views updated May 23 2018


In 1885, three years after Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the American Missionary's October issue included a letter from Saum Song Bo in response to a flyer requesting donations to build a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. Emma Lazarus (1849–1887), with whom Ralph Waldo Emerson corresponded, wrote her famous poem, "The New Colossus" (1883) to help raise money for the pedestal's construction. While the poem's final five lines have become indelibly linked with the statue—"Give me your tired, your poor, / your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" (p. 27)—they also highlight America's duplicity made visible by Saum. He writes:

I consider it as an insult to us Chinese to call on us to contribute toward building in this land a pedestal for a statue of liberty. 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? As for the Chinese who are here, are they allowed to enjoy liberty as men of all other nationalities enjoy it?

Saum's letter alludes to Chinese exclusion whose restrictions and their aftermath have figured largely in Chinese American literature.


Poor peasants from China's Pearl River Delta initially migrated to the United States in search of better opportunities for themselves and their families. In 1846, when America raised its flag in California's San Francisco's Portsmouth Square, Chinese entrepreneurs opened businesses and laid the groundwork for what would become Chinatown. After the Civil War, southern states recruited Chinese laborers to replace slave labor. It was the 1848 discovery of gold in California, however, that brought Chinese immigrants to the United States in greater numbers. Between 1850 and 1880 their population jumped from 7,520 to 105,465, with 77 percent living in California (see table). Their increasing numbers intensified Americans' anti-Chinese bias as evidenced in a series of race-based laws that specifically targeted the Chinese. Initially welcomed as a cheap labor source, the United States moved closer to exclusion as the nation fell into an economic depression in the late 1800s. Although Chinese immigrants played a significant role in the economic development of the American West, they also roused strongly nativistic feelings among many white Americans.

YearU.S. populationChinese populationPercentage of total
SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of the Census.

U.S. census statistics reveal how exclusion laws affected the Chinese population count in the United States.


News of the California gold rush fueled Chinese immigration to Gam Saan, or Gold Mountain as the Chinese called America. Yuanzhu Chen's A Collection of Taishan Folk Rhymes (1929) and Zhaozhong Hu's A Collection of Popular Cantonese Folk Rhymes in America (1970) provide a glimpse of the impoverished conditions in China that encouraged immigration. Additionally, the collections' rhymes also reflect the pain of leaving home and the repeated dreams of and hopes for success in America. These stories evolved out of the Chinese oral tradition whose tales have also influenced contemporary writers. They are evidence that Chinese immigrants came for gold but found Americans' antipathy toward foreigners instead.

Mark Twain's (1835–1910) work presented more sympathetic portrayals of the Chinese than what typically appeared in the media. His "John Chinaman in New York" (1870), written for the Galaxy, expresses compassion toward a Chinese man berated by passersby. Twain followed up this piece with a series of letters under the general title "Goldsmith's Friend Abroad Again" (1871). A San Francisco Chinese immigrant shocked by Americans' mistreatment of the Chinese purportedly wrote the letters. The invented Chinese writer came to America, believing the nation practiced its ideals of equality. Once he arrived, he became the victim of a violent attack, was thrown in jail, and was convicted of a crime without witnesses. He was not allowed to testify against the Irish Americans who physically assailed him. Employing his typical sarcastic wit in "Letter 7," Twain critiques the California Supreme Court's decision that banned Chinese individuals from testifying against whites in court cases. He wrote, "In this country white men can testify against Chinamen all they want to, but Chinamen ain't allowed to testify against white men!" (p. 73). Twain's letters display the indignation he felt at the injustices against the Chinese.

Not all of his writing about the Chinese was vitriolic. Roughing It (1872) provides a witty account of Twain's travels through Nevada and northern California. Several chapters lavish praise on Chinese immigrants and express a measure of indignation at anti-Chinese discrimination. He describes Chinese immigrants in Virginia City and Chinese laborers who helped build the transcontinental railroad; in the chapter titled "The Gentle, Inoffensive Chinese," Twain describes the Chinese as harmless, in contrast with the descriptions of harm brought against them by Americans.

Chinese immigrants who came for gold recognized the danger to their lives inherent in this quest, so they gradually moved into agriculture, fishing, and manufacturing. They also worked as cooks, gardeners, and launderers. In 1870 three-fourths of California's agricultural workers were Chinese, and they played a significant role in the development of California's agricultural industry. Chinese fishermen also transformed Monterey into one of California's most successful fishing ports by being the first to fish commercially for shrimp, abalone, cod, halibut, flounder, and shark. They worked in the sardine factories and played a major role in the development of Monterey and the Cannery Row area that John Steinbeck featured in his novel Cannery Row.


No matter where they settled, the Chinese established social and civic organizations similar to those in China. In 1849 San Francisco's groups merged into one organization, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, or the Chinese Six Companies. They served the community by assisting immigrants and meeting community needs. As the most powerful organization in Chinatown, the Six Companies transformed their wealth into political power and challenged laws discriminatory to the Chinese.

With the demise of the railroad and mining industries, the economy fell into a slump, and competition for jobs intensified anti-Chinese sentiment. Americans initially welcomed Chinese workers to the United States as a cheap labor source but later blamed them for lower wages, lost jobs, and poor working conditions. Organized labor and individuals began demanding that the United States place restrictions on the Chinese. Labor activists organized anti-Chinese clubs. Labor union leader Denis Kearney, head of the Workingmen's Party of California, urged lawmakers to stop the flow of Asians into the United States. Newspapers also fueled nativist tendencies.

