[Photo story] China-US relations in the late 19th century: Is history repeating itself?

Were China-US relations always as they are now? Or was there something that changed the situation? Historical photo collector Hsu Chung-mao presents powerful images from US magazines in the late 19th century, which depict sinophobia in US society and difficulties in China-US relations more than a century ago. Are these images proof that history repeats itself?
In 1904, The Judge magazine ran this cartoon titled The New Square-Deal Deck, with Theodore Roosevelt saying, "Come, now, gentlemen; it is time to throw aside that worn-out deck and try one which will give both of you a square deal." The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was repeatedly extended, sparking anger from the Chinese government and overseas Chinese. In the picture, a Chinese and Uncle Sam take turns to play their political cards, neither side willing to give in.
In 1904, The Judge magazine ran this cartoon titled The New Square-Deal Deck, with Theodore Roosevelt saying, "Come, now, gentlemen; it is time to throw aside that worn-out deck and try one which will give both of you a square deal." The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was repeatedly extended, sparking anger from the Chinese government and overseas Chinese. In the picture, a Chinese and Uncle Sam take turns to play their political cards, neither side willing to give in.

(All images courtesy of Hsu Chung-mao.)

Modern relations between China and the West arose in discord. As the West grew in industrial might, it sourced for materials from overseas markets. They came to China seeking to build relations, but it was not just commercial ships that arrived — there were also strong fleets to protect maritime trade interests.

Despite the advent of a new era, the ancient Chinese empire stubbornly held to its pride and viewed these visits in the traditional sense of relations between Chinese and “foreign barbarians”. Opium trade issues led to the British opening China’s doors with gunboats and to their reputation of forcing drugs to be sold to the Chinese. With the Second Opium War of 1860, the Western powers deployed envoys to the Chinese capital of Beijing and obtained land concessions in major cities. China bore the humiliation of paying huge amounts of war reparations and a loss of sovereignty.

Given the friendliness of the US, when China first sent students overseas to study, they chose to go to the US and not Britain, which was then the world’s most powerful country.

US-China relationship's friendly beginnings

US-China relations came later, but started off friendlier than British-French relations. In 1868, China and the US signed the Burlingame Treaty. China had quite a good impression of the US because of this treaty, as she saw it as the first equal agreement that had been forged in recent diplomatic history.

The treaty stated that each side had a right and duty to appoint consuls, that US citizens could establish schools in China and vice versa, that people had an inalienable right to migrate, and that the US had no right and no intention to intervene in China’s domestic administration. Given the friendliness of the US, when China first sent students overseas to study, they chose to go to the US and not Britain, which was then the world’s most powerful country.

The treaty also provided a legal basis for Chinese labourers to migrate to the US. The California gold fever of 1848 drew many Chinese migrants, but the real wave of labourers came with the construction of the Pacific Railroad. The earliest Chinese labourers who came to open up the US West Coast were mostly from the coastal areas of Guangdong. Nearly nobody could afford the costly travel fees, and so a tightly organised guarantor system was born, usually headed by a broker from a particular clan. Those who wanted to make the journey had to sign a contract with the broker, who arranged the ship and costs.

But when the railway was opened, not one Chinese worker was invited, a frequently cited example of regrettable discrimination.

On reaching the US, the workers had to repay the fees with part of their salary or by working for a particular period of time. As most of these workers were illiterate and did not know about salary standards in the US, the contracts were usually unfair to the workers. In Cantonese, such trades were known as "selling piglets" (卖猪仔).

When the American Civil War ended in 1865, it was a time of peaceful development. Construction of the Pacific Railroad was accelerated. At its peak, there were 15,000 Chinese involved in construction. They worked all day and night and were prepared to live in harsh conditions, and showed more industry and grit than the Irish, who made up most of the white labourers. But when the railway was opened, not one Chinese worker was invited, a frequently cited example of regrettable discrimination.

This strong competitiveness sparked anger and unhappiness among the low-level white workers, who violently attacked Chinese and put strong political pressure on senators.

