Volume:6, Issue: 3

Dec. 15, 2014

Channeling nativism through language: A sociolinguistic study on the rise of the Chinese Exclusion Acts
Washington, Brad D. [about]

KEYWORDS: American; Chinese; community; European; exclusion; immigration; language; law(s); racism.
ABSTRACT: The following study reviews through a sociolinguistic framework how anti-immigration sentiments against Chinese migrants in the United States led to the exclusionary acts of the 19th century. Utilizing a historiography methodology, the study examines how written and spoken language became the foundation upon which the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was enacted. The study is informed through the research of seminal scholars in the fields of Asian and Asian American studies as well as sociolinguistics. It concludes by identifying how the assertions of knowledge about Chinese migrants to the United States by European migrants in the linguistic venues of politics and journalism are utilized to justify racist and oppressive practices. By the application of nativism through language, white migrants were able to press judicial action as a basis for self-preservation.

There is a gap in the literature addressing the importance of sociolinguistics in analyzing the confluence of anti-immigration policies targeting Chinese migrants in the United States. Hayner and Reynolds (1937) state that the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was a secondary factor in separating predominantly male Chinese laborers in the United States from their spouses and children in China. Instead, the authors cite excerpts from interviews conducted with Chinese migrants to conclude that cultural differences among Chinese immigrants and American Born Chinese as a primary source of challenges and conflicts for Chinese communities in the United States.

Yang (2010) states that previous studies have deducted incomplete or inaccurate conclusions from the complex development of international immigration as it relates to Asian American communities. In order to gain a complete understanding of Asian immigration to the United States since the mid-nineteenth century, Okihiro (2014) and Yang (2010) argue that immigration theories must address both historical and contemporary developments rather than examine a segment of either. In addition, Osajima (1998) stresses that though it is important to explore themes of oppression and displacement in the history of Asian America, it is even more critical to obtain an in-depth understanding of personal narratives and world events that challenge a widely accepted push-pull paradigm of Western imperialism resulting in Asian victimization.

Theoretical rationale

This study utilized a discourse community theory framework. Gee (1999) states that, “language is a key way we humans make and break our world, our institutions, and our relationships through how we deal with social goods” (pp. 9-10). To consider the arc in which Chinese immigrants were initially welcomed in 19th century America only to be later loathed in the form of exclusion policies, the study employed Gee’s discussion on negotiation in discourse communities. In describing a scenario regarding naming rights of a company amongst several communities, Gee (2008) states that negotiation is critical in determining the strength and the stability of community:

Meanings are ultimately rooted in negotiation between different social practices with different interests by people who share or seek to share some common ground. Power plays an important role in these negotiations. The negotiations can be settled for the time,…but the settlement can be reopened…The negotiations which constitute meaning are limited by values emanating from ”communities”- though we need to realize it can be contentious what constitutes a “community” (p. 12).

As the study progressed in its investigation of anti-Chinese sentiments in the United States, it was pivotal to understand that white Americans became a terminology to be inclusive of the many European immigrants who had been in America for only a generation. White laborers diverse in language, religion, and nationality held firm to the mantra of work for white Americans for their own socio-economic security (Kil, 2012; Stone, 2004).

By utilizing a historiography methodology, I reviewed texts that chronicled laws, recorded speeches, and archived periodicals that shaped an image of the social environment Chinese migrants lived during the 1800s. In addition, this study strove to extrapolate the reality of one American immigrant community from Asia effected by anti-immigration law. This is not to suggest at any point that the entirety of immigration law in the United States was or is wholly insidious or unjust.

The study focuses on sociolinguistics through language and speech acts exclusively in English. Even with translation, the original meaning and socio-cultural embodiment of conversations in a Chinese language (primarily Cantonese) by Chinese laborers whose first language is not English is at best fragmented.

False beliefs about Asian Americans harbor sentiments of indifference and ambivalence towards civil rights and social justice has led to platforms of discussion regarding overrepresentation in educational attainment, a uniform preeminence in socio-economic success, and an immunity to the racial context of American society (Chao et al, 2013; Kim, 2014; Xu and Lee, 2013). Such distortions cannot be dismissed, as perception is often essential in driving public policy, and takes on a more legitimate space once accepted as a platform for legislation.

Research design

A historiography methodology was selected for this study. Ankersmit (1989) states that when “[h]istorical interpretations of the past first become recognizable, they first acquire their identity, through the contrast with other interpretations; they are what they are only on the basis of what they are not” (p. 142). Yin (2000) identifies the lack of continuity that pervades between living through and researching a period of history:

…early Chinese immigrants in the United States confronted grueling labor and racial prejudice…[However,] …[T]he conclusion that from the first boatload [Chinese immigrants] were seen as either exotic curiosities or deceitful, cunning barbarians is also questionable (p. 15).