In response, politicians passed over six hundred ordinances and laws restricting Chinese people's activities. Their fishing declined between 1875 and 1900, when white fishermen pressured the California legislature to pass laws that restricted the Chinese from fishing, processing, or selling their catch. Additionally, after a suspicious fire destroyed the Chinese quarter, the state quickly established regulations that prohibited the Chinese from rebuilding the China Point fishing community. Violence erupted, and in one incident, a white mob lynched fifteen Chinese people in Los Angeles's Chinatown in 1871. In response, the Six Companies wrote President Ulysses S. Grant a protest letter demanding greater civil rights and protections for the Chinese but to no avail. Local and state governments in western states attracted national attention with anti-Chinese legislation, which influenced Congress to pass similar federal laws.

The writer Bret Harte (1836–1902) included Chinese characters in over twenty of his works, including a play entitled Two Men of Sandy Bar (1876), which featured Hop Sing, a Chinese laundryman. Harte spoke out against the injustices the Chinese suffered; yet anti-immigrationists adopted his seemingly negative portrayals of the Chinese to support their cause. For example, Harte had intended his poem "Plain Language from Truthful James" (1870) to ridicule those who harbored anti-Chinese sentiments, but it produced the opposite effect. Rather than deride Truthful James and Bill Nye, who had intended to cheat the Chinese character Ah Sin during a card game, Harte's readers disparaged Ah Sin for turning the tables and beating the Irish at their own game. Readers misinterpreted "The Heathen Chinee," as the poem came to be called, when they read Ah Sin as dishonest, deceptive, and sly, an image that fueled white fear and paranoia about Chinese labor undermining white labor. Harte eventually criticized his poem when he saw its unintended effects.

In spite of the response his poem received, Harte continued to portray the Chinese as "dark," "pagan," "superstitious," and "threatening" in two short stories—"Wan Lee, the Pagan" (1874) and "See Yup" (1898). Harte's Chinese characters fulfilled white expectations. In "See Yup," for instance, a group of Chinese miners become rich by selling a worthless mine to some white miners. In 1876 Harte and Twain collaborated on a play based on and named after Harte's character, Ah Sin. Although the play also addressed "the Yellow Peril," a term used to describe Asian countries' perceived threat to Western civilization, Ah Sin's character was written to be a wily, gibberish-speaking, unredeemable Chinese laundryman. The play was a disaster and was short-lived, yet their characterization of Ah Sin became the model that new writers adopted to fashion their own Chinese characters.

Although Harte and Twain had set out to vindicate the Chinese, other playwrights created productions that betrayed Americans' fear of the Chinese presence in the United States. Henry Grimm's The Chinese Must Go (1870) and Joseph Jarrow's The Queen of Chinatown (1899) expressed white anxieties over the presumed threat that Chinese men posed to white male dominance in the labor market and to white women. Both portrayed the Chinese as opium peddlers and enslavers of white women. Such presentations justified and rationalized federal laws restricting the Chinese that had been passed earlier.


Anti-Chinese laws shaped the development of Chinese communities, because many prevented the formation of families. In 1834 the first Chinese woman arrived in New York City. Three decades later, there were only 1,784, and many were prostitutes. To prohibit the importation of prostitutes, the federal government passed the Page Law (1875), which also discouraged other Chinese women from immigrating. Antimiscegenation laws prevented intermarriage between white women and Chinese men. Consequently, legislation created a lack of marriageable women, transforming Chinese communities into bachelor societies.

The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) was the first law to prohibit immigration based on race. Initially aimed at Chinese laborers, Congress broadened the law in 1888 to include "all persons of the Chinese race." The act also prohibited Chinese immigrants currently in the United States from claiming citizenship with exemptions for diplomats, merchants, and students. Exclusion was to last ten years, but the Geary Act (1892) extended them another ten. The law did allow one to return to China, but a return required a certificate of residence as proof of one's right to be in the country. Those caught without the necessary papers were imprisoned or deported. Fong Yue Ting v. United States (1893) challenged the Geary Act, but the Supreme Court upheld it. Passage of the Immigration Act (1904) made Chinese exclusion permanent. The push to rid the United States of the Chinese is played out on a global scale in Jack London's (1876–1916) short story "The Unparalleled Invasion" (1913), a tale that pushes the practice of westward expansion and United States imperialism beyond the Pacific Ocean. This science fiction piece describes the United States annihilation of the Chinese in their homeland, a move that, in the story, opens China up for European settlement.


Exclusion and anti-Chinese bias resulted in racial self-hatred among many Chinese immigrants who had made the United States their home. The biracial writer Winnifred Eaton (1875–1954) denied her Chinese heritage and assumed a Japanese identity, naming herself Onoto Watanna. Americans popularized the sentimental novels she set in Japan, depicting romantic relationships between Japanese women and American men. Her novel Me, a Book of Remembrance (1915) is a thinly disguised autobiography that partially depicts her attempt to hide her true heritage. Unlike Watanna, her sister, Edith Maude Eaton (1865–1914), embraced her Chinese heritage as reflected in her pen name, Sui Sin Far. Sin Far was the first short story writer of Chinese ancestry to defy stereotypes, humanize her subjects, and champion the Chinese. Her stories in Mrs. Spring Fragrance (1912) grapple with complex issues, such as forced assimilation, racism, biculturalism, and interracial marriage. One such story, "In the Land of the Free," critiques unjust immigration restrictions by recounting a family's anguish after the state seizes their infant son, whom it holds for ten months until the family is able to provide the necessary documents proving he is their child. The numerous articles and stories she wrote sorted out issues of acculturation and cultural conflict at a time when most Americans only knew the Chinese through popular stereotypes, depicting them as perpetually foreign.

The following excerpt is from a poem by a Chinese immigrant detained on Angel Island on San Francisco's coast.

A thousand sorrows and a hatred ten-thousand-fold
burns between my brows.
Hoping to step ashore the American continent is the
most difficult of difficulties.
The barbarians imprison me in this place.
Even a martyr or a hero would change countenance.

Lai, Lim, and Yung, eds., Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910–1940, p. 162.