This influx of Chinese sparked unexpected cultural conflict and friction between China and the US. The real problem was that after the railway went into operation in 1869, the Chinese migrant workers moved to the East and West Coasts to make their living. As China was still recovering from the Taiping Rebellion, most Chinese workers chose to stay in the US, working hard at various jobs in big cities for low wages. Their aim was to give the next generation a good education so that they could gradually move out of first-generation migrant poverty. This strong competitiveness sparked anger and unhappiness among the low-level white workers, who violently attacked Chinese and put strong political pressure on senators.

The Chinese Exclusion Act

In 1882, the US Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which stopped Chinese workers from entering the US for the next 10 years, while imposing strict rules on the naturalisation of Chinese. This was the first time that the US implemented immigration restrictions targeted at a specific race that also effectively went against the spirit of the Burlingame Treaty. In 1892, Congress extended the Chinese Exclusion Act by another 10 years, and then indefinitely in 1902, which was equivalent to the US shutting the door on free migration of the Chinese.

To put it simply, the external environment for China-US relations was good, but friction happened mainly because US workers rejected the Chinese work culture.

The business community and ordinary people in China came up with policies to counter such discrimination against Chinese. The Shanghai Chamber of Commerce took the lead in calling for the authorities to change the harsh laws within two months or else the whole of China would boycott US goods. Business associations everywhere in China were quick to respond and call for the Chinese to come together in resistance through the newspapers.

The United States Asia Chamber of Commerce felt the anger of the Chinese people and was afraid that the US's considerable trade interests in China would be affected. It quickly wrote to President Theodore Roosevelt to ask for the Chinese Exclusion Act to be amended to allow free movement in and out of the US for Chinese non-labourers, to prevent a total boycott of US products, churches, and ships. 

President Roosevelt realised the severity of the problem, but stuck to his "carrot and stick" diplomacy. He issued an executive order to allow Chinese non-labourers such as businessmen, students, tourists, and officials preferential treatment in freely moving in and out of the US, and announced that all officials who harassed or discriminated against Chinese would be removed and investigated. On the other hand, he exerted diplomatic pressure on China in asking the Qing court to clamp down on the boycott of US goods. It was not until 1943 when China and the US fought together against Japanese imperialism that the discriminatory Chinese Exclusion Act was removed.

To put it simply, the external environment for China-US relations was good, but friction happened mainly because US workers rejected the Chinese work culture. This led to political hostility towards Chinese workers, which was extrapolated into China-US diplomatic friction. In some sense, the problem of domestic economic factors evolving into political and diplomatic issues is also recurring in today’s China-US relations. These images from US magazines in the late 19th century show the sinophobia in US society and the difficulties in China-US relations in such a political climate.

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"Chinese emigration to America-sketch on board the Pacific mail steamship 'Alaska'", Harper’s Weekly, 20 May 1876. The steamship Alaska, going from Hong Kong to San Francisco. Tickets cost US$50 each, with folding canvas beds in the cabin — travellers could add their own blankets if they wished. Meals on board cost an additional US60 to US$70; each person was provided with a standard bowl, to limit how much one could eat at each meal. The food was mediocre, with beans and soup, but almost no meat. 
"Sunday service on board a pacific mail steam-ship", Harper’s Weekly, 16 June 1877. The ship in the picture is preparing to go from San Francisco to Japan. Most of the Chinese are well-dressed and wearing bowler hats. They were probably wealthier and of a higher status than the coolies as they were able to bring their families on these trips. As the journeys were long and there was no other entertainment on board, it was a good chance to spread the word of God. Nearly every mail ship had a pastor attached, and even without one, the captain would hold the service. Sunday services were popular, with the cabin filled to capacity and some people having to hold on to the railings to listen to the sermon. There was an element of white superiority to this, as many pastors believed it was the work of God for Chinese to bring American culture and Christianity back to China.

