Readex Report

Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


Chinese Exclusion Acts: A Brief History of United States Legislation Aimed at Chinese Immigrants

Chinese immigrants first arrived in the United States in large numbers after the discovery of gold in California in 1849. Initially coming to work as miners, many took farming and manufacturing jobs when the Gold Rush died down.

Another surge of Chinese immigration took place in the 1860s, when construction of the Transcontinental Railroad demanded a large number of reliable workers. Because Chinese laborers were willing to work for lower wages, they were often preferred to other workers by the Central Pacific Railroad Company, particularly during construction of the Transcontinental Railroad's western section.

With the number of Chinese immigrants increasing, China and the United States signed a treaty on July 28, 1868 to supplement the 1858 Treaty of Tianjing. The new treaty, popularly known as the Burlingame-Seward Treaty, established several principles that aimed to ease immigration restrictions and limit American interference in China's internal affairs. The treaty stated:

The United States of America and the Emperor of China cordially recognize the inherent and inalienable right of man to change his home and allegiance, and also the mutual advantage of the free migration and emigration of their citizens and subjects respectively from the one country to the other, for purposes of curiosity, of trade, or as permanent residents….

Chinese subjects visiting or residing in the United States shall enjoy the same privileges, immunities and exemptions in respect to travel or residence as may there be enjoyed by the citizens or subjects of the most favored nation….

Chinese subjects shall enjoy all the privileges of the public educational institutions under the control of the government of the United States, which are enjoyed in the respective countries by the citizens or subjects of the most favored nation. 1

Although the Burlingame-Seward Treaty presented the promise of a rosy future for Chinese immigrants, reality proved otherwise. Living and working in the United States posed a daunting challenge for most Chinese immigrants, who had to face not only overtly racial discrimination but also strong opposition from workers resentful of the Chinese for threatening their livelihoods.

As social tensions rose, the California state government passed a series of laws to address Chinese immigration. These laws required special licenses for Chinese workers, prevented Chinese naturalization and openly advocated restrictions and limits on immigration from China. California legislators acted aggressively, repeatedly pressuring Congress:

Whereas the presence in our midst of a large number of Chinese, who are incapable of assimilation with our own race, ignorant of the nature and forms of our Government, and who manifest no disposition to acquire a knowledge of the same or to conform to our habits, manners, and customs, is a serious and continuing injury to the best interest of the State; and whereas their employment, under the plea of cheap wages, is offensive to the exalted American idea of the dignity of labor, detrimental to the prosperity and happiness of our own laboring classes, and an evil which should be abated: Therefore, be it….

Required by the assembly, (the senate concurring,) That our Senators in Congress be instructed and our Representatives requested to use their influence and urge upon the Federal Government the adoption of such treaty regulations and legislation as shall discourage their further immigration to our shores. 2

On December 2, 1878, Congress passed a bill (45th Congress, H. R. 2423) that stated:

"No master of any vessel owned in whole or in part by a citizen of the United States, or by a citizen of any foreign country, shall take on board such vessel, at any port or place within the Chinese Empire, or at any other foreign port or place whatever, any number exceeding fifteen Chinese passengers, whether male or female, with the intent to bring such passengers to the United States, and leave such port or place and bring such passengers to any number exceeding fifteen on one voyage within the jurisdiction of the United States." 3

President Rutherford B. Hayes vetoed the bill because it "aimed at, and in terms requires, the abrogation by this government of articles five and six of the treaty with China, commonly called the Burlingame treaty." 4

Although President Hayes vetoed the bill, he sought to modify the Burlingame-Seward Treaty to defuse mounting tensions in western states. Subsequently, on November 17, 1880, a new treaty was signed in which China agreed to limit immigration to the United States:

Whereas the Government of the United States, because of the constantly increasing immigration of Chinese laborers to the territory of the United States, and the embarrassments consequent upon such immigration, now desires to negotiate a modification of the existing Treaties….

The Government of China agrees that the Government of the United States may regulate, limit, or suspend such coming or residence, but may not absolutely prohibit it. The limitation or suspension shall be reasonable and shall apply only to Chinese who may go to the United States as laborers, other classes not being included in the limitation….

Chinese subjects, whether proceeding to the United States as teachers, students, merchants or from curiosity, together with their body and household servants, and Chinese laborers who are now in the United States shall be allowed to go and come of their own free will and accord, and shall be accorded all the rights, privileges, immunities, and exemptions which are accorded to the citizens and subjects of the most favored nation.

If Chinese laborers, or Chinese of any other class, now either permanently or temporarily residing in the territory of the United States, meet with ill treatment at the hands of any other persons, the Government of the United States will exert all its power to devise measures for their protection and to secure to them the same rights, privileges, immunities, and exemptions as may be enjoyed by the citizens or subjects of the most favored nation, and to which they are entitled to enjoy. 5

However, the new treaty neither calmed the unhappy U.S. citizens it was designed to placate nor offered protection for the Chinese laborers suffering mistreatment. Worst of all, politicians took advantage of anti-Chinese sentiment. They manipulated the issue in an effort to gain votes 6 and promoted greater Chinese exclusion by Congress.

On May 6, 1882, President Chester Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law, abrogating the free immigration clauses in the 1880 treaty and placing an absolute moratorium on immigration of Chinese laborers to the U.S. for ten years:

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: There fore….

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 the same 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. 6. That in order to the faithful execution of articles one and two of the treaty 7 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….