Many Chinese immigrants found ways to circumvent the kind of immigration restrictions depicted in Sui Sin Far's short story. In United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898), the Supreme Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of citizenship to those born in the United States also applied to Chinese immigrants' children. In addition to the opportunities that Wong Kim Ark created was the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, which destroyed all birth and immigration records. Despite the prohibitions against Chinese immigration, there were loopholes in laws that allowed Chinese Americans in the United States prior to 1882 to return home, marry, and return with their sons, whom United States law declared as citizens. In order to reenter, however, the federal government required certain documents proving their children's identities. This requirement created the phenomena known as "paper sons." Those without the necessary family ties fabricated paper documents or bought the documents required by the United States, which helped them to assume new identities. "Paper sons" made up the largest population of Chinese immigrants from 1910 to 1940 and enabled the Chinese community to develop a second generation and survive the exclusion years.

The government's discovery of this ploy led to harsher interrogations and the creation of an immigration station on Angel Island on San Francisco's coast in 1910. More of a detention center, Angel Island held Chinese immigrants sometimes for weeks or months, until their immigration papers and medical examinations returned with favorable results. Isolated and alone, detainees revealed their experiences and emotions through poems carved in walls. These writings have been compiled in two collections, Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910–1940 (1991) and Songs of Gold Mountain (1992). Both collections are significant because they form the foundation of a mostly silenced Chinese American experience from the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. The writing reveals the authors' felt despair and anguish after coming to America only to have their dreams crushed by a presumably open and democratic nation. Their detention contradicted the reality they faced when the United States denied them the promises of liberty and freedom guaranteed to all. Detainees' writing also expressed resentment when other immigrants realized the promises offered in Lazarus's poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty's pedestal.

See alsoAssimilation; Civil Rights; Mrs. Spring Fragrance; "Plain Language from Truthful James"; San Francisco


Primary Works

Eaton, Edith Maude. Mrs. Spring Fragrance and OtherWritings. 1912. Edited by Amy Ling and Annette White-Parks. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.

Eaton, Winnifred. Me, a Book of Remembrance. 1915. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997.

Grimm, Henry. The Chinese Must Go. 1870. In The ChineseOther, 1850–1925: An Anthology of Plays, edited by Dave Williams. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997.

Harte, Bret. "Plain Language from Truthful James." 1870. In Yale Book of American Verse, edited by Thomas R. Lounsbury. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1912. Available at

Harte, Bret. "See Yup." 1898. In Stories in Light andShadow. Available at

Harte, Bret. Two Men of Sandy Bar. 1876. In CaliforniaGold-rush Plays, edited by Glenn Loney. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1983.

Harte, Bret. "Wan Lee, the Pagan." 1874. In The Luck ofRoaring Camp and Other Writings. New York: Penguin Books, 2001.

Harte, Bret, and Mark Twain. Ah Sin. 1876. In The ChineseOther, 1850–1925: An Anthology of Plays, edited by Dave Williams. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997.

Jarrow, Joseph. The Queen of Chinatown. 1899. In TheChinese Other, 1850–1925: An Anthology of Plays, edited by Dave Williams. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997.

Lai, Him Mark, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung, eds. Island:Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910–1940. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991.

Lazarus, Emma. "The New Colossus." 1883. In The HeathAnthology of American Literature, vol. 2, edited by Paul Lauter et al., 4th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

London, Jack. "The Unparalleled Invasion." 1913. In TheStrength of the Strong. Available at

Saum Song Bo. "A Protest against the Statue of Liberty." 1885. University of Houston Digital History. Available at

Twain, Mark. "Goldsmith's Friend Abroad Again, Letter 7." 1871. In The Heath Anthology of American Literature, vol. 2, edited by Paul Lauter et al., 4th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

Twain, Mark. "John Chinaman in New York." 1870. In Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays: Mark Twain. New York: Library of America, 1992.

Twain, Mark. Mark Twain: "The Innocents Abroad,""Roughing It." 1872. New York: Library of America, 1984.

Secondary Works

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

Chan, Sucheng, ed. Entry Denied: Exclusion and the ChineseCommunity in America, 1882–. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.

Hom, Marlon K. Songs of Gold Mountain: Cantonese Rhymes from San Francisco Chinatown. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992.

Hyung-Chan, Kim, ed. Asian-Americans and the SupremeCourt: A Documentary History. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1992.

Lee, Josephine. Performing Asian America: Race andEthnicity on the Contemporary Stage. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997.

Lee, Josephine, Imogene L. Lim, and Yuko Matsukawa, eds. Re/collecting Early Asian America: Essays in Cultural History. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002.

Moy, James. Marginal Sights: Staging the Chinese inAmerica. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993.

Salyer, Lucy E. Laws Harsh as Tigers: Chinese Immigrants and the Shaping of Modern Immigration Law. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Sandmeyer, Elmer Clarence. The Anti-Chinese Movement inCalifornia. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Takaki, Ronald. 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.

Yung, Judy. Unbound Feet: A Social History of ChineseWomen in San Francisco. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Elizabeth Archuleta


views updated May 17 2018



ALTERNATE NAMES: Han (Chinese); Manchus; Mongols; Hui; Tibetans


POPULATION: 1.1 billion

LANGUAGE: Austronasian; Gan; Hakka; Iranian; Korean; Mandarin; Miao-Yao; Min; Mongolian; Russian; Tibeto-Burman; Tungus; Turkish; Wu; Xiang; Yue; Zhuang

RELIGION: Taoism; Confucianism; Buddhism


Many people think of the Chinese population as uniform. However, it is really a mosaic made up of many different parts. The land that today is the People's Republic of China has been home to many nationalities. Often they ruled over their own lands and were treated as kingdoms by the Chinese. There have been centuries of intermarriage between the different groups, so there are no longer any "pure" ethnic groups in China.

