Chinese in the American West

Essay, 2007

7 Pages, Grade: 1,0


In the times of the great gold rush, 1848-1855, a large number of Chinese people migrated to the ‘melting pot’ and ‘land of unlimited opportunity’ California for economic reasons.[1] This essay does not only give an overview of the facts and figures of Chinese-American history; moreover, it has a look at two very different literary works and their divergent ways of dealing with the controversial issue: Mark Twain’s autobiographic adventure narrative Roughing It (1872) and Frank Chin’s spirited novel of education Donald Duk (1991).

The Chinese, always working and living close together, preserved their cultural identity like no other folk of immigrants: As soon as some ‘Chinamen’[2] had settled down somewhere, many more followed, so that small Chinese communities arose.[3] The Americans sensed this to be a disgraceful, nonconformist behaviour, which even increased their resentment. Thus, many