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Summary Article: Chinese Exclusion Act
from Anti-Immigration in the United States: A Historical Encyclopedia

The Chinese Exclusion Act was an immigration policy passed on May 6, 1882, by the U.S. Congress that suspended the entry of Chinese laborers into the United States. The first U.S. immigration act to explicitly exclude a specific ethnic group, the policy targeted Chinese laborers, skilled and unskilled, who made up the overwhelming bulk of Chinese immigrants. The entry of merchants, students, diplomats, and tourists was not suspended. However, the 1882 act made all Chinese immigrants, regardless of the category under which they entered, ineligible for naturalization, the process of becoming a legal citizen of another country.

In 1892 and 1902, the act was renewed. In 1904, Chinese exclusion was made a permanent feature of immigration policy. The 1943 Magnuson Act repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act. It permitted Chinese to apply for naturalization and legally enter the United States. Passed by Congress during World War II, the Magnuson Act was a strategic gesture meant to counteract Japan's criticism of the United States as a racist society that officially excluded Asian immigrants. It set an annual quota of 105 for all Chinese immigrants, regardless of the country from which they originated.

Before 1882, there were several changes to U.S. foreign policy and immigration policy that contributed to the Chinese Exclusion Act's passage. Concerns about “coolie labor,” a term pejoratively used to denote Asian contracted labor, resulted in the enactment of the 1862 Prohibition of Coolie Trade Act, which banned American shippers’ involvement in the coolie trade. Six years later, the Burlingame Treaty was signed between the United States and China, in an effort to encourage diplomatic and trade relations between the two countries. China agreed to relax its restrictions to emigration and acknowledge its nationals’ right to change places of residence and loyalty. Conversely, the United States affirmed a commitment to open immigration. In 1875, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that immigration was the responsibility of the federal government, which gave Congress greater jurisdiction over immigration policy. Selective criteria also became the basis for federal immigration policy, with criteria stipulating the type of immigrant legally admissible. That same year, on March 3, the Page Act was passed. It was the first U.S. immigration policy to prohibit the category of “undesirable immigrants,” which paved the way for ethnic, racial, and sexual orientation groups to be explicitly identified by the federal government as unwelcome to the United States.

Two stipulations of the Page Act directly impacted Chinese immigration and set the stage for the Chinese Exclusion Act. One forbade the entry of Chinese, Japanese, and Mongolian contract laborers. The other forbade prostitutes, with moral rejection of prostitution and anti-Asian racism informing the inclusion and enforcement of this stipulation. Because of the popular belief that Asians were sexually immoral and untrustworthy, most Asian women who attempted to immigrate were suspected of coming to the United States to engage in prostitution. U.S. consuls were required to verify that Chinese and Japanese migrants were not being brought to the United States for immoral reasons. The result was that a small number of Chinese women were able to legally enter the country, resulting in a gender imbalance among Chinese immigrants.

The Page Act's strict scrutiny of Asian immigrants reflected views about Asians that were widely embraced by the general public. Anti-Asian racism was based on the assumption that there existed two different worlds, the east and the west. Whites presumed that the west was comprised of whites who were biologically, intellectually, culturally, and morally superior compared to the rest of the world. With few exceptions, Chinese and “the east” were viewed as backwards, uncivilized, undemocratic, despotic, and morally bankrupt. Also treated as racially bizarre, Chinese individuals and their belongings, such as utensils, were put on display in American museums in the 1700s and 1800s. In addition to being treated like curiosities, the Chinese were considered a biologically “servile” race that was prone to submissiveness due to the presumed despotism of eastern society. Because of the perception that Chinese were submissive due to despotism, many promoters of Chinese exclusion claimed that the Chinese could not handle the responsibilities of American citizenship and democracy.

White anxieties about Chinese servility were linked to anti-black views about African Americans. Many defenders of slavery and some abolitionists argued that African Americans were enslaved because they were servile, backward, and irrational and therefore unfit for self-government in a democratic society. Like African Americans, the Chinese were perceived as a servile race that would cause economic and social strife for white laborers. Whites physically attacked Chinese migrants and purged over 200 Chinese communities from the western region by forcing them to leave under the threat of violence. Despite their negative image and treatment, the Chinese were often considered a racial buffer that could help whites avoid working and interacting with African Americans or addressing their political and economic concerns. The Chinese were often depicted by white critics as racially superior to African Americans and began entering industries in which black laborers were concentrated, such as domestic work and laundries. Additionally, the Chinese were recruited by American companies to construct the transcontinental railroad and to labor on farms and in factories across the country.