A pastor of the time wrote: “God has brought the Chinese among us, so that we can tell them the story of the cross. We teach them so that they can discard their foolish heathen idols and take away the sin of the world, and become God’s lambs.” Businessman Gilbert M. Sproat said to the Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration that “all progress in China has long ago stopped”, while “the evil attains complete development”. He added that the Chinese were “in a state of low animal apathy”, and cared only for self-preservation.
"Chinese Immigrants at the San Francisco custom-house", Harper’s Weekly, 3 February 1877. It was a major event in San Francisco each time a ship full of Chinese came in. Police, customs officials, merchants, and others would gather. Each ship would bring about 1,000 Chinese workers, sometimes even more. As the Chinese workers had various ways of smuggling contraband and there were not enough customs officials, the police would cordon off areas and make disembarking Chinese workers stand in rows of about 40 to 45 people each for the customs officials to examine each person’s belongings (Note 1). After the inspection, each name was verified with their broker before they were allowed to go. It was a slow and tedious process (Note 2).
"The Coming Curse", The Judge magazine, circa 1885-1890. These images depict Americans’ fear of the Chinese taking everything from them. The bottom left illustration shows a Chinese in a bowler hat grabbing a frightened, off-balance white man by the collar and hitting him with a bat, symbolising that the Chinese have changed society and are about to take control of the US. The other illustrations show the Chinese taking over jobs like plumbing, painting, window cleaning, babysitting, as well as tailoring and laundry, while the Americans look on. The illustration in the middle shows a wealthy Chinese in a Western suit riding in a luxurious carriage, smoking an expensive cigar - most white Americans at the time would be uncomfortable at the thought of Chinese being in the upper class of American society.
east west
"How it is, Herself", The Wasp magazine, 19 May 1883. Amid overwhelming anti-Chinese sentiment on the West Coast, Chinese workers took advantage of the railway and moved to cities on the East Coast, and took over the jobs of white workers and others with often lower pay. This illustration shows the respective positions of the East and West Coasts to the Chinese problem. The Wasp magazine labelled itself as being on the side of the whites, and being located in the West Coast, its negative depiction of the Chinese was even stronger.
chinese and woman
"Out In The Cold", The Judge magazine, 22 March 1884. On the right of the picture, an Irishman and black man are warm indoors, making faces at the Chinese man and white woman who are not allowed inside because they have no vote. The Chinese man shivers in the cold wind, while the white woman continues to beat on the door for a place in US politics.

The 15th Amendment following the Civil War gave the blacks the vote, while women in the US got the vote with the 19th Amendment in 1920. Rights of citizenship for the Chinese were always vaguely defined and disputed. In fact, the 15th Amendment declared that the "right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude". There was an opportunity to bring the Chinese into political life in the US, but anti-Chinese forces used other laws to stop the Chinese from exercising their rights as citizens. In the end, the Chinese Exclusion Act made the Chinese the only race not allowed to become Americans, leaving an indelible stain on American history.
"Be Just — Even to John Chinaman", The Judge magazine, 1893. After the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, the US's attitude towards the Chinese deteriorated, putting the Chinese at a political disadvantage at the time. To gain the recognition of the whites, the Chinese gave their children Anglo-Saxon names and participated enthusiastically in church activities and various donation drives, to remove their heathen image, while disassociating themselves from the blacks. One prominent local white person said: "Many Chinese friends come to me saying they have given a lot of money towards Civil War bonds, hoping their children can go to white public schools. I say to them, you may not have anything to do with the blacks now, but that is not good enough. You should also clean up your stores and your children, then we'll see!"
"The Three Troublesome Children", The Wasp magazine, 16 December 1881. The image shows Columbia (representing America) surrounded by three mischievous children ⁠— a Chinese pulling her hair, a Mormon caressing her right thigh, and a Native American Indian sitting on the ground playing with toy soldiers ⁠— representing three political difficulties for the US.

First, the issue of the anti-Chinese movement, which was gradually becoming more politically significant. Second, the Mormons, who claimed to have found instructions in the Bible for polygamy ⁠— they felt this should be constitutionally protected under religious freedom and some believers tested the law with multiple marriages, going all the way up to the Supreme Court when they were found guilty of polygamy, only to have their appeals denied. Congress also passed more laws against polygamy, stirring an outcry from the community. Finally, the dispute over the West Indies (represented by the Indian).

