- Expanding the Scope of Chinese American History
The scholarly significance of the two books reviewed in this essay cannot be fully appreciated without a quick overview of the evolution of Chinese American historiography. Ever since Chinese began coming to the United States in sizable numbers during the mid-nineteenth century, journalists, public officials, political rabble-rousers, missionaries, and other opinion-makers have taken note of and written about the Chinese presence. Most of the writings presented derogatory caricatures of these new migrants; some were downright racist and xenophobic. The writers warned of the dangers posed by the Chinese who accepted lower wages than white workers, thereby threatening the latter’s livelihood. They accused the Chinese of bringing diseases, unsanitary habits, opium addiction, and other vices to America’s shores. Worst of all, the Chinese were godless heathens. A few writers, primarily Christian missionaries who had either worked in China or in the immigrant communities that the Chinese established in the United States, defended the Chinese as a people from a several-millennia-old civilization with a record of significant accomplishments. More importantly, they argued that the Chinese presence on U.S. soil offered a great opportunity to convert them to Christianity with the hope that they would then return to their homeland to proselytize among their own people. The attitude of the missionaries was paternalistic: they thought that the Chinese, benighted though they were alleged to be, were people whose souls could and should be saved. Far more insidious than hateful rhetoric were public policies that discriminated against the Chinese in myriad ways, circumscribing their ability to survive, much less thrive, in the United States. [End Page 284]
The first serious academic study of Chinese migrants in the United States, Chinese Immigration by Mary Roberts Coolidge (1909), was not published until six decades after Chinese first set foot in noticeable numbers on U.S. soil. During the first seven decades of the twentieth century, a small number of scholarly works examined the ways in which these migrants had or had not assimilated to the American way of life, the organizational structure of their immigrant communities, and how their U.S.-born children were faring academically in the nation’s public schools.
Beginning in the late 1960s, a social-political movement initiated by (mostly) young people of color—African Americans, Latino Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans—began to make its influence felt on university and college campuses. These activists called for a rewriting of U.S. immigration and ethnic history in order to counteract the negative ways in which their peoples had been depicted and treated, not only in public life but in scholarship as well. Other scholars with no personal connection to or sympathy for the Asian American movement also contributed to the revisionist literature, given the ascendance of social history that focuses on marginalized groups in that period. This new scholarship portrays Chinese immigrants and their American-born progeny as agents in the making of their own history who have fought for survival, equality, justice, and human dignity in a land that did not welcome them even though that land needed their labor. In this project to correct the historical record, Asian American and other scholars focused largely on the various forms that the anti-Asian movements had taken; the underlying social, cultural, political, and economic factors that allowed such nativist movements to exist in a normatively democratic society; and the sustained efforts that Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans have made and continue to make to claim their rightful place in U.S. society. These writings laid the foundation for an emerging canon.
Once the general contours of Asian American history became more widely known, authors began to look for new ways...