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The History of the Chinese Diaspora in the United States


The United States is widely recognized as a country of immigrants while China is among the primary centers of emigration whose rapid development attracts constant attention of the researchers (Ali 183). The Chinese diaspora is considered to be the largest in the world, generally being differentiated from the Asian ones (Zeleza 6). Nowadays, it continues to expand despite the difficulties faced by its representatives in the process of assimilation in the new societies, namely the religious and cultural ones. Historically, the immigration has become a major tool for the formation of the American nation. For a long time, America has been a symbol of political and religious freedom, a country of boundless economic possibilities, where there was always a place for everyone. Until the first half of the XIX century, immigration was encouraged as it correlated with the basic goals of the state: colonization of vast territories and the development of industry and agriculture. However, the growth of social tension has resulted in a number of restrictions in terms of the immigration policy, which has affected a wide array of foreign diasporas in the country. Still, despite all the challenges, the Chinese immigrants proved able to become an integral part of the American society. The following paper focuses on the history of the formation of the Chinese diaspora in the United States, as well as the religious and cultural challenges encountered by it over time.

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In the middle of the XIX century, China was a poor country that was often perceived as a semi-colony. Such state of affairs was caused by its defeat in the first Anglo-Chinese Opium War that took place in the 1840s. The failure caused heavy damage to China, not only resulting in the deterioration of its economy, but also giving rise to a deep political crisis of power of the Manchurian Qing dynasty, which ruled the country for the previous two centuries. The majority of the population of the mainland China consisted of peasants, whose living conditions were extremely harsh (Schwendinger 25). Under the circumstances of total poverty, only the seaports of Shanghai, Canton (Guangzhou), Macao, and Hong Kong were well developed and prosperous, being the hubs of the international trade of the country. In addition, they were the centers of communication with the outside world, being open to the foreign merchants. As a result, the rumors of the better life that were spreading in the Southern China were agitating the local population, often making people to leave the country in search of work. The outflow of the workers was not halted even by the fact that under the decrees of the Chinese government, the commoners were not allowed to travel abroad under the threat of death. At the same time, Taiping Rebellion of the 1850s made China plunge into a state of complete ruin and famine, which was a catalyst for a large-scale emigration movement (Schwendinger 28).

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Among the mentioned rumors of the better life, there was the one that attracted significant attention of the future emigrants, the rumor regarding the Gold Rush in California. It was spread rapidly among the poor, and in 1851, about 25,000 Chinese left their homes with a hope of getting rich (Schwendinger 30). At that time, they did not plan to leave their homeland forever despite having to sell their houses and property in order to get on board the ship that would take them to the shores of America. It was believed that after months and maybe years of fruitful work, the richer of them would be able to return to their families, launch small businesses, buy the land and build new homes; in other words, start a new life. As a result, at the beginning of the 1850s, the Chinese settlements, which can be considered the ancestors of the modern Chinatowns, started appearing near the gold-digging sites of California, with their residents primarily working as miners and prospectors (Schwendinger 35). With the development of the mining industry, the number of workers of Chinese origin has also increased.

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The Civil War that started in 1861 and lasted for four years reduced the inflow of immigrants to the US from all the countries, including China. However, after it came to an end, there was a clear shortage of labor, which forced the Americans to reopen the doors to new flows of immigrants. In 1860, there were more than 35,000 Chinese in the United States, most of which were laborers without families (Schwendinger 58). Around that time, the Chinese workforce started penetrating other sectors of the American economy. In particular, many immigrants have started working on the railway construction in California while thousands of Chinese that resided in the United States agreed to work on the construction of transcontinental railways (Cohen 89). Moreover, across the ocean, in Guangdong, the US initiated the recruitment of new workers.

Thus, it is possible to say that the Chinese diaspora in the North America has formed quite rapidly to meet the needs of the country in terms of the industrial development. At the same time, the US has caused a wide array of challenges to such immigrants. In particular, the religious and cultural differences between the Chinese and Americans were quite drastic. First of all, Christianity was (and still is) the dominant religion in the US while the Chinese migrants were either Taoists or Buddhists. Moreover, for many centuries, religion has occupied a significant place in the life of the Chinese, with religious practices being an integral component of their life (Tan 418). While migrating to other countries, the people of China were trying to reconstruct their religious institutions there to perform the corresponding practices and rituals that manifested the traditional values of the Chinese society.

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The analysis of the formation of the Chinese communities in various regions of the world leads to the conclusion that the Chinese diaspora has been formed in almost all regions, while its representatives sought to create their own associations and religious organizations. This trend is most clearly observed in the Chinese communities in North America, which has a significant share of the Chinese migrants. In the US, the Chinese often live in relatively autonomous areas called Chinatowns (Cohen 90). When establishing one, the Chinese usually start from setting the altar of any known deity (usually Taoist) as it helps to strengthen the social ties within the community and ensure trust among its members. However, it should be noted that unlike the immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa, which remain faithful to their religion, Islam, even among the generations born in the United States (Ali 184), the representatives of the Chinese diaspora address the religious challenges with more flexibility. In particular, those born in the US often tend to convert to Christianity (Tan 417), which ensures their assimilation into the American society.

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Another major challenge faced by the Chinese immigrants is the cultural differences between the West and the East. Like the majority of the Western countries, the U.S. is a vivid example of individualistic culture. This statement is supported by the fact that the rights and freedoms of an individual are being protected by the law and, most importantly, the country’s Constitution. On the other hand, the Chinese society is based on the principles of collectivism, meaning that the needs of the social group outweigh those of a particular person (Tan 413). As a result, high dependence on the teamwork and interaction in the community, as well as the strong family ties has led to adopting a specific way of addressing the described cultural issues. The Chinese immigrants that came to settle in the US often tried to bring relatives and friends from their home villages with them (Zhao 107). Moreover, they strived to reconstruct the way of life characteristic for the traditional Chinese society. This was achieved through the establishment of various social institutions (e.g. schools, shrines, etc.).