Sun Yatsen founded the Republic of China in 1912 and called it "The Republic of the Five Nationalities": the Han (or ethnic Chinese), Manchus, Mongols, Hui, and Tibetans. Mao Zedong, the first leader of the People's Republic of China, described it as a multi-ethnic state. China's ethnic groups were recognized and granted equal rights. By 1955, more than 400 groups had come forward and won official status. Later, this number was cut to fifty-six. The Han form the "national majority." They now number more than 1 billion people, by far the largest ethnic group on earth. The other fifty-five ethnic groups form the "national minorities." They now account for 90 million people, or 8 percent of the total Chinese population.

All nationalities are equal under the law. National minorities were granted the right to self-government (zizhi ) by the Chinese state. To increase their populations, national minorities were excused from the "one child per family" rule. Their share of the total Chinese population rose from 5.7 percent in 1964 to 8 percent in 1990.


Five large homelands, called "autonomous regions," have been created for China's major national minorities (Tibetans, Mongols, Uighur, Hui, and Zhuang). In addition, twenty-nine self-governing districts and seventy-two counties have been set up for the other national minorities.

The lands occupied by China's national minorities have great size and importance compared to their small population. All together, two-thirds of China's territory is inhabited by national minorities. China's northern frontier is formed by the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (500,000 square miles or 1,295,000 square kilometers); the northwestern frontier is formed by the Uighur Autonomous Region (617,000 square miles or 1,598,030 square kilometers); the southwestern frontier consists of the Tibet Autonomous Region (471,000 square miles or 1,219,890 square kilometers) and Yunnan Province (168,000 square miles or 435,120 square kilometers).


One of the main ways to identify China's ethnic groups is by language. The following is a list of China's languages (grouped by language family) and the groups that speak them. Population figures are from the 1990 census.


  • Mandarin (over 750 million)
  • Wu (90 million)
  • Gan (25 million)
  • Xiang (48 million)
  • Hakka (37 million)
  • Yue (50 million)
  • Min (40 million)


  • Turkish (Uighur, Kazakh, Salar, Tatar, Uzbek, Yugur, Kirghiz: 8.6 million)
  • Mongolian (Mongols, Bao'an, Dagur, Santa, Tu: 5.6 million)
  • Tungus (Manchus, Ewenki, Hezhen, Oroqen, Xibo: 10 million)
  • Korean (1.9 million)


  • Zhuang (Zhuang, Buyi, Dai, Dong, Gelao, Li, Maonan, Shui, Tai: 22.4 million)
  • Tibeto-Burman (Tibetans, Achang, Bai, Derong, Hani, Jingpo, Jino, Lahu, Lhopa, Lolo, Menba, Naxi, Nu, Pumi, Qiang: 13 million)
  • Miao-Yao (Miao, Yao, Mulao, She, Tujia: 16 million)
  • Austronasian (Benlong, Gaoshan [excluding Taiwanese], Bulang, Wa: 452,000)


  • Russian (13,000)
  • Iranian (Tajik: 34,000)

Some dialects vary widely. For example, Mandarin can be divided into four regions: northern, western, southwestern, and eastern.

Mandarin Chinese is increasingly spoken as a second language by the national minorities.


Each ethnic group in China has its own myths, but many myths are shared by groups in the same language family. Many different Chinese groups share an ancient creation myth that explains from where human beings came. According to this tale, humans and gods lived in peace long ago. Then the gods began fighting. They flooded the earth and destroyed all the people. But a brother and sister escaped by hiding in a huge pumpkin and floating on the water. When they came out of the pumpkin, they were alone in the world. If they did not marry, no more people would ever be born. But brothers and sisters were not supposed to marry each other.

The brother and sister decided to each roll a big stone down a hill. If one stone landed on top of the other, it meant Heaven wanted them to marry. If the stones rolled away from each other, Heaven did not approve. But the brother secretly hid one stone on top of another at the bottom of the hill. He and his sister rolled their two stones. Then he led her to the ones he had hidden. After they got married, the sister gave birth to a lump of flesh. The brother cut it into twelve pieces, and he threw them in different directions. They became the twelve peoples of ancient China.

This myth was begun by the Miao, but it spread widely. It was retold by the Chinese and by the national minorities of southern and southwest China.


Many national minorities have preserved their native religions. However, they have also been influenced by the three major religions of China: Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism.

Taoism may be called the national religion of the Chinese people. It is based on ancient religions involving magic and nature worship. Around the sixth century

BC, the main ideas of Taoism were collected in a book called the Daode jing. It is thought to have been written by the sage Lao-tzu. Taoism is based on a belief in Dao (or Tao), a spirit of harmony that drives the universe.

In contrast to Taoism, Confucianism is based on the teachings of a human being, Confucius (551479 bc). He believed it is natural for human beings to be good to each other. Confucius was called the "father of Chinese philosophy." He tried to establish a system of moral values based on reason and human nature. Confucius was not considered a divine being in his lifetime. Later, some people came to regard him as a god. However, this belief never gained many followers.

Unlike Taoism and Confucianism, Buddhism did not originate in China. It was brought to China from India. It was begun by an Indian prince, Siddhartha Gautama (c.563-c.483 bc), in the sixth century bc. In Buddhism, a person's state of mind matters more than rituals. Mahayana Buddhism, one of the two main branches of Buddhism, came to China in the first century ad. It taught the Four Holy Truths discovered by the Buddha: 1) life consists of suffering; 2) suffering comes from desire; 3) to overcome suffering, one must overcome desire; 4) to overcome desire, one must follow the "Eightfold Path" and reach a state of perfect happiness (nirvana ). Buddhism has had a deep influence on all classes and nationalities in China.


