Contextualizing the Chinese Exclusion Act

By Gordon H. Chang. Posted April 18, 2022

Introduction: On May 6, 2022, we mark the 140th anniversary of the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. It was the nation’s first law that declared one ethnic group, the Chinese, as undesirable immigrants and declared all Chinese in the U.S. ineligible for citizenship. We are pleased to present noted historian Gordon H. Chang’s remarks about the Chinese Exclusion Act, which were delivered at civic forum held by the City of Cupertino on December 11, 2021.

The forum was initiated in the wake of remarks by Cupertino Vice-Mayor Liang-Fang Chao, who stated that the Chinese Exclusion Act was not based on racism since it singled out the laboring classes for exclusion.  Her remarks were denounced as a denial of the long history of anti-Chinese violence that preceded and followed the Chinese Exclusion Act. Chao eventually admitted that the Chinese Exclusion Act was racist, but she never issued a public apology for the harm caused by her initial statement. Anti-Asian violence continues unabated. We are reminded that history is never truly in the past. Hate rises up in times of crisis stirred by xenophobia and racist resentment. – Eddie Wong

Thank you for the invitation to speak today. I want to offer some context for the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Let me make a couple of clarifications. The 1882 Act was originally called the Chinese Restriction Act; it was not called the Chinese Exclusion Act. It was a restriction act because it was limited to certain classes of people, as we’ve talked about, and it was aimed at Chinese laborers initially and it was not indefinite. It was passed for 10 years but was renewed periodically and then indefinitely and became known as the Chinese Exclusion Act.

The second thing is that there were efforts to pass the act for years before 1882. It was the culmination of years of anti-Chinese agitation in the United States and in California. It is not so much as a blip but the crest of years of anti-Chinese political activity. The so-called Chinese Question was a national issue in the 1870s and early 1880s.

There were two main provisions of the act. One was this restriction of Chinese laborers for 10 years, prohibiting immigration of Chinese laborers. That was somewhat of a compromise between the proponents and opponents of the bill, and I’ll talk more about that in a moment. There were also many people at the time who opposed the bill because it was clearly racist. At the time there were many people who understood the racial intent of the bill. The other dimension of it which is very important and which I think is somewhat more important was that it confirmed the ineligibility of Chinese to become US citizens. They were deemed aliens ineligible for citizenship and to me that had more implications than the restriction for various reasons. Those provisions stayed in place until 1943. Chinese immigrants, regardless of class, could not become naturalized citizens of the United States until 1943. That’s a long 60 years, and that clearly had a racial intent.

Now here’s some other context. It’s important to place the Chinese Exclusion Act in the long continuum of American immigration acts and their racial intent and consequence. And I would suggest you that American immigration policy from the very beginning has had a racial intent and consequence. Even today America’s immigration laws and enforcement are highly racial. There’s clear intent with immigration laws to shape and influence the racial composition of the United States. Here’s some evidence to support this.  The first major act that affected immigration to the United States was passed in 1790 which was called the Nationalization Act or the Nationality Act. It goes by different names. That act passed in 1790 stipulated soon after the ratification of the Constitution who could become a citizen of the United States. The key provision was that any free white person could become a citizen of the United States through naturalization. This is aside from those who were native born. That is, any free white person who comes from another country could obtain citizenship. That’s naturalization.  Now that’s clearly a racial element.

Head of Auburn Ravine, 1852. Photo from the Collection of the Calif. State Library.

We also know that African Americans were already enslaved in the United States. They were defined explicitly as not citizens by the Constitution of the United States. They could not become citizens of the United States. Native Americans were considered not citizens of the United States but as members of alien nations. Even though Chinese had come to the United States in the 1850s as my ancestors did, they could not become citizens. So, the 1882 Act confirmed that element by specifically naming by the Chinese although it was already established by the 1790 naturalization act.

The second major act that is relevant to talk about here is the 1870 Naturalization Act. This was passed soon after the Civil War in the wake of the passage of several amendments to the Constitution which aimed to give full citizenship to freed people, to African Americans. Parenthetically, I’m grateful we’re having this conversation today. I’m an historian. I love history and I wish more people would read history because we can’t understand where we are today unless you know history. That goes for all Americans, but especially newcomers who don’t know the history of this country and what the legacy and inheritance and the shape of the country is from our history. So, with the 1870 Act, there was a heated discussion about it because the Civil War resulted in the ending of slavery in the United States and the amendments of the Constitution sought to make sure that freed people were understood to be full citizens of the United States.

But there were various ambiguities.  What about those free people who had been born in Africa and were enslaved in the United States? Could they be citizens of the United States? And there were people in the South who wanted to deny them citizenship.  But the 1870 Act clearly stated and revised the 1790 Act to state that any free white person and any person of African nativity could become citizens in the United States. Clearly that was the intent of that legislation. Now in the discussion of that Act, people raised, including very importantly Frederick Douglass, the leading Black abolitionist, let’s do away with all racial categories in naturalization. Anybody, whatever color, it was argued, could become a citizen of the United States. But then some political leaders explicitly raised, if we do that then the Chinese are going to become citizens and we don’t want that. It’s going to be terrible and there was a great to-do about that. The Act’s passage of free white persons and persons of African nativity consciously excluded the Chinese. So even before the 1882 Act, the Chinese were marginalized in very fundamental ways. I should add that in 1875 the federal government passed the Page Act, which was aimed against Chinese female immigrants and effectively excluded them.  This was seven years before the Restriction Act.