Chinese immigration to the United States

Upon the end of several wars with European nations (Grasso, Corrin and Kort, 2004), China, still governed by imperial dynasties, had begun to deteriorate. Bennett’s (1998) Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS)is relevant to how the Chinese people internalized the speed at which their lives were changed by a new and unfamiliar culture. Initially, the Qing dynasty saw little need for trade or communication with the West, and had long regarded all foreigners as less than its equal (Tiedemann, 2013).

Denial, the first ethnocentric stage of DMIS, could be used to explain the Qing dynasty’s response to China’s first encounter with the West. China had long considered outsiders as being barbarians (Liu, 2011), or what Bennett (1998) may describe as China seeing foreigners as having “less than human status” (p. 27). However, Europe’s and America’s response to China involved the DMIS stages of defense and minimization. Gradually, the Qing court moved into the ethnorelative stages of acceptance and adaptation, wrestling with how to best address the challenges presented by the West, as well as attempting to stabilize itself as a result of internal political upheaval (Desnoyers, 1991).

As the U.S. expanded its territorial boundaries and invested in its infrastructure, employment needs exceeded the availability of its populace due to its continued oppression and marginalization of all identified as non-white (Feagin, 2014). In the time leading up to the American Civil War, Chinese men were initially recruited to immigrate to the United States for the purpose of gaining a workforce under the presumption that they would be willing to accept low-wages and fulfill dangerous posts (Anbinder, 1994). At the conclusion of the American Civil War, there were concerns expressed by members of the United States congress that the former Confederate states were recruiting Chinese laborers to be an alternative workforce for Africans emancipated from slavery.

California’s Gold Rush (1848 – 1859) marked one of the first periods when people from China traveled to North America. There are detailed accounts of conversations, letters, and periodicals in China recounting endless fortunes for all who traveled to the Gold Mountain, a translated Cantonese term used to describe California (Johnson, 2001). Historical accounts regarding people of Chinese ancestry during California’s Gold Rush reflects a nuanced experience comprised of employment, ridicule, and discrimination.

In the 19th century, Chinese laborers in California felt the impact of such practices through periodicals that supposedly mimicked their limited use of American English language, as well as their culture. An 1868 publication of the Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine, one of the most widely circulated printed texts in California at the time, was the main outlet for many American settlers to acquire knowledge about Chinese people. Reverend Augustus Ward Loomis, a writer for the Overland Monthly, expressed his opinion about the people of China through an article entitled What Our Chinamen Read (1868) by stating the following:

We fancy, also, that the Chinese gentleman, self-exiled to a country seven or eight thousand miles from his home, from wife and children…is sometimes affected with home sickness, and is ready to do anything that will in imagination transport him back to his own flowery kingdom… He is sitting again by that square table, on a high straight-backed chair, in a dingy apartment with a feeble light, conning the lesson which must be “backed” on the coming morning (p. 525).

The article by Reverend Loomis does not fall within what Grice (1975) states as adequate conversation. In his research, Grice investigated the idea of implicature, and how spoken conversation could unduly impact how a listener interprets information based on the speaker’s opinion. For example, Loomis gives no account throughout the article that he has ever traveled to China. Yet, he creates an image in his writing that he knows the furniture arrangement as well as the type of dwelling all Chinese laborers inhabited as they long for an opportunity to return home.

Moreover, and very important in the context of discrimination faced by Chinese laborers in the 19th century, Loomis describes the Chinese gentleman he speaks of as self-exiled from his country. The implication for the reader (listener) is that Chinese people willfully left their homes with little if any reservations, and were solely driven by their desire to benefit from potential profit in California. The article potentially violates what Grice refers to as maxims of communication. Although Grice’s maxims are in relation to verbal dialogue, his definition of quality as a maxim is relevant to the medium of written language. Paul Grice (1975) states the following:

Under the category of QUALITY falls a supermaxim – ‘Try to make your contribution one that is true’ – and two more specific maxims:

  1. Do not say what you believe to be false.
  2. Do not say that for which you lack evidence (p. 46).

As Grice acknowledges that people may state things that they believe are true, they knowingly due so without consideration that they lack evidence to support their statements.