The US implemented the Monroe Doctrine against European influence in Latin America, which sparked the Spanish-American War. On the right, a man reads a paper headlined “Politics”, with dollar signs below, symbolising major political disputes that would require expensive measures and policies to resolve.
"Why You No Cuttee Off Your Queue?", Puck magazine, 31 January 1912. The Chinese on the left holds a pair of scissors called Enlightenment, and has cut off his queue, symbolising Servitude. He asks Uncle Sam why he has not cut off his queue symbolising Partisan Politics, and goes against the American spirit by discriminating against the Chinese. While the situation for the Chinese worsened after the Chinese Exclusion Act, some Chinese still showed loyalty to the US through their actions such as fighting for the US in various wars.

For example, when the US Navy destroyed the entire Spanish fleet in Manila Bay in May 1898, many sailors were Chinese. But despite the great victory, these Chinese sailors were not allowed entry into the US due to the Chinese Exclusion Act. Admiral of the Navy George Dewey wrote to the Secretary of the Navy and other senior officials in protest, but was unable to break through governmental obstacles. All of the other participants in this war were treated as heroes on their return and even received medals from Congress, making it ironic that the Chinese who also bled and fought were not even allowed into the US.
"The Chinese Question", Harper’s Weekly, 17 February 1871. Since the mid-19th century, the Chinese in California’s mining areas were frequently chased away, robbed, and even killed by the white labourers. In 1857, The Warren Republican wrote: “In the past five years, violence has swept this land, with hundreds of Chinese killed. Not a day goes by without a Chinese being killed.” On the right of this picture, an Irishman — the most anti-Chinese group — leads a knife-wielding mob, while a slogan on the left says the influx of Chinese must be stopped by either the ballot or bullet, highlighting the element of threat in racism.

The background to the accompanying article was Democrat senator for New York William Tweed proposing to prohibit Chinese in New York from engaging in various commercial activities, with a penalty of a fine or jail term — the law was not passed. The writer felt the proposal went against the American spirit of equality for all, and if other states followed suit and disregarded the US constitution, then it would add to the already increasing sinophobia. In 1850, California passed an unconstitutional law disallowing Native Americans and blacks from testifying in trials against white people. A circuit court judge even extended the definition to include Asians as Native Americans, and so no Chinese person was allowed to testify in any case involving persecution of a Chinese by a white person. This law resulted in a lack of recourse for persecuted Chinese, and was only revoked 20 years later.
“Every dog (no distinction of color) has his day”, Harper’s Weekly, 8 February 1879. A Native American chief tells a Chinese official: "Pale face 'fraid you crowd him out, as he did me." But the Chinese official folds his arms and looks into the distance, seemingly uninterested.

In the late 19th century, the concept of the "yellow peril" arose, advocating the damage and threat posed to the whites by yellow-skinned people, becoming the strongest reasoning for politicians to be sinophobic.

In The Fable of the Yellow Terror, Mark Twain shows his deep fear of China. He uses an allegory of a tribe of butterflies and a tribe of bees to describe the relationship between the Western powers and China. The butterflies can make honey and sting, while the bees are a simple, peaceable, and culturally backward tribe that is not interested in making honey. But to expand their territory, the butterflies invade the land of the bees and bring honey-making to the bees. A wise grasshopper then warns the butterflies that one day when the bees learn to make honey and sting, they will take over the butterflies’ market at a lower price, and destroy the butterflies with the very sting they were taught by the butterflies.
"A Matter of Taste", Harper’s Weekly, 15 March 1879. The picture shows Republican senator and presidential candidate James G. Blaine sharing a table with labour leader Denis Kearney, known for his racist views on Chinese immigrants. On the left of the picture is a list of senators who support an anti-Chinese bill.

In 1877, there was an economic scare in California. Unemployment rose rapidly and the Workers' Movement grew more intense, with the Chinese becoming the first targets.