Conflicts between Chinese and white laborers intensified in the mid-1800s, when the transatlantic slave trade legally ended and companies that had relied on coerced slave labor looked for inexpensive alternatives. While hostility toward Chinese immigrants was a national phenomenon, California became a battleground state for whites critical of Chinese immigration. The majority of Chinese laborers settled in California because of the gold rush, economic opportunities related to the state's early stages of development, and its proximity to the Pacific Coast. For whites, the entry of Chinese into California threatened their status as free white workers and their image of the state as a white refuge free of slavery or indentured servitude. Although California officially entered the union as a free state in 1850, most of its white residents wanted it to be a place where they did not have to economically compete or share space with racial groups they considered inferior. Less than a decade after it received official statehood, California attempted to enact legislation blocking African Americans from immigrating to the state. The arrival and settlement of Chinese laborers in California and other states exacerbated the racial conflict between blacks and whites. Despite being ascribed negative characteristics associated with African Americans, Chinese workers were often viewed favorably by capitalists as an alternative to a free black labor force and according to some capitalists and politicians, useful for strengthening economic ties between Asia and the United States.

Lee Wai She and children, an immigrant family in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1913. The Chinese Exclusion Act was unique in its specific targeting of an ethnic group for exclusion.


The clashes between white and Chinese laborers stemmed from economic and racial conflict. Ignoring the exclusionary practices of unions, white laborers and union leaders claimed that the white working class was threatened by Chinese labor. They argued that racially, the Chinese were servile, willing to work for less pay because of a lower standard of living, and would make poor union members because they would not demand rights. Many whites also argued that the value of their labor would be degraded from having to compete with or work alongside Chinese laborers because of the presumed biological and moral distinctions between the races. Concerns about providing the Chinese with an economic incentive to remain in the country also influenced whites’ criticism. Many feared that permanent Chinese settlement would result in biological, cultural, and moral degradation. Concerns about white degradation would ultimately push white unions, politicians, and residents to collectively demand that Congress enact legislation to exclude Chinese laborers. While those residing in California led the national call for Chinese exclusion, many outside of the state supported the policy. In defense of Chinese immigrants, some white Christian missionaries claimed that Chinese inferiority was not biological but rather moral. Sharing their opponents’ assumption that Chinese were inferior to whites, they argued that Chinese could be civilized by converting to Christianity.

African Americans also weighed in on the debate about Chinese exclusion, particularly in the burgeoning black press. Some African Americans echoed white sentiments depicting Chinese as heathen, immoral, and bizarre. Primarily, though, blacks expressed frustration with having to compete with Chinese immigrants in a post-slave economy that racially excluded African Americans from jobs and white-run unions. Some African Americans protested how white-owned companies strategically hired Chinese workers to undermine black labor demands as well as the economic exploitation they experienced from Chinese entrepreneurs. In one instance, a group of black washerwomen protested Chinese commercial laundries that undercut them. Despite black newspapers publishing unfavorable commentaries about Chinese immigrants and some promoting their limited immigration, most criticized the Chinese Exclusion Act's passage for its racist overtones.

See also Chinese Immigration; Primary Document 19: “A Breach of National Faith,” Harper's Weekly, March 8, 1879; Primary Document 20: Chinese Exclusion Act, 1882; Primary Document 21: “The Wyoming Massacre,” Harper's Weekly, September 19, 1885; Primary Document 22: “The Rock Springs Massacre,” The New York Times, September 27, 1885.

Sources and Further Reading
  • Chan, S , Asian Americans: An Interpretive History (Twayne Publishers New York, 1991).
  • Pfaelzer, J , Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans (Random House New York, 2007).
  • Said, Edward , Orientalism (Vintage New York, 1979).
  • Shah, Sonia , ed., Dragon Ladies: Asian American Feminists Breathe Fire (South End Press Boston, 1997).
  • Shankman, A , “Black on Yellow: Afro-Americans View Chinese-Americans, 1850-1935,” Phylon 39 (1978): 1-17.
  • Tyner, J. A. , Oriental Bodies: Discourse and Discipline in U.S. Immigration Policy, 1875-1942 (Lexington Books Lanham, MD, 2006).
  • Tamara K. Nopper
    Copyright 2011 by Kathleen R. Arnold, Editor

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