Study Guide

Chinese Exclusion Act Quotes

By Chester A. Arthur

  • Fear

    Whereas, in the opinion of the Government of the United States the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory thereof. (Sec.1)

    This is the very first line of the act. The important word there is "endangers." Any time you're using a danger word like that, it's going to provoke fear. The act is taking it as a given that Chinese laborers are a danger, and thus, fear is given to be a rational response.

    That for the purpose of properly identifying Chinese laborers who were in the United States. (Sec.4)

    This section details the papers that the Chinese are supposed to carry to identify themselves. If that sounds ominous, it should. This provision shows how frightened the lawmakers were about the Chinese, but you can also see the fear that must have existed in the Chinese immigrants. Many were extremely poor folks, and now they're expected to have certificates that are valuable enough to kill or die for.

    That any person who shall knowingly and falsely alter or substitute any name for the name written in such certificate or forge any such certificate, or knowingly utter any forged or fraudulent certificate, or falsely personate any person named in any such certificate, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor; and upon conviction thereof shall be fined in a sum not exceeding $1,000, and imprisoned in a penitentiary for a term of not more than five years. (Sec.7)

    This is a stiff penalty. The lawmakers realized that in the creation of the certificates identifying legal Chinese labor, they'd just created a black market for the things. You could grab an existing one and alter it, or you could forge one entirely. In 1882, $1000 was a lot of money. In 2013, that would have been nearly $22,000. If that doesn't sound like much, remember that anyone trading in these kinds of things weren't exactly rich to begin with. (Source)

    That before any Chinese passengers are landed from any such vessel, the collector, or his deputy, shall proceed to examine such passengers, comparing the certificates with the list and with the passengers; and no passenger shall be allowed to land in the United States. (Sec.9)

    This is how scared people were. Before any Chinese people were allowed to set foot on solid ground, they had to be inspected. That's crazy.

    That the words "Chinese laborers," wherever used in this act, shall be construed to mean both skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining. (Sec.15)

    The very fact they felt the need to single out miners points to some deep-seated fears. Like people were going to read the act and go, "Wait, they said skilled and unskilled laborers. Does that mean miners? Phineas, no one mentioned miners!" And panic ensues.

  • Race

    Whereas, in the opinion of the Government of the United States the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory thereof. (Sec.1)

    Right there in the first line of the law. It does not say laborers endanger good order, or immigrants. It specifically singles out the Chinese. With an opening salvo like that, it's tough to argue that race is less than the primary impetus behind the law.

    That from and after the expiration of ninety days next after the passage of this act, and until the expiration of ten years next after the passage of this act, the coming of Chinese laborers to the United States be, and the same is hereby, suspended; and during such suspension it shall not be lawful for any Chinese laborer to come, or having so come after the expiration of said ninety days, to remain within the United States. (Sec.1)

    For a fun exercise, count how many times they say "Chinese" in this act. Okay, not so much "fun" as "potentially shattering your faith in the essential goodness of humanity." This is the meat of the law, kicking out the bulk of the Chinese in the country and keeping any more from coming. Again, this is specifically targeting race.

    […] every Chinese person other than a laborer who may be entitled by said treaty and this act to come within the United States, and who shall be about to come to the United States, shall be identified as so entitled by the Chinese Government in each case, such identity to be evidenced by a certificate issued under the authority of said government. (Sec.5)

    This section links any person of Chinese ethnicity with the Chinese government. It's a subtle point, but it ties ethnicity to nationality in a way that makes Chinese people doomed to be the other.

    That the master of any vessel arriving in the United States from any foreign port or place shall, at the same time he delivers a manifest of the cargo, and if there be no cargo, then at the time of making a report, of the entry of the vessel pursuant to law, in addition to the other matter required to be reported, and before landing, or permitting to land, any Chinese passengers. (Sec.8)

    Chinese passengers on a ship are expected to be dealt with at the same time as cargo. It's a short leap from there to start classifying Chinese passengers as cargo, which is pretty terrible.

    That hereafter no State court or court of the United States shall admit Chinese to citizenship; and all laws in conflict with this act are hereby repealed. (Sec.14)

    This arguably is the worst section. Think about this one for a second. If you allow a Chinese-born person to become an American citizen, they are American. That's how it works. This is a nation of immigrants (except the Native Americans), so that's how Americans get made. This draws a distinction between race and nationality the way nothing else in the law does: a person of Chinese ethnicity must remain a citizen of China.

  • Prejudice

    Whereas, in the opinion of the Government of the United States the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory thereof. (Sec.1)

    It's hard to find a more perfect encapsulation of the prejudice inherent in the act than that sentence. This pre-judges every single Chinese laborer as endangering the good of American territories. That's a stunning statement. You have to figure, even if you're super racist, that there's at least one Chinese person who's super awesome, right?

    That the two foregoing sections shall not apply to Chinese laborers who were in the United States on the 17th day of November, 1880. (Sec.3)

    While this section gives an exception to the law, it's also a case of prejudice. In this case, it's slightly positive, the idea being that the Chinese who were in America already were fine, or else they had already done all the damage they were going to.

    […] for the purpose of properly identifying Chinese laborers who were in the United States on the 17th day of November, 1880, or who shall have come into the same before the expiration of ninety days next after the passage of this act, and in order to furnish them with the proper evidence of their right to go from and come to the United States of their free will and accord. (Sec.4)

    Quick pro tip here: if legislation includes a section about identifying members of an ethnic group, it's not going to be treated kindly by history.