The accompanying article criticised Congress for proposing a bill that restricted incoming vessels to no more than 15 Chinese passengers, which violated the Burlingame Treaty. The writer felt that the line given by anti-Chinese politicians of protecting American workers was false; the real reason was just to win votes of Californians in the next presidential election. However, going against a treaty signed by the country and damaging its honour and integrity for partisan interests was unacceptable. But China did not sit quietly. Its first ambassador to the US, Chen Lanbin, lodged a protest with Secretary of State William Evarts, while gaining support of prominent politicians and businessmen in the eastern part of the US. In the end, Republican president Rutherford B. Hayes vetoed the bill.
"Political Capital and Compound Interest", Harper’s Weekly, 31 January 1880. A non-voter says: “Now Melican Man know muchee how it is himself.” After the Civil War, the Republican Party became synonymous with the spirit of Abraham Lincoln. To truly realise racial equality, the Republican government passed the 14th Amendment, which states in part: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

In this spirit, the Republican Party’s attitude in its policies toward the Chinese was one of openness and equality. However, political idealism was no match for reality. In the 1876 presidential election, the Republicans won by a slim margin. The Republican politicians panicked, and realised that if they continued supporting Chinese immigration policies, they might lose the support of voters in the western states. Republican senator and presidential hopeful James G. Blaine was the first to support anti-Chinese policies. The picture shows Blaine turning his back on the pleading Chinese.
A postcard from 1907, a “Heathen Barometer”. As the Manchus took control in China, the Qing court decreed that all men had to sport queues. Most of the Chinese workers who went overseas wanted to return home in glory after making money in San Francisco (known as the hill of gold, 金山). So even in the US, they kept their queues, which became an object of mockery. This postcard features a fake queue made of wool, with various ways to tell the weather. Apart from joking about queues in everyday life, San Francisco passed the Pigtail Ordinance, for prisoners to have their hair cut within an inch of the scalp. The first Chinese to have his queue cut off was called Ho Ah Kow, who sued the local government for damages and was awarded US$10,000 (Ho Ah Kow v. Nunan). The ordinance was also found to be unconstitutional. This was a huge victory for the Chinese at that time.


1. Chinese organisations always held a sense of mystique for Americans. The accompanying report sought to explore the Six Companies, a Chinese broking association which held a monopoly on the business in America. With significant initial demand in the US for Chinese workers, recruiting workers and arranging ships was expensive, and naturally led to the formation of a multinational business network. Clan organisations based on families, relations, and hometowns were a good way to start, and many migrants to the US came from the same village or family, especially when travelling in groups.

When they arrived, they continued to be managed — or controlled — by the same broker, to ensure the contract was fulfilled and the fees repaid. Such an organisation went beyond the white person's understanding of a "company", encompassing complicated employer-employee relations, kinship, and traditional Chinese culture. With external conditions getting worse for Chinese, these clan organisations became more united in opposition to policy discrimination and violence.

The Six Companies brought together other clans and established the US Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (全美中华公所), the first legal "local government" in the Chinese community. The association was in charge of managing business operations, mediating disputes, and protecting the rights of the community, as well as representing the Chinese in external discussions. The head of the association was as good as an unofficial mayor of a Chinese city, and even the Chinese government recognised the power of the association.

2. The customs officials were mostly after contraband such as opium, silk, and ivory products. Opium was not yet banned from import to the US, but had to be taxed, and the arrival of the Chinese did add to the proliferation of opium dens, while directly encouraging the spread of opium. According to another Harper's Weekly report, a conservative estimate had it that about 70,000 pounds of opium was imported each year in the 1870s, and an estimated 4,000 Americans and 10,000 Chinese who smoked it, with San Francisco having the most serious problem. Another study noted that in 1885, over 200,000 pounds of opium were smuggled into the US by the Chinese alone, nearly three times the figure in Harper's Weekly — perhaps Harper's Weekly only calculated based on customs figures from the US Treasury and left out black market smuggling, seriously underestimating the number of opium users in America.

Ironically, in the early 19th century, American merchants were once China's largest opium importers. Opium imports to the US alone made up half of the volume to all other countries, but British merchants subsequently overtook China's position with low-cost Indian opium. By the mid-19th century, the Qing government had repeatedly banned opium imports, but some American businessmen were still smuggling it under the US flag. British envoy Henry Pottinger recalled: "The main business of opium trade in China involves American-made ships, American captain and crew, and even open smuggling with the US flag flying on board."

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