"The Chinese Question"

February 18, 1871

Thomas Nast

"The Chinese Question"

Chinese Americans; Civil War, Remembrance; Immigration; Irish Americans; Labor; Symbols, Columbia; Women, Symbolic;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

Columbia.--"Hands off, gentlemen! America means fair play for all men."

This Harper's Weekly cartoon by Thomas Nast defends Chinese immigrants against the fierce prejudice and discrimination which they faced in late-nineteenth-century America.

With the increased suppression of the international slave trade in the mid-nineteenth century, Latin American planters, particularly in the Caribbean, turned to China for an alternative source of labor. The planters used loopholes in treaties, fraud, and coercion to induce Chinese workers to immigrate to Latin America.  Some laborers signed contacts based on misleading promises, some were kidnapped, some were victims of clan violence whose captors sold them to labor brokers, while others sold themselves to pay off gambling debts. 

The Chinese contract laborers (called "coolies") were often shipped on American vessels.  U. S. presidents from Pierce through Grant criticized the practice in their annual messages to Congress. In 1862, Congress enacted the Prohibition of Coolie Trade Act, which forbade American shippers’ participation in the illicit enterprise. By only allowing voluntary immigrants from China, the United States essentially prohibited coolie immigration. 

Nevertheless, the term "coolie" came to be applied broadly in the United States to label most Chinese immigrant laborers. Despite a lack of rights, these early Chinese immigrants were not coolies. They were voluntary immigrants who made their own arrangements and paid their own passage. At most, some borrowed money under the "ticket system" at high rates of interest. The "coolie" stereotype, however, became fixed in the American imagination and used by nativists seeking to stop the immigration of those they considered to be unassimilable.

The Burlingame Treaty of 1868 allowed a free flow of immigration between China and the United States, but the Chinese population in the United States, located primarily on the West Coast, remained sparse.  In 1870, less than 50,000 Chinese lived in California and less than 64,000 in the entire country.  The Chinese population in New York City was minuscule at the time of this cartoon, and no Chinatown existed yet.  Racial prejudice and economic competition, however, roused intense and sometimes bloody reaction against them. 

The page referenced in the cartoon's caption discusses a recent bill proposed in the New York state legislature by Democratic state senator William Tweed, the notorious "boss" of Tammany Hall.  The measure intended to prohibit the state or any business contracting with the state from employing "heathen Chinee" or coolie laborers.  Violators could be fined between $1000 and $5000, imprisoned from six months to a year, or both.

The Harper's Weekly article dismissed the purported "Chinese invasion" as "altogether mythical," and argued that most Americans "still adhere to the old Revolutionary doctrine that all men are free and equal before the law, and possess certain inalienable rights ..."  That sentiment is reflected in Nast's cartoon, where Columbia, the feminine symbol of the United States, shields the dejected Chinese man against a gang of thugs, whom she emphatically reminds that "America means fair play for all men."

The armed mob includes stereotypes of an Irish American (second from right), perhaps a German American (on the far right), and a "shoulder-hitter" (far left), who enforced the will of urban politicians (like Tweed) with threats or acts of violence.  The imagery in the back alludes to the Civil War draft riots of 1863, during which angry, largely Irish American, mobs in New York City protested the Union draft and Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation by burning the Colored Orphan Asylum and lynching blacks.  For years after, Nast incorporated those images into his cartoons as symbols of the alleged Irish-American and Democratic penchant for violence and mob rule.

On the wall (left) behind Columbia are plastered numerous slurs against the Chinese immigrants, who are labeled as barbarian, heathen, pagan, immoral, anti-family, and vile.  Nineteenth-century newspapers often referred to members of ethnic or racial minorities by an epithet, thereby replacing individual identity with a collective term. Common names for Chinese immigrants were "John Chinaman" (which appears here), "Ah Sing," and variations of "Yellow Jack."

In the years following the publication of this cartoon, the anti-Chinese movement became more vocal, violent, and successful.  During the 1870s, several measures were introduced into Congress to limit or prohibit Chinese immigration. The 1876 Democratic platform condemned the "coolie-trade" and "the incursions of a race not sprung from the same great parent stock [as European Americans]."  The 1876 Republican platform called on Congress "to investigate the effects of the immigration and importation of Mongolians on the moral and material interests of the country."  In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which banned all Chinese immigration to the United States for ten years (extended by subsequent laws) and prohibited Chinese already resident in the United States from being American citizens. 

(For more information, visit HarpWeek’s Website on Chinese immigrants in late-nineteenth century America.)

Robert C. Kennedy

"The Chinese Question"
June 17, 2024

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