The Exclusion Act

The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act would set the stage for the isolation, hostility, and racism faced by Chinese immigrants to the United States in the 20th century. Lee (2002) summarizes the lasting effects of the Chinese Exclusion Act by describing it as the following:

[The act] not only provided an example of how to contain other threatening, excludable, and undesirable foreigners, it also set in motion the government procedures and the bureaucratic machinery required to regulate and control both foreigners arriving to and foreigners and citizens residing in the United States…[I]t forever changed America’s relationship to immigration in general (p. 44).

Dennis Kearney, an Irish immigrant to the United States, built a political career on the platform of proposing that all Chinese workers be removed from U.S. territories. In San Francisco, Kearney began the Workingmen’s Party, a political entity targeting Chinese laborers as the root cause of job shortages for white America (Saxton, 1975). In part due to Kearney’s repeated call against the very existence of Chinese workers along with his growing popularity amongst many white men in the United States, Chinese immigration would be redefined at the end of the century.

The Chinese Exclusion Act in the United States was an aggressive and systematic legislation aimed to not only stem Chinese immigration away from the United States, but to also criminalize Chinese communities in California who refused to adhere to its stringent limitations. As a result of the Act, applying for American citizenship was restricted, land ownership was illegal, and travel back to China for Chinese laborers could be a precursor to losing any opportunity to return to California.

Chinese communities in the United States

Despite legal efforts to isolate Chinese communities in California, Chinese immigrants strove to utilize local and federal laws to actively push back on the erosion of their rights. McClain (1984) reviewed the 1870 Civil Rights Act that provided a framework for the protection of Chinese immigrants in California. The Act included language to advocate equal protection under the law for Chinese laborers. The 1870 Civil Rights Act also gave Chinese communities the ability to seek retribution under the law for crimes ranging from theft to murder.

McClain's work is important for several reasons. First, it highlights that Chinese laborers had established rights under local and federal U.S. law before the 1882 exclusion act. Second, the act of 1870 provided a framework to be identified as a part of the California community. The idea of bringing Chinese laborers in to do important and necessary work for the creation of American transportation and industry, and then finding the means to extradite them in masse without consequence was no longer (in theory) possible. Finally and most important for the relationship between Americans and American immigrants, the 1870 Civil Rights Act in theory demonstrated how Chinese laborers could challenge discriminatory practices through the law.

Angel Island

Daniels (1997) cites a poem from Angel Island that captures the history of 20th century Chinese immigration to the United States as the following:

…I hastened to cross the American ocean. How was I to know that the western barbarians had lost their hearts, and reason?
With a hundred kinds of oppressive laws, they mistreat us Chinese. It is still not enough after being interrogated and investigated several times; We also have to have our chests examined while naked. …If there comes a day when China will be united, I will surely cut out the heart and bowels of the western barbarian (p. 9).

From 1910 – 1940, San Francisco’s Angel Island became known as the equivalent of New York’s Ellis Island, a historic point of landing for American immigrants on the eastern seaboard.

Chaika’s (2008) definition of discourse in language has an intricate role in understanding the poems from Angel Island. Grounded in the sound (phoneme), construction (morpheme), and syntax (rule) of words, discourse can be expressed either through writing or speaking. The poems are written in a Chinese language, with text and characters written vertically in terms of orientation. The translations as cited in this study and in many resources regarding the history of Angel Island are written in American English with Roman characters written horizontally. If, as Chaika (2008) states, “every word subsumes a different complex of meanings in different languages-or even different dialects of one language," (p. 10) the meaning/translation of the poems cannot be completely understood. Yet, through language, all have the opportunity to review the perspectives of those held at Angel Island, as well as the ramifications for the policies that allowed it to exist.


Language and society gives credence to the possibility of communication, and the opportunity for change. This sociolinguistic study focused on anti-immigration law against Chinese migrants in the United States. Yet, I held as the goal of this study to suggest a wider conversation on the power of language.

Through the development of discourse communities, European migrants were able to reimagine their own identities as a collective to in turn identify Chinese communities as the other. Expanding the discourse beyond self-identity into depicting the physical presence, culture, and language of Chinese migrants, white migrants utilized the English language as an oppressive tool to discern access and barriers by ethnicity. In doing so, racism was not a by-product or debatable component of the Chinese Exclusion Acts, but rather an intentional consequence that was used to reinforce the laws’ legitimacy. Hopefully, in weighing and analyzing contemporary debates on U.S. immigration, there will be pause to analyze the maxims and negotiations of language used in the 21st century.


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Washington, Brad D., Ed.D., Assistant Professor, International and Multicultural Education Department, School of Education, University of San Francisco, San Francisco, CA, U.S.A.

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