Most of the many holidays celebrated in China were begun by the ethnic Chinese. However, many are shared by the groups. The dates are usually on the lunar calendar (which is based on the moon rather than the sun). The following are among the most important:

The Spring Festival (or Chinese New Year) lasts about a week, from January 21 to February 20. It begins with a midnight meal on New Year's Eve. At dawn, the house is lighted and gifts are offered to the ancestors and the gods. Friends and relatives visit each other and share delicious feasts, where the main dish is Chinese dumplings (jiaozi ). Children receive giftsusually money in a red envelope (hongbao). The Lantern Festival (Dengjie ), held around March 5, is a holiday for children. Houses are lighted and large paper lanterns of every shape and color are hung in public places. A special cake (yanxiao ) made of sticky rice is eaten.

The Qingming is a feast of the dead at the beginning of April. On this day, families visit the tombs of their ancestors and clean the burial ground. They offer flowers, fruits, and cakes to those who have died. The Mid-Autumn Festival (or Moon Festival) is a harvest celebration at the beginning of October. The main dish is "moon cakes." The Dragon-Boat Festival is usually held at the same time. The National Day of China on October 1 marks the founding of the People's Republic of China. It is celebrated in grand style. All the main buildings and city streets are lit up.


The birth of a child, especially a boy, is considered an important and joyous event. The older marriage customs have given way to freer ways of choosing partners. Under China's communist government, the marriage ceremony has become a sober occasion involving only the bride and groom, some witnesses, and government officials. However, private celebrations are held with friends and relatives. In major cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou, wealthy families enjoy Western-style marriages. However, the traditional rituals are still alive in the rural areas.

Because of China's large population, cremation has become common. Following a death, family and close friends attend private ceremonies.


Close interpersonal relations (guanxi ) characterize Chinese society, not only within the family, but also among friends and peers. Numerous feasts and festivals throughout the year strengthen individual and community ties. Visiting friends and relatives is an important social ritual. Guests bring gifts such as fruits, candies, cigarettes, or wine. The host usually offers a specially prepared meal.

Most young people like to choose a husband or wife on their own. But many still get help from their parents, relatives, or friends. The role of the "go-between" is still important.


From the 1950s to the late 1970s, many ancient structures were torn down and replaced by newer buildings. The isolation of China's national minorities has kept their traditional buildings from being destroyed. In the country, many apartment buildings built after 1949 have been replaced by modern two-story houses. There are still housing shortages in growing cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Guangzhou.


In most of China's ethnic groups, the man has always been the head of the family. The lives of women have improved greatly since the communist revolution in 1949. They have made progress in the family, in education, and in the work place. But they are still not equal politically.

Communist China's first leader, Mao Zedong (18931976), wanted people to have large families. From 1949 to 1980, the population of China grew from about 500 million to over 800 million. Since the 1980s, China has had a strict birth control policy of one child per family. It has greatly slowed population growth, especially in cities. National minorities, which make up only 8 percent of the population, are excused from the policy. Thus, their demographic growth is double that of the Han (or majority) Chinese.


Until recently, all Chinesemen and women, young and oldwore the same plain clothing. Today brightly colored down jackets, woolens, and fur overcoats liven the bleak winter scene in the frozen north. In the milder climate of the south, people wear stylish Western suits, jeans, jackets, and sweaters year-round. Famous brand names are a common sight in large cities. The national minorities living near the Han Chinese dress in a similar way. However, those in isolated rural areas continue to wear their traditional styles of clothing.


There are important differences in the diets and cooking methods of China's national minorities. The most common foods in China are rice, flour, vegetables, pork, eggs, and freshwater fish. The Han, or majority Chinese, have always valued cooking skills, and Chinese cuisine is well known all over the world. Traditional Chinese food includes dumplings, wonton, spring rolls, rice, noodles, and roasted Peking duck.


The Han Chinese have always cared about education. They opened the first university over 2,000 years ago. China has more than 1,000 universities and colleges and 800,000 primary and middle schools. Their total enrollment is 180 million. Still, about 5 million school-age children do not enter school or have dropped out. Among China's national minorities, education varies greatly. It depends on local traditions, the nearness of cities, and other factors.


There are enough traditional musical instruments in China to form a complete orchestra. The most popular include the two-stringed violin (er hu ) and the pipa. Organizations that promote traditional Chinese music have preserved the rich musical heritage of many national minorities.

Most nationalities in China only have oral literary works (recited out loud). However, the Tibetans, Mongols, Manchus, Koreans, and Uighur have written literature as well. Some of it has been translated into English and other Western languages. The Han Chinese have produced one of the world's oldest and richest written traditions. Extending over more than 3,000 years, it includes poems, plays, novels, short stories, and other works. Renowned Chinese poets include Li Bai and Du Fu, who lived during the Tang Dynasty (ad 618907). Great Chinese novels include the fourteenth-century Water Margin, Pilgrim to the West, and Golden Lotus.


Economic development in China varies by region. Most lands inhabited by the national minorities are less developed than the Han Chinese regions. A growing number of poor farmers have migrated to cities and to the eastern coast to improve their lives. However, migration has led to unemployment in urban areas. About 70 percent of China's population is still rural, and almost all rural dwellers are farmers.


Many sports in China are played only during seasonal festivals or in certain regions. China's national sport is ping-pong. Other common sports include shadow boxing (wushu or taijiquan ). Western sports have been gaining popularity in China. These include soccer, swimming, badminton, basketball, tennis, and baseball. They are played mainly in schools, colleges, and universities.


Watching television has become a popular evening pastime for a majority of Chinese families. Video cassette recorders are also very common in urban areas. Movies are popular, but theaters are scarce and therefore are attended by only a small portion of the population. Young people enjoy karaoke (singing for others in public) and rock music. The elderly spend their free time attending the Peking Opera, listening to classical music, or playing cards or mahjongg (a tile game). Travel has become popular since the five-day work week was adopted in 1995.


China's fifty-six nationalities all have their own folk art and craft traditions. However, the rich tradition of the Han Chinese is shared by many of China's nationalities.

