Chinese Immigration


The first ten years of the new millennium has been marked by continuous debate in the United States over immigration reform. This is not a new phenomenon, however, and the agitation over Mexican immigration in the southern states is but one chapter in a long line of controversies involving non-European foreign immigration. Indeed, history curricula are replete with discussion and review of the first and second waves of European immigration into Ellis Island, NY and the rest of the great eastern seaboard cities. To this end, many students come through high school with the impression that immigrants only move east to west, unaware of the thousands of individuals who came to America from Asia and Latin America.

In 1849, with the discovery of gold in California, thousands embarked on a new life not only from eastern states but also from the Pacific: Chinese, mostly men, migrated in the thousands to the west coast looking for work. However, work was difficult and many immigrants found harsh discrimination from both white society and legislation. Naturalization was reserved for white immigrants only and owning land was often prohibited for Chinese workers. As time wore on and more and more Chinese immigrants made their way to California, the new immigrants were forced out of mining into more dangerous work, with Chinese labor making up the bulk of workers who laid the western tracks of the Central Pacific Railroad. Eventually, Central Pacific would employ 13,500 workers, 12,000 of which were Chinese, working, and even dying, for the lowest wages.

By 1890, Chinese immigration would reach its pinnacle with 107,488 immigrants residing in California. The cultural and legal reaction to the “Chinese question” spanned from the sympathetic to the outright violent and destructive. American reaction to immigration has always been varied and often reflects how we as Americans define what it means to be American. As one immigrant aptly put it, “What then is the American…?” With this in mind, students will be approaching the following question:

How was a national identity constructed by the American reaction to Chinese immigration?

Introduction to Kit:

In the following kit, students will be presented with both documents and images that will assist them in answering the question, “How was a national identity constructed by the American reaction to Chinese immigration?” It is important to keep in mind what the question is NOT asking – the question is not asking what the experience of Chinese immigrants was from the Chinese perspective. The documents and images really attempt to view Chinese immigration through the eyes and worldview of 19th century Americans. The documents approach immigration from the perspectives of both “ordinary” individuals and also the United States and Californian governments.

Introduction to Collection:

The majority of the photos and documents found in this kit were gathered from the Library of Congress website, specifically the Chinese in California: 1850 -1900 collection. This particular collection houses hundreds of documents and images with the intent to tell the story of the Chinese immigrant in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. Most of the images and writings are a part of efforts by Harper’s and Wasp magazines to cover the growing problem and conflict of the influx of Chinese workers into the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas and therefore are highly subjective. Some of the other photographs are from other independent sources but are still housed under the Library’s Chinese collections.

The kit contains 20 documents (including one timeline) divided between government legislation and personal writings/accounts concerning the “Chinese question.” There are 32 images that depict Chinese immigration from multiple perspectives. Images include photos, political cartoons, drawings, advertisements, and newspapers etchings.


A partnership between the College of William & Mary School of Education, the University of Kentucky College of Education,
and the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources Program