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The need for such measures was closely linked to the Chinese way of life. Migrating to other countries, they were trying to create a familiar environment for their existence. With a deep psychological installation on cooperation and life of the community, living for centuries in a society with unshakable traditional values, the Chinese workers did not feel comfortable in a cultural environment based on the principles of individualism. The tendency for isolation, as well as the creation of religious and other social institutions in its traditional cultural environment can be considered a manifestation of the reluctance of the Chinese migrants to adapt to their host community, and the desire to recreate the traditional Chinese society in miniature (Cohen 90). However, such actions in their turn did not go unnoticed, making the success of the described way of dealing with the cultural issues rather questionable.

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After the Civil War, the Chinese settlements could be found all over the territory of America, with Chinatowns appearing in the major cities, such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and Chicago. In these cities, the Chinese found their refuge from the Americans that were openly expressing their dislike for them. The primary reason for such hostility was a clash of economic interests due to the increased competition, which was facilitated by the Chinese labor market, and the decreasing wages of the American workers (Schwendinger 179). In addition, the Americans were irritated not only by the exceptional performance of the Chinese people, but also by their strange language, clothing, and an excessive longing for isolation described above.

The economic crisis of 1873, accompanied by mass unemployment and an uncontrolled influx of migrants, has led to the establishment of laws restricting the Chinese immigration. In 1882, in the government has adopted a law prohibiting the entry of Chinese workers to the country for a period of ten years, which became known as the Chinese Exclusion Act. (Schwendinger 205) Moreover, after the end of the First World War, the prevailing international situation facilitated a need to revise the American immigration policy. The country has feared the arrival of a great number of immigrants, namely the victims of the war. As a result, in 1924, there was passed a law, which became the basis for the American immigration policy until the middle of the XX century. This law provided the entry quota of immigrants from certain countries, including China (Zhao 15).

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The situation worsened after the revolution in China, which has led to an exacerbation of anti-communist sentiment in the US. At the end of the 1940s, a collective image of the Chinese as communists, enemies, and spies has become widespread (Tan 324). In turn, at the beginning of the 1950s, the Chinese diaspora has started creating community organizations, which were engaged in the development of anti-communist campaigns and advocacy across the country, and publicly declared the incompatibility of communism with the Chinese culture (Tan 327). At the same time, the US government has also taken various initiatives, namely by adopting the McCarran-Walter Act in 1952. It was based on the recognition that all races are characterized with naturalization and are able to eliminate sexual discrimination against immigrants. In 1954, the functioning of segregated schools was prohibited according to the decision of the US Supreme Court. Ten years later, racial discrimination has been found illegal; in addition to the equality of all Americans, the government recognized the equality of all immigrants that wanted to settle in the US (Zhao 18).











In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the new immigration law, which fundamentally changed the nature of immigration; the immigrant visas were now issued to everyone in the order of priority, and the annual quotas of the countries gave way to the hemispheric ones. The maximum limit of the annual immigration was 290,000 people, including 170,000 visas that were issued to the citizens of the Eastern Hemisphere (no more than 20,000 per country), and 120,000 visas granted to inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere excluding certain restrictions on the individual countries (Zhao 20). This immigration reform was subjected to widespread dissemination both in America and globally as it has eliminated all kinds of discrimination, facilitating family reunification, providing the inflow of highly qualified specialists from abroad, and offering shelter to political refugees.

Against the background of warming in the Cold War and the predominance of the Democrats in Congress in the early 1960s, a large-scale campaign to promote the idea of American democracy around the world was initiated. It revived the idea of America being a melting pot, in which all immigrants were supposed to turn into a single progressive nation. As a result, the representatives of the Chinese diaspora received the status of a model minority for their culture and ethnic uniqueness to be preserved. The media began to conduct active propaganda that the Chinese did not have the American minority status and were the full-fledged members of the American society, thus affirming the importance of their success for the US (Zhou 223).

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As a result of the described reforms and measures, nowadays, the Chinese diaspora in the US accounts for the fifth part of all Asian American population of the country. In 2006, their number was estimated at 3.5 million people (Zhou 46). Currently, the largest number of the Chinese people lives in the Greater New York and the nearby states. The other primary areas of their settlement include San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago and the other major cities across the country. Additionally, a part of the Chinese population is scattered in rural areas and college campuses, and the large American cities usually have multiple Chinatowns (Zhou 48).


In conclusion, it is possible to say that the development of the Chinese diaspora in the United States reflected the need of the country for industrial development. At the same time, the process of its formation and assimilation into the American society was not painless. In particular, the unique language, religion, and culture of the Chinese people made them stand out among other migrants. Moreover, their longing for isolation did not contribute to the development of friendly relationships with the Americans. In particular, the Chinese immigrants were the only ones to be forbidden to cross the borders of the US at the legislative level. However, the measures that were taken by the representatives of this diaspora during the 1950s, as well as the changes in the course of actions of the US government helped to resolve the majority of the problems. Even the longing for isolation of the Chinese people, which was among the reasons for hostility towards them, has contributed to the preservation of their unique culture, thus earning them a status of a model minority. As a result, despite all the challenges it has faced, nowadays, Chinese diaspora is an integral part of the American society.

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