Calligraphy (artistic lettering) and traditional painting are the most popular folk arts of the Han Chinese. Chinese paper-cutting, embroidery, brocade, colored glaze, jade jewelry, clay sculpture, and dough figurines are famous around the world.

Chess, kite flying, gardening, and landscaping are popular hobbies.


There is a growing gap in China between the rich and the poor. Other social problems include inflation, bribery, gambling, drugs, and the kidnapping of women. Because of the difference between rural and urban standards of living, more than 100 million people have moved to cities in the coastal areas to find better jobs.


Feinstein, Steve. China in Pictures. Minneapolis, Minn.: Lerner Publications Co., 1989.

Harrell, Stevan. Cultural Encounters on China's Ethnic Frontiers. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994.

Heberer, Thomas. China and Its National Minorities: Autonomy or Assimilation? Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1989.

McLenighan, V. People's Republic of China. Chicago: Children's Press, 1984.

O'Neill, Thomas. "Mekong River." National Geographic ( February 1993), 235.

Terrill, Ross. "China's Youth Wait for Tomorrow." National Geographic ( July 1991), 110136.

Terrill, Ross. "Hong Kong Countdown to 1997."National Geographic (February 1991), 103132.


Embassy of the People's Republic of China, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available http:/, 1998.

World Travel Guide. China. [Online] Available, 1998.


views updated Jun 27 2018


By the middle of the nineteenth century the economy, sovereignty, and stability of China were in disarray. The defeat in the two Opium Wars, against the British (1839–1842) and the British and French (1856–1860), fought predominantly to stop the entry of opium into China, forced China to legalize the import of opium and sanction Christian missionary activity; it also led to the European and American control of major Chinese ports. Almost simultaneously, several internal rebellions to overthrow the ruling Ch'ing dynasty further impoverished the country, especially the southern provinces, as war repeatedly ravaged the countryside. The Taiping Rebellion (1851–1864) was especially devastating. In addition to the twenty to thirty million lives lost as a direct result of the armed conflict, millions of Chinese suffered through numerous famines and damaging floods as dams and fields were either raided or destroyed by full-fledged armies or small bands of rebels.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the opportunity to escape extreme poverty—through the 1848 discovery of gold in California and the promise of work and superior wages in Gold Mountain, as America was known in China—attracted a growing number of Chinese to the western shore of the United States, from 325 in 1849 to 20,026 in 1852 (Takaki, p. 79). Usually unable to pay for their own voyage, most of the Chinese came to America through the credit system, where the migrant had to reimburse a Chinese broker or merchant for the ticket for passage plus interest and expenses through his labor in California. Since Gold Mountain was early on seen as a place to earn money and not to reside, most of the workers did not or could not afford to bring their wives and families. As a result, early Chinese communities in America consisted overwhelmingly of men. Until the 1870s the majority of the few Chinese women who came to the United States were prostitutes who, tricked into false marriages or sold by their parents, found themselves "in a condition of debt peonage, under contracts" to repay food and passage to her "master/mistress" (Takaki, p. 121). By 1880, however, the percentage of prostitutes had greatly decreased as more women married and more wives were brought over to join their husbands. It is worth noting that Chinese emigration to Hawaii differed greatly than that to the mainland. The majority of Chinese who traveled to Hawaii were contract laborers who were made to repay their debt by working on sugar plantations. Whereas single men predominantly migrated to America, whole families were encouraged to travel to Hawaii not only to make life more comfortable for workers but also to expand at no great cost the number of possible workers on the plantations.


On mainland America, the first contacts between Chinese and white Americans were usually amiable; the Chinese provided needed labor and were coming from an intriguing country at a time when anything Oriental was seen as novel, amusing, and desirable. As more Chinese emigrated, however, the reception quickly changed from one of curiosity and benevolence to one of ridicule and the view that they were a nuisance. On the rapidly developing West Coast, more Chinese laborers meant more competition for Irish and other poor white workers. In northeastern cities, the menial jobs and the squalor in which the Chinese were forced to live relegated them to a status as inferior creatures to be scorned. Across the country, racism and derogatory stereotypes would dictate how the Chinese were perceived and treated.

As early as 1852 the California state legislature catered to white miners' concerns about Chinese competition and instituted a foreign miners' license tax; although the law was not exclusively directed at them, only Chinese were consistently made to pay a mining license tax that increased repeatedly and arbitrarily. A year later the disenfranchised status of Chinese was confirmed when California's Supreme Court reversed a guilty verdict of a man who killed a Chinese, declaring that Chinese could not be trusted as witnesses in a court of law. Thus it came about that in California, cheating and assaulting a Chinese, from pulling his queue (a hair-style consisting of a shaved front and long ponytail in the back that became a symbol of pride and of Chinese culture for the Chinese and one of ridicule for Americans who likened Chinese queues to the tails of rats) to murdering him were now committed with impunity.

As the reception and consideration of Chinese workers deteriorated, so did opinions of them. On the West Coast, because of racist views of their appearance, the predominantly migrant Chinese were soon perceived to be sneaky and inscrutable bachelors responsible for the moral decline of white women and for the advent of prostitution. They could not be assimilated, were dishonest heathens, stole jobs from white workers, and drove down wages. The misconception that all Chinese were transient sojourners who did not contribute to the U.S. economy further worsened their image; in reality, only 47 percent of Chinese who entered the United States between 1850 and 1882 returned to China, a percentage quite comparable to that of European immigrants (Takaki, pp. 116, 11). By the mid-1850s in the eastern United States, where many Chinese sailors had settled, Chinese and beggary, heathenism, gambling, and opium addiction had become closely associated in people's minds. Chinese association with poor Irish immigrants (many Chinese men married Irish women) provided further proof to many of their inherent inferiority. China was seen as a fallen power that had refused to change for four thousand years; compared to the growing and energetic United States it was something to be pitied at best and exploited at worst. As John Kuo Wei Tchen has noted, "Race, physiognomy, phrenology, and character were becoming so intertwined that the views of Chinese as equals or as people to be admired and respected were becoming less and less possible" in the United States (p. 217).


