: Garland Publishing, 1994.

Saxton, Alexander. The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Takaki, Ronald. A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1993.

—Gregory M. Miller

Chinese Exclusion Acts

views updated Jun 27 2018

Chinese Exclusion Acts

Diana H. Yoon and Gabriel J. Chin

Excerpt from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

Whereas, in the opinion of the Government of the United States the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory thereof: Therefore

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that ... until the expiration of ten years next after the passage of this act, the coming of Chinese laborers to the United States be, and the same is hereby, suspended; and during such suspension it shall not be lawful for any Chinese laborer to come, or, having so come, ... to remain within the United States.

From the time they first migrated to the United States, Asians were a special concern of federal immigration policy. In 1862 Congress intervened in the importation of "coolie" labor, unskilled workers usually from the Far East who were paid low wages. Congress began direct regulation of immigration with the Page Law of 1875, which was designed, legislators claimed, to curtail the immigration of women from "any Oriental country" for the purpose of prostitution. That statute in fact operated to exclude most Asian women.

The demand for restriction of Asian immigration was still not fully satisfied. In 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act (22 Stat. 58) to prohibit the immigration of Chinese laborers for ten years. Enacted in response to a national anti-Chinese campaign, the law was the first of a series of restrictions on Chinese immigration. Because the term "laborer" was understood to include those trained to perform skilled labor, most potential immigrants were barred from entering the country. Although naturalization was already restricted to whites and those of African birth or descent, the Chinese Exclusion Act also specifically prohibited the naturalization of Chinese.

The 1882 act led to restrictions on other Asian immigrants. The policy of Asian exclusion, the only explicitly race-based distinction in American immigration law, culminated in the Immigration Act of 1917 (39 Stat. 874), which created the "Asiatic Barred Zone" from which immigration was generally prohibited, and the Immigration Act of 1924 (43 Stat. 153), which banned immigrants of Japanese racial ancestry and other Asians not already prohibited. The 1924 law also established a quota system designed to discriminate against African and southern and eastern European immigrants, although it categorized these people based on their place of birth rather than on their race, as was the case with Asians.


Chinese immigration became a national issue by the 1860s. The strongest currents of anti-Chinese sentiment mobilized in California, where the discovery of gold and demands for labor had attracted a visible population of Chinese workers. The 1870 census reported that more than 99 percent of Chinese residing in the U.S. lived in the West. This migration had been made possible by the Burlingame Treaty of 1868 (16 Stat. 739), which established full diplomatic relations and free immigration between China and the United States.

Although historians have debated the primary cause of the exclusion laws, most point to the influence of the white labor movement in pushing for restrictive legislation. White Californians who claimed to be threatened by the "yellow peril" voiced demands to end Chinese immigration. Meanwhile, workers in the East called for an end to imported contract labor. Many viewed this type of labor as repugnant to individual freedom as well as harmful to the interests of white American workers. In response, Congress enacted labor laws aimed at preventing the importation of labor through overseas contracts, a practice blamed for the economic depression in the labor market. Hostility toward Chinese laborers intensified during periods of economic depression, with racial and cultural prejudice accompanying arguments about undesirable labor competition. No numerical limits were placed on immigration in this period, and Chinese immigrants represented a small proportion of all immigration. Nonetheless, economic depression and rising class conflict created opportunities for politicians to attack Chinese workers and push immigration restriction as a national issue in their election campaigns.


Initial efforts to curb Chinese labor immigration faced a legal obstacle: the Burlingame Treaty's provisions for free immigration between the United States and China. This was to change in 1880. Persuaded by anti-Chinese forces, American immigration commissioners renegotiated the treaty in pursuit of the twin goals of immigration restriction and advantageous trade relations. Congress, having secured the power to regulate Chinese immigration, passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The debates in Congress reflected blatant racism and a discriminatory prejudice not only against the Chinese but against African Americans and Indians as well. As one senator argued, "the Caucasian race has a right, considering its superiority of intellectual force and mental vigor, to look down upon every other branch of the human family ... We are the superior race today."

Under the act, Chinese laborers already residing in the U.S. were allowed to leave and return by obtaining a reentry certificate from the collector of customs. This provision was challenged in Chew Heong v. United States (1884), when immigration officials excluded former residents who could not obtain the required certificates because they were abroad when the act was passed. The Supreme Court ruled that a Chinese person could reenter without a certificate if he was a lawful resident at the time of the Burlingame Treaty revisions.