SEC 14. That hereafter no State 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. 8

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882—the first federal legislation ever passed to ban a specific group of immigrants to the U.S. solely on the basis of race and nationality—was viewed as one of the most tragic, regrettable and racist law of its era. 9 On September 13, 1888, a similar law, An Act to Prohibit the Coming of Chinese Laborers to the United States, was approved, setting up further restrictions. This act specified that the immigration suspension "shall apply to all persons of the Chinese race, whether subjects of China or other foreign power," though it indicated that "Chinese officials, teachers, students, merchants, or travelers for pleasure or curiosity, shall be permitted to enter the United States," on the condition that "they shall first obtain the permission of the Chinese Government." 10

By the time the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was about to expire, a new exclusion act declared that "all laws now in force prohibiting and regulating the coming into this country of Chinese persons and persons of Chinese descent are hereby continued in force for a period of ten years from the passage of this act." 11

By the end of the second ten years, on April 29, 1902, a third act stated that "all laws now in force prohibiting and regulating the coming of Chinese persons, and persons of Chinese descent, into the United States…are hereby, re-enacted, extended, and continued so far as the same are not inconsistent with treaty obligations, until otherwise provided by law." 12

Barely two years later, a fourth act was approved on April 27, 1904 to extend all the Chinese exclusion laws indefinitely, stating they "are hereby, reenacted, extended, and continued, without modification, limitation, or condition." 13

The Chinese Exclusion Acts left a haunting legacy, setting the precedent for further-reaching legislation that excluded Japanese, Korean and other Asian immigrants in the early 1900s and European immigrants in the 1920s. The Chinese Exclusion Acts not only fostered an environment of hostility toward foreigners but also helped create a bleaker atmosphere of racism that would endure for generations. 14

Click to access full image

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, along with the other Chinese exclusion laws that followed, remained in effect for 61 years. On December 17, 1943, "An Act to Repeal the Chinese Exclusion Acts" was signed into law, stipulating that "all Chinese persons entering the United States annually as immigrants shall be allocated to the quota for the Chinese computed under the provisions of section 11 of the said Act. 15 A preference up to 75 per centum of the quota shall be given to Chinese born and resident in China." 16 Not until 1965 did U.S. immigration laws specify that "No person shall receive any preference or priority or be discriminated against in the issuance of an immigration visa because of his race, sex, nationality, place of birth, or place of residence." 17


Footnotes:

1 Charles I. Bevans, Treaties and Other International Agreements of the United States of America, 1776 – 1949, V. 6, Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1968-, p. 682-683.
2 Chinese Immigration. Resolution of the Legislature of California, instructing the senators and requesting representatives of that state in Congress to urge upon the Federal Government the adoption of such treaty regulations and legislation as shall discourage further immigration of Chinese to the United States, March 11, 1872. Referred to the Committee on Foreign Affairs and ordered to be printed. Serial Set Vol. No. 1526 Session Vol. No. 3, 42nd Congress, 2nd Session, H. Misc. Doc. 120, p. 1.
3 Veto of the Chinese Immigration Bill. Message from the President of the United States to the House of Representatives, March 1, 1879. Serial Set Vol. No. 1858 Session Vol. No. 16, 45th Congress, 3rd Session, H.Exec.Doc. 102, p. 7.
4 Ibid., p. 1.
5 Charles I. Bevans, Treaties and Other International Agreements of the United States of America, 1776 – 1949, V. 6, p. 685 – 686.
6 Andrew Gyory, Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act, Chapel Hill, NC.: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998, p. 1.
7 Here it refers to the treaty of 1880.
8 "An Act to Execute Certain Treaty Stipulations Relating to Chinese," The Statutes at Large of the United States, Vol. 22, Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1883, p. 58 – 61.
9 Andrew Gyory, Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act, p. 1.
10 "An Act to Prohibit the Coming of Chinese Laborers to the United States," The Statutes at Large of the United States, Vol. 25, Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1889, p. 467.
11 "An Act to Prohibit the Coming of Chinese Persons into the United States," The Statutes at Large of the United States, Vol. 27, Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1893, p. 25.
12 "An Act to Prohibit the Coming into and to Regulate the Residence within the United States, its Territories, and all Territory under its Jurisdiction, and the District of Columbia, of Chinese and persons of Chinese Descent," The Statutes at Large of the United States, Vol. 32, Part 1, Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1903, p. 176.
13The Statutes at Large of the United States, Vol. 33, Part 1, Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1905, p. 428.
14 Andrew Gyory, Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act, p. 1.
15 Here it refers to Immigration Act of 1924.
16 "An Act to Repeal the Chinese Exclusion Acts, to Establish Quotas, and for Other Purposes," The Statutes at Large of the United States, Vol. 57 Part 1, Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1944, p. 601.
17 "An Act to Amend the Immigration and Nationality Act, and for Other Purposes," The Statutes at Large of the United States, Vol. 79, Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1966, p. 911.

About the Author

Born and raised in China, Suping Lu graduated from Nanjing Teachers University before coming to the United States for further education at the Ohio University and the University of South Carolina. He joined the University of Nebraska-Lincoln faculty in 1994. He is the author of They Were in Nanjing: The Nanjing Massacre Witnessed by American and British Nationals (2004), and the editor of Minnie Vautrin’s Nanjing: Diaries and Correspondence, 1937-38 (2008) and A Mission under Duress: The Nanjing Massacre and Post-Massacre Social Conditions Documented by American Diplomats (2010). He is currently working on his upcoming book, A Dark Page in History: The Nanjing Massacre and Post-Massacre Social Conditions Recorded in British Diplomatic Dispatches, Admiralty Documents, and U.S. Naval Intelligence Reports.

Welcome to The Readex Report

This online publication explores diverse aspects of digital historical collections and provides insight into web-based resources, including the Archive of Americana and Archive of International Studies.

Stay in Touch

Sign up to receive product news, special offers and invitations.

Recent Issues


Back to top