If the perception of Chinese was decidedly negative, their labor was still in great demand. Between 1862 and 1869 nine to ten thousand Chinese worked on the western section of the transcontinental railroad; as a result of the insufferable working conditions, at least a thousand died. During the construction more and more Chinese were employed to replace Irish crews; compared to the Irish, the Chinese were seen as more industrious, soberer, and less demanding. After the completion of the railroad many Chinese established themselves near the new railroad towns and turned to farming, fishing, factory work (particularly cigar making and in woolen mills), or laundering, a non-threatening occupation normally reserved for women where Chinese were usually tolerated but still not free from abuse. Frustrated by the increasing demands of Irish and African American workers, American businessmen imported Chinese laborers specifically to toil in the fields of the South or break strikes in New England manufactures; due to the reputation they had gained doing railroad work as meek, docile, and beasts of burden, the Chinese were brought to the United States to displace malcontent workers and teach them their place: this is arguably one of the first instances of the model minority myth being applied to Asian Americans. Seen by the industrialists as cheap labor and by the predominantly poor white working class as strikebreakers and takers of jobs, the Chinese were further alienated and reviled. Both views of the Chinese were reinforced and facilitated by their isolation, forced in many cases by city ordinances, racism, continued threats of violence, and lack of judicial or political recourse.


The severe recession of the 1870s, along with incendiary speeches by anti-Chinese demagogues and racist representations (see, for example, Tchen, Matsukawa, and Moon for further discussions of Chinese in cartoons, advertising, and songs), pushed many Americans to protest more openly what they believed to be the cause of economic demise: cheap Chinese labor. Cartoons likening Chinese to rats, advertisements for starch that pictured unemployed Chinese launderers and happy white families, and songs like the anonymous "John Chinaman" (1855) helped to portray the Chinese as vermin who threatened to take the country away from hardworking Americans. "John Chinaman" sings about various stereotypes and how the Chinese, through their own volition, have failed to assimilate. To John Chinaman, America—the presumed singer—regrets being so welcoming because it had originally

thought you'd open wide your ports. . . .
I thought you'd cut your queue off, John, . . .
But I find you'll lie and steal too—. . .
For our gold is all you're after, John.

(Moon, pp. 36–37)

Indeed, (white) America is sad to attest that because of John Chinaman's dishonesty, cultural attachment, diet of "rats and puppies," thieving, and greed, he will never become a true American nor a welcomed guest. The Chinese, in this and similar popular songs, are sneaky opportunists who scheme and lie in order to claim America's resources. In addition to the fear that Chinese would break down the labor system and bring white Americans to starve, many worried about a massive emigration, possibly armed, of Chinese who would take over the land (referred to as "yellow peril") and about the possible miscegenation with an inferior race. This anti-Chinese sentiment lead to numerous lynchings and riots against the Chinese and their communities, brought about by the passage of the 1875 Page Law, which banned the immigration of Chinese contract laborers and the importation of Chinese women for immoral purposes and culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited all Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States. The Exclusion Act was not an effective solution for the lack of jobs; at .002 percent of the nation's population, Chinese laborers did not pose a real threat to the white workforce. The immigration ban did, however, lessen the tensions between the working and governing classes and appeased the concerns of nativists who wanted to maintain a white America. The act was renewed in 1892, and in 1902 Chinese immigration was made permanently illegal; the act would not be repealed until 1943 as China became an American ally in World War II.


To help Chinese deal with white people and provide them with a voice and language Americans would understand, Wong Sam and assistants published An English-Chinese Phrase Book (1875), which was distributed for free at Wells Fargo offices in towns where Chinese Americans lived. The bilingual phrase book announces that it "contain[s] strategy and tactics for business and criminal law" and includes such phrases as "The price is too high," "He defrauded me out of my salary," "He tried to assassinate me," "I understand how to work. Have you any work for me to take home to do?" and "I will leave you when my month is up" (Wong, pp. 94–110).

While the difficulties of the Chinese in being admitted into American society and overcoming the stereotypes of being submissive, inscrutable, and unassimilable may be hinted at in the phrase book, they are quite apparent in the earliest fiction featuring Chinese characters. Although anti-Chinese sentiment was widespread by the time Ambrose Bierce, Joaquin Miller, and Bret Harte published their first stories, the three western frontier colorists, as William F. Wu points out, refrained from "depict[ing] the Chinese immigrants as a threat, instead taking more tolerant or even sympathetic positions" (p. 13). The early stories show Chinese as individuals who participate in the everyday life of the West and who too often become victims of senseless violence and/or unveiled hostility "because they were foreigners, and of another race, religion, and color, and worked for what wages they could get" (Harte, "Wan Lee, the Pagan," p. 136). Even in stories depicting some Chinese as good and kind, however, stereotypes are often used to describe them or to contrast the exceptional protagonist with the base and most widely known type of Chinese.

The cynical journalist and satirist Ambrose Bierce (1842–1914?), in such early stories as "The Haunted Valley" (1871) and "The Night-Doings at 'Deadman's'" (1877), makes no effort to portray Chinese characters in a positive light but instead emphatically criticizes and condemns the violence and hostility directed at them. Bierce's unsympathetic characterization of Chinese characters should not be read as an example of Sinophobia, or fear and intolerance of Chinese; Bierce was commonly known as being one of the worst misanthropes of his time and "frequently wrote pieces where none of the characters were very likeable" (Wu, p. 23). Rather, anti-Chinese violence and prejudice are used in Bierce's stories to illustrate how malicious and excessive people had become. Joaquin Miller (1837–1913) takes a different approach in presenting the sole Chinese protagonist in his first novel, First Fam'lies of the Sierras (1876). The "Byron of the Rockies," as Miller was known for his poetry of the West, portrays Washee-Washee as a laundryman who occasionally steals, is unambiguously amoral, and ends up as an opium addict; nevertheless, as Wu points out, Washee-Washee does not pose a real threat to white Americans as his "character is that of a playful rascal, annoying but less than an object of real hatred" (p. 24). Chinese launderers are as much a part of the western landscape as gold miners and mountains, and, Miller argues, should be left unharmed.