Subsequent legislation effectively nullified Chew Heong. The 1888 Scott Act (25 Stat. 476) prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the country, including those with valid return certificates. This legislation was found constitutional in Chae Chan Ping v. United States (known as the Chinese Exclusion Case, 1889). Chae Chan Ping had left for a trip to China in 1887 with a valid return certificate. The Scott Act, however, was passed while he was at sea, and he was denied entry upon landing. He argued that the Scott Act violated his right to reenter the United States.

The Supreme Court, however, declared that Congress, in exercising its sovereignty, could exclude noncitizens to protect the nation from dangerous foreigners. In the Court's view, exclusion of Chinese might be necessary for "the preservation of our civilization." Congress, by exercising its "plenary power" to regulate immigration, could determine whether a noncitizen could continue to live in the United States.

As a result of the Scott Act, an estimated 20,000 reentry certificates were voided and many individuals were barred from returning to their families and property. In subsequent years the Court's ruling had a tremendous influence on the development of American immigration law. Courts continue to give great deference to congressional determinations of who may and may not enter the United States.

Under immigration restrictions, women were defined by the status of their male spouses. As a result, spouses of laborers were categorically excluded from entering the country and women who were U.S. citizens married to Asians in the United States could lose their citizenship.


Passed in 1892 the Geary Act (27 Stat. 25) had three provisions: It (1) extended the ban on Chinese immigration for ten years; (2) created a presumption that persons of Chinese descent were residing in the United States unlawfully, thereby forcing any Chinese found in the country to prove his or her right to be here; and (3) required laborers to obtain a certificate confirming their legal status. In Fong Yue Ting v. United States (1893), the Court upheld the certificate requirement. Other noncitizens were not required to obtain a certificate. In 1902 and again in 1904, Congress extended these restrictions indefinitely.


Although most American immigrant populations increased over time the Chinese population in the U.S., as a result of the anti-Chinese laws, decreased from 100,000 in 1882 to about 85,000 in 1920. These figures also reflect the drastic imbalance in the ratio of Chinese males to females, as well as laws of various states that prevented family formation in early Chinese American communities.

The ban on Chinese immigration and naturalization was lifted in 1943, when Congress repealed the Chinese exclusion laws. Subsequently, the laws affecting those of other Asian racial groups were gradually relaxed. Naturalization (the process by which immigrants become U.S. citizens) was made entirely race-neutral in 1952. After a century of laws designed to restrict Asian immigration, the 1965 amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act eliminated the remaining racial classifications from the law, and since then Asians have immigrated to the United States in significant numbers.



Chan, Sucheng, ed. Entry Denied: Exclusion and the Chinese Community in America, 18821943. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.

Chin, Gabriel J. "The Civil Rights Revolution Comes to Immigration Law: A New Look at the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965." North Carolina Law Review 75 (1996): 273345.

Gyory, Andrew. Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Hill, Bill Ong. Making and Remaking Asian America Through Immigration Policy, 18501990. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993.

Chinese Exclusion Act

views updated May 17 2018


When gold was discovered in California in 1848, few laborers were available for the new mining industry and many looked to China as a ready source of workers. Inexpensive transportation across the Pacific Ocean, acceptance of low wages, willingness to tackle dangerous jobs, and a strong work ethic made the Chinese attractive to mine operators. Brokers paid passage expenses for the Chinese laborers' transportation and the laborers repaid them from their earnings. In 1852 alone more than 20,000 Chinese arrived in California almost exclusively from the Guangdong province of southern China (including the city of Canton.) Within a few years of the gold discovery, the Chinese population was an important part of California's labor force. On their own initiative, the Chinese reworked the spoils left by earlier mining operations, recovering previously overlooked gold .

Other work became available in the ensuing years, including construction of the transcontinental railroad and increased employment in agriculture and manufacturing. By the 1880s approximately 100,000 Chinese were in the United States, more than 90 percent of them males. The vast majority sent their wages home regularly, maintaining a goal of eventually returning to their homeland and families.