    That hereafter no State court or court of the United States shall admit Chinese to citizenship; and all laws in conflict with this act are hereby repealed. (Sec.14)

    Chinese people, according to this law, are so damaging that they can't even be allowed to become citizens. We don't like to judge the past, but that's crazy. The law is essentially pre-judging every last Chinese person on the planet and declaring them unfit to be an American.

    That the words "Chinese laborers," wherever used in this act, shall be construed to mean both skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining. (Sec.15)

    This provision is pre-judging, sure. But it's also making certain the law is clear on exactly who is getting pre-judged. That includes miners.

  • Majority vs. Minority

    That the master of any vessel who shall knowingly bring within the United States on such vessel, and land or permit to be landed, any Chinese laborer, from any foreign port or place, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor. (Sec.2)

    You could easily look at the Chinese Exclusion Act as not just a law against a minority, but a law designed to keep them a minority. While the term in the United States often gets interpreted to mean "non-white," leading to people occasionally using paradoxes like "majority minority" with a straight face, minority really means just that. Less than the majority. The Chinese Exclusion Act aims to keep the population of Chinese laborers small, and that way, they stay minorities.

    […] every such Chinese laborer so departing from the United States shall be entitled to, and shall receive, free of any charge or cost upon application therefor, from the collector or his deputy, at the time such list is taken, a certificate, signed by the collector or his deputy and attested by his seal of office, in such form as the Secretary of the Treasury shall prescribe, which certificate shall contain a statement of the name, age, occupation, last place of residence, persona description, and facts of identification of the Chinese laborer to whom the certificate is issued. (Sec.4)

    The very fact that they want to keep this much information on the Chinese tells you that there couldn't be that many of them. Remember, this was before computers. All of this stuff would have been tracked by hand in giant books. This isn't something you can do to a bustling, vibrant population.

    That any Chinese laborer mentioned in section four of this act being in the United States, and desiring to depart from the United States by land. (Sec.5)

    The law takes sea as the default way for Chinese people to get in and out of the U.S.A, and this makes a lot of sense. However, this also assumes there's not much of a Chinese immigrant population in either Canada or Mexico. There is now, but at the time, people of Chinese descent were tiny immigrant groups.

    That before any Chinese passengers are landed from any such line vessel, the collector, or his deputy, shall proceed to examine such passenger, comparing the certificate with the list and with the passengers. (Sec.9)

    Again, these are customs people matching every Chinese person to their records before they even get off the ship. This would have been a nightmare before computers, and yet they did it, because the Chinese were such a small minority.

    That hereafter no State court or court of the United States shall admit Chinese to citizenship. (Sec.14)

    This is the final nail in the coffin of Chinese majority. If Chinese people were not allowed to become citizens, there would be no way to fight laws like this. Remember, the equal protections clause of the 14th Amendment only applies to citizens. In this way, a minority group would remain a minority group, and be oppressed, for the foreseeable future.

  • Foreignness and "the Other"

    […] the coming of Chinese laborers to the United States be, and the same is hereby, suspended. (Sec.1)

    This is a promotion of foreignness. If you keep a group of people out of a country, they will never engage in the cultural transference that turns two populations into one. This is when certain aspects become normalized, when white Americans start liking Chinese food, and the Chinese immigrants can get into burgers and fries.

    […] any master whose vessel, being bound to a port not within the United States, shall come within the jurisdiction of the United States by reason of being in distress or in stress of weather, or touching at any port of the United States on its voyage to any foreign port or place: Provided, That all Chinese laborers brought on such vessel shall depart with the vessel on leaving port. (Sec.3)

    The law specifies what a ship with Chinese people should do when hit with a storm and in distress. They can stick around, but have to take all the Chinese people onboard away with them. That's a stunning level of xenophobia right there, and xenophobia is literally the fear of the Other.

    That the master of any vessel arriving in the United States from any foreign port or place shall, at the same time he delivers a manifest of the cargo, and if there be no cargo, then at the time of making a report of the entry of the vessel pursuant to law, in addition to the other matter required to be reported, and before landing, or permitting to land, any Chinese passengers, deliver and report to the collector of customs of the district in which such vessels shall have arrived a separate list of all Chinese passengers. (Sec.8)

    There's that word, "foreign." While the word itself is a useful one, it is significant in this act because that's in a large part of what the law is concerned with. The "foreign" port can in theory be anywhere, but the thinking is that it'll be in China.

    That this act shall not apply to diplomatic and other officers of the Chinese Government traveling upon the business of that government, whose credentials shall be taken as equivalent to the certificate in this act mentioned, and shall exempt them and their body and household servants from the provisions of this act as to other Chinese persons. (Sec.13)

    Any time you're explicitly dealing with another government, you're specifically engaging with foreignness. China had its own laws. In order to enact this specific law, the U.S. government had to negotiate an entirely new treaty.

    That hereafter no State court or court of the United States shall admit Chinese to citizenship; and all laws in conflict with this act are hereby repealed. (Sec.14)

    Forbidding Chinese immigrants from being citizens automatically keeps them as foreigners. They can never naturalize and be thought of as America. It's the literal enforcement of the Other.