By comparison, the local colorist Bret Harte (1806–1902) represents Chinese protagonists who are not free from stereotypes but who are more complex and sympathetic than what was normally portrayed in the popular press. In "An Episode of Fiddletown" (1873), "Wan Lee, the Pagan" (1874), and Gabriel Conroy (1875–1876), Harte's Chinese characters "are all presented as loyal and skillful, yet sometimes uncooperative" (Wu, p. 14). In "Wan Lee, the Pagan" the narrator presents three distinct characters: Hop Sing is a refined old friend who has no equals among the "Christian traders of San Francisco"; Wang is a silent court juggler who can conjure up a baby among other "weird, mysterious, and astounding" feats; and Wan Lee is a ten-year-old mischievous trickster (pp. 125–126). Following an evening at Hop Sing's where Wang conjures a one-year-old Wan Lee, the narrator becomes the infant's godfather. Nine years later, Hop Sing sends the boy away from San Francisco, asking the narrator to save him "from the hands of the younger members of your Christian and highly civilized race who attend the enlightened schools" (p. 128). Away from the city, the young Wan Lee becomes a loyal and trusted servant, albeit with a penchant for trickery. Upon his return to San Francisco, the narrator fails to remember Hop Sing's warning and regards Wan Lee's avoidance of "crowded public streets" as "superstitious premonition" rather than as a realistic fear of violence (p. 135). A few months later, riots and anti-Chinese violence erupt in the city, and Wan Lee is stoned to death by a "mob of half-grown boys and Christian school children" (p. 137). In this story Harte calls attention to the religious hypocrisy of some white Americans and decries violence toward the Chinese. Ironically, however, it was the stereotypical name "Hop Sing" that was picked up to name the Chinese cook in the popular American western television series Bonanza in the 1960s.

The most popular piece of the time, however, was Harte's short poem "Plain Language from Truthful James" (1870), also known as "The Heathen Chinee." The poem, which was the inspiration for numerous songs, presents two white men playing cards with a Chinese man who pretends not to understand the game. Despite the white men's constant cheating, the Chinese keeps winning until, frustrated, one of them "went for that heathen Chinee" exclaiming, "'We are ruined by Chinese cheap labor'" (p. 216). The white men's hypocrisy, the similarities between the white men and the Chinese, and the irony of the white men being out-cheated were unfortunately lost on many readers, and, much to the chagrin of Harte, the stereotype of the conniving and devious Chinese was perpetuated on account of his poem.

The American reading public would have to wait until 1887 to read a first-person narrative written by a Chinese. Yan Phou Lee's (b. 1861) autobiography When I Was a Boy in China not only depicts, as the title infers, the author's life in China but also offers many insights into the American experience from a hybrid Chinese American perspective.

See alsoCalifornia Gold Rush; Ethnology; Foreigners; Immigration; Labor; Orientalism; San Francisco


Primary Works

Harte, Bret. "Plain Language from Truthful James." 1870. In his The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Writings, pp. 215–216. New York: Penguin, 2001.

Harte, Bret. "Wan Lee, the Pagan." 1874. In his The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Writings, pp. 123–137. New York: Penguin, 2001.

Wong Sam and Assistants. An English-Chinese Phrase Book. 1875. In The Big Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature, edited by Jeffery Paul Chan et al., pp. 94–110. New York: Meridian, 1991.

Secondary Works

Matsukawa, Yuko. "Representing the Oriental in Nineteenth-Century Trade Cards." In Re/Collecting Early Asian America: Essays in Cultural History, edited by Josephine Lee, Imogene L. Lim, and Yuko Matsukawa, pp. 200–217. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002.

Moon, Krystyn R. Yellowface: Creating the Chinese in American Popular Music and Performance, 1850s–1920s. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2005.

Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. Rev. ed. Boston: Back Bay, 1998.

Tchen, John Kuo Wei. New York before Chinatown: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture, 1776–1882. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Wu, William F. The Yellow Peril: Chinese Americans in American Fiction 1850–1940. Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1982.

Nikolas Huot


views updated May 29 2018

Chinese Group of languages spoken by c.95% of the population of China and by millions more in Taiwan, Hong Kong, se Asia and elsewhere. There are six major languages, which are not mutually intelligible; the most common is Mandarin, spoken by c.66% of the Chinese population. All Chinese languages are written in a single common non-alphabetic script, whose characters number in the thousands and in some cases date back several thousand years. This single writing-system leads to the traditional classification of all Chinese languages as dialects of one language. Chinese has twice as many users as any other language in the world. See also Cantonese


views updated May 21 2018

Chi·nese / chīˈnēz; -ˈnēs/ • adj. of or relating to China or its language, culture, or people. ∎  belonging to or relating to the people forming the dominant ethnic group of China and widely dispersed elsewhere. Also called Han.• n. (pl. same) 1. the Chinese language.2. a native or national of China, or a person of Chinese descent.


views updated May 23 2018

Chinese Chinese box each of a set of boxes graduated in size so as to fit inside each other.
Chinese wall an insurmountable barrier to understanding (alluding to the Great Wall of China); on the Stock Exchange, a prohibition against the passing of confidential information from one department of a financial institution to another.
Chinese water torture a form of torture whereby a constant drip of water is caused to fall on to the victim's head.
Chinese whispers a game in which a message is distorted by being passed around in a whisper.