As the white population grew in the West, particularly after completion of the railroad, competition for jobs increased and hostility from whites mounted. A downturn in the economy during the early 1870s led to declining wages; persecution of the Chinese escalated. New trade unions devised tags for goods to identify those made by white laborers and those made by Chinese. Violence directed towards Chinese also increased; nineteen Chinese were killed in a mob incident in Los Angeles in 1871 and more were killed in 1877 during a San Francisco riot. Later in 1877, San Francisco businessman Denis Kearney (who was himself an immigrant from Ireland) formed the Workingman's Party of California which spearheaded the anti-Chinese movement.

Although Chinese comprised far less than one percent of the U.S. population, politicians reacted to voter demands by joining those who blamed the immigrants for economic ills. Seeking to restrict further competition from Chinese workers, Congress passed the Fifteen Passenger Act limiting Chinese immigration in 1879. However, President Rutherford B. Hayes (18771881) vetoed the bill claiming it violated the 1868 Burlingame Treaty with China. The following year the United States negotiated a new treaty with China, permitting immigration restrictions for laborers but exempting foreign travelers, students, teachers, and merchants.

With the new treaty in place, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 suspending Chinese labor immigration for ten years and making Chinese immigrants ineligible for U.S. citizenship. The act was the first major law restricting immigration of a specific nationality into the United States. Chinese in the United States unsuccessfully challenged the new law as discriminatory. Persecution continued and 28 Chinese mine workers, refusing to join a strike, were killed in Rock Springs, Wyoming, in September of 1885. Congress extended the Exclusion Act in 1892 for another ten years, and in 1902 made the exclusion indefinite following a new, more restrictive treaty with China in 1894. In 1904 China refused to renew the 1894 treaty. Continuing immigration restrictions by the United States led to a boycott of U.S. goods in China in 1905.

The series of exclusion acts proved very effective in limiting immigration. The Chinese population substantially declined. The immigration acts were supplemented with other laws restricting the work activity of Chinese living in the country. In 1913 California passed a law prohibiting Chinese from owning land. Chinese people still entered the country but in smaller numbers, often using fraudulent papers to pose as merchants. Another "loophole" allowed Chinese-born children of U.S. citizens to gain entrance and citizenship. From 1910 to 1940, San Francisco's Angel Island was a point of entry where U.S. immigration officials examined "papers" of tens of thousands of Chinese trying to enter the country, much as Ellis Island in New York City served to process European immigrants.

The Chinese population quietly persevered through generations of persecution and consistently avoided conflict. Socioeconomic effects of the persecution included formation of self-contained communities, insulated from the dominant white Western society. "Chinatowns" grew within several large cities of the West and the Chinese established their own schools, printed their own newspapers, and formed their own banks. But the overall effectiveness of the Exclusion Acts led to later efforts to restrict immigration of other groups as well, including East Indians, Japanese, and Middle Easterners.

World War II (19391945) was a key catalyst in changing sixty years of discriminatory U.S. policies against the Chinese. China was an ally of the United States throughout the war. China's leader, General Chiang Kai-shek (18871975), was highly respected and the United States supported Chiang in his fight against internal (Mao Zedong and the Communists) and external (Japan) threats. This closer relationship helped change U.S. policy at home regarding Chinese-Americans.

Higher paying industrial employment opened up to the Chinese-Americans, whose population numbered 60,000 in the 1930s. With anti-Chinese sentiment dissipating, Congress repealed the Exclusion Act in 1943. It was immediately replaced with strict quotas limiting Chinese immigration in favor of Europeans, but these quotas were repealed in 1965 as the status of Chinese-Americans continued to improve. By 1970 most working Chinese-Americans held white-collar jobs and were well integrated into the U.S. economy.

Topic overview

At least a thousand (Chinese) perished in building the (Central Pacific) roadbed. . . . But they worked so hard and so well that hundreds more were hired. In 1869 a group of Chinese and Irish workers laid a record ten miles of track in just under 12 hours, though the Chinese and their sacrifice were barely mentioned in the flossy speeches that year when the historic meeting of the rails was celebrated.

donald d. jackson, smithsonian, february 1991

See also: Ellis Island, Immigration, Transcontinental Railroad


Chan, Sucheng, ed. Entry Denied: Exclusion and the Chinese Community in America, 18821943. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.

Gyory, Andrew. Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

McKee, Delber L. Chinese Exclusion Versus the Open Door Policy, 19001906: Clashes Over China Policy in the Roosevelt Era. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1977.

Takaki, Ronald T. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. Boston: Little Brown, 1989.

Wong, K. Scott, and Sucheng Chan, eds. Claiming America: Constructing Chinese American Identities During the Exclusion Era. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.

Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

views updated May 21 2018


Passed by U.S. Congress in 1882 and signed into law by President chester a. arthur, the Chinese Exclusion Act (22 Stat. 58) created a ten-year moratorium on the immigration of Chinese laborers into the United States. The Act represents the first law ever passed by Congress that denied entry to the United States on the basis of race or ethnicity. Congress indefinitely extended the act in 1902 and made it permanent in 1904. However, it was repealed in its entirety in 1943, when China became an important ally to the United States against Japan. However, its residual effect on Chinese-American relations continued far beyond.

Anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States began during the 1850s' Gold Rush, which eclipsed a period of great poverty in China. Chinese laborers flocked to California, where they soon became an exploited workforce because even the meager wages they earned in California represented far more than they could have earned in their homeland. By the 1870s, clear resentment existed among American miners, who felt their own wages were being held down by the industrious Chinese. U.S. miners also felt that the laborers were sending too much gold back to China, believing the natural resource should stay within the United States. Moreover, the Chinese were beginning to prosper in the laundry business, particularly in overcrowded San Francisco, where Victorian tastes and cultures approved of such domestic indulgences. Mounting political pressure resulted in heated debate, and final passage of the act occurred on May 6, 1882.

Under the provisions of the act, immigration of Chinese laborers to the United States was suspended for ten years. Chinese laborers already in the country were permitted to remain, even following temporary absences, but were barred from naturalization. Illegal immigrants were to be deported. Non-labor Chinese students, teachers, merchants, or those "proceeding to the United States from curiosity" were permitted entry. The act expressly defined "Chinese laborers" as "both skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining." Additional provisions of the act levied heavy fines on those who would bring in or "aid and abet" any Chinese person unlawfully within the United States.

Under the Geary Act (making the act permanent), other provisions were added to require Chinese residents in the United States to register and obtain a certificate of residence. This act required that they be photographed and submit photograph copies with local police. Moreover, they had to carry identification with them at all times. The federal government paid for all related costs associated with compliance.

Following an influx of general post-war immigrants during the 1920s, Congress began to implement quotas and requirements pertaining to national origin. By 1943, Congress repealed all exclusion acts, instead leaving in place a yearly limit of 105 Chinese. Further, Congress gave foreign-born Chinese naturalization rights of citizenship. The so-called origin system (with several subsequent modifications) continued to control immigration until the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Amendment Acts of 1965, Pub. L. No. 89–836, 79 Stat, 911.

further readings

American Federation of Labor. 1902. Some Reasons for Chinese Exclusion. Meat v. Rice. American Manhood against Asiatic Coolieism, Which Shall Survive? Senate Document No. 137, 57th Congress, 1st Session. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

"Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882." Excerpted from Teaching with Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives. Available online at <> (accessed June 2, 2003.)

Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. 22 Stat. 58. Available online at <> (accessed June 2, 2003).

Chinese Exclusion Act

views updated May 21 2018


CHINESE EXCLUSION ACT. Passed in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers for ten years. The law, which repudiated the 1868 Burlingame Treaty promising free immigration between the United States and China, was one in the succession of laws produced by a national anti-Chinese movement. Limited federal intervention began as early as the 1862 regulation of "coolies"; the Page Law of 1875 purported to prevent the entry of "Oriental" prostitutes but precluded the immigration of most Asian women.

Laws following the 1882 exclusion legislation tightened the restrictions. The Scott Act of 1888 excluded all Chinese laborers, even those holding U.S. government certificates assuring their right to return. The original act's ban was extended in 1892 and made permanent in 1902. The government broadened exclusion to other Asians; by 1924, all Asian racial groups were restricted. The 1882 act also foreshadowed other discriminatory legislation, such as the national origins quota laws that discriminated against African and southern and eastern European immigrants from 1921 to 1965.

As America's first race-based immigration restrictions, the anti-Chinese laws caused the decrease of the Chinese-American population from 105,465 in 1880 to 61,639 in 1920. Chinese were again allowed to immigrate in 1943. The last vestiges of the Asian exclusion laws were repealed in 1965, when racial classifications were removed from the law.


Gyory, Andrew. Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Hing, Bill Ong. Making and Remaking Asian America through Immigration Policy, 1850–1990. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1993.

Gabriel J.Chin


See alsoAsian Americans ; Chinese Americans ; Immigration Restriction .

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