Chinese American women held at Angel Island Immigration Station. Photo from Calif. Historical Society.

Now, here’s a little more legislative history and this makes it part of our local history. In1868, a man named Anson Burlingame and you may know the name because the town named after him is just up the road from here. The town of Burlingame is located where Anson had hoped to retire. Anson Burlingame had been appointed by Abraham Lincoln to be the US Emissary to China. He had been a congressman from Massachusetts, which was closely connected to China because of trade, and Burlingame had very keen on his task of representing United States to the Empire of China and later on, because of his friendly attitude. After he served the U.S., the Chinese government hired him to represent China to the United States and to European countries. And during his time in service, he encouraged the passage of a very important treaty that became known as the Burlingame Treaty in 1868 which held that the two countries China and the U.S. were equal. They can have equal access to each other’s countries. Americans can go to China to do business and conduct religious activities and likewise Chinese could do the same. It was a treaty of equality and reciprocity.

That’s important to recognize because as I mentioned it took years for the passage of the 1882 Act because there were many people who said you can’t pass this racist bill against the Chinese because we have the Burlingame Treaty which accorded equality to the two countries and two peoples.  And you can’t pass an act that supersedes a diplomatic treaty. Treaties are above congressional acts. So, the proponents of exclusion and of the 1882 Act couldn’t get Congress to pass the act because so many people opposed the act saying it was discriminatory or on moral grounds saying that we’ve just come through this terrible Civil War and the division and the Chinese were so valuable to the country because they helped build the transcontinental railroad. Exclusion acts were passed by Congress a couple of times but with small margins and then vetoed by Presidents of the United States because they said we need the Chinese here for labor. They helped build the railroad and if we do this it’s not in our own self-interest and it also violates treaties. So, the Immigration Act of 1882 sits in a broader context, one of racialized immigration laws that had intent and consequence of race. We can talk about today’s immigration laws which continue to do that. But that’s clearly the situation in the 1880s and up through subsequent decades.

African American soldier and his emancipated family. Photo from Library of Congress.

There’s another important legal case to mention. We’ve been reading in the news about the Supreme Court these past few weeks. What’s fascinating to me and something that all Americans should know is that Chinese tried to fight for their equal rights from the very beginning. And one of the most important cases that was raised by Chinese Americans was by a Chinese American born in San Francisco Wong Kim Ark. He had been born in the United States and therefore was an American citizen by birthright. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution says all persons born in the United States are citizens of the United States; it’s birthright citizenship, not naturalized citizenship.  He had been born in the United States and had gone to China as a young man to visit relatives, do business and had taken out the requisite papers that identified him. And he left and came back, with no problem He went on a second trip or third trip and on his way back an immigration officer said, “You can’t come in. Stop. Because the way I read that law, the immigration officer said, you’re excluded from United States because you are Chinese by blood.” The citizenship issue and the 14th Amendment didn’t matter. The Chinese Exclusion Act says you can’t come into the country; I’m preventing you from coming into the country.

Eventually he litigated that and took it all the way to the Supreme Court in a very famous case Wong Kim Ark v. the United States. And the Supreme Court in its wisdom then ruled in favor of Wong Kim Ark and used as part of the rationale that the Fourteenth Amendment which said birthright citizenship applied to all persons born in the United States. That’s such a key issue because that is now come up in recent years to try to deny birthright citizenship to all sorts of categories of people in the United States. And the defenders of birthright citizenship from all sorts of communities, of people of all races, refer to Wong Kim Ark and the 14th Amendment as affirming this valuable issue of birthright citizenship.

Anti-Asian Hate rally, Madison Park, Oakland, CA. March 2021. Photo by Eddie Wong.


The 1882 Act is really important to understand in and of itself as well as in the broader context of what it means for American immigration for American citizenship and who we are as Americans today. This is so important in my mind because so much of the anti-Asian violence that we’ve seen in recent years here… these slurs like “go back to where you came from,” you’re not wanted here” see that Chinese and other Asians are not part of the United States. But if you know some of this history, people would have a better sense of the integral role and the deep place of Chinese and other Asians in the country and hopefully this would counter some of the hostility against Asian Americans today. History is really relevant to the present.

Thank you.

Author’s Bio: Gordon H. Chang is the Senior Associate Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and the Olive H. Palmer Professor in Humanities at Stanford University. Chang authored Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2019).





1 Comment

  1. Lydia Tanji on April 19, 2022 at 12:39 am

    Thanks Gordon for your clearly stated presentation on the context of, implications, and differences between laws, treaties, and acts. Thanks Eddie for sharing this on Eastwind.

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