Chinese Immigration in the 19th Century America

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1. Introduction

Since its founding, the United States has attracted immigrants from all over the world and consists of a variety of different cultures. Immigration has had an enormous impact on American society and economy and shaped the country remarkably. American was dominated by the image of the melting pot that “melts up” all race differences and cultures to become on American culture. The ideas of multiculturalism started at the end of the nineteenth century and turned into the concept of cultural pluralism that defined the nation as a mixture of diverse ethnicities with different cultural backgrounds, all co-existing and contributing to the new nation. Over the past centuries, there have been debates on how to define the “real” American and the “real” American identity. A lot of these struggles also led to Civil War (1861-1865). After war, congress passed the 14th Amendment to answer the question of whether former slaves could be citizens of the United States. The Amendment says that all persons born and naturalized in the United States are citizens of the United States. But debates on who is a “real” American, who could stay in the country and who should get kicked out continued. One group of immigrants that had a huge influence on the prospering economy and the growing expansion of nineteenth century America, especially in the west, were the Chinese. Significant Chinese immigration began with the discovery of gold in California and the following Gold Rush in 1849. First the Chinese were labouring in mines and later also in agriculture and industry. The Transcontinental Railroad also provided a major source of labour for the Chinese. During the expansion of the west, there was a need for many unskilled and cheap workers. Non-Chinese workers despised the Chinese because many of them lost their jobs and due to the Chinese immigrants that would work for less money than any other workers. Since many white workers were faced with unemployment, anti-Chinese movements started to advocate law for to be enforced against the Chinese. One of their first repressive acts was the Miner’s Tax of 1852. In the following years, the anti-Chinese attitudes rose and led to the groundbreaking Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. This Act still remains as the only long U.S history law to grand immigration solely on the grounds of race.

In those times, political relations between China and American were often the central topics in big national newspapers throughout the country. Political cartoons, illustrations and editorials commented on the immigration issues, the Sino-American relationship and debates about the Chinese immigrants. The cartoons reveal the cultural and ethnic division of the nineteenth century society and provide a major source on how Chinese lived in 19th century America. This paper will examine some of these comics and illustrations from 1857 until the Exclusion era of 1882 to give an insight on the sentiment of those times and how they Chinese were recognized by many Americans. Within a couple of years the attitude towards the Chinese immigrants changed rapidly and they were often the target of satirical and nasty cartoons. The editorials and cartoons were mainly read by a white, male upper-class readership but mirror the ethnic diversity and the different views on the “Chinese Question.”

2. Coming to America

2.1 Chinese Camp in the Mines

The drawing Chinese Camp in the Mines was painted by J.D Borthwick and belongs to his illustration book 3 Years in California which was published in 1857. Borthwick´s illustration is one of the first accounts on Chinese immigrants that came to California. The drawing portrays Chinese labours at their camp in the mines of California. The right bottom corner shows a group of Chinese men sitting in a circle around a pot of rice. The men, all dressed in traditional Chinese clothes, are eating rice with chopsticks. Right next to the group on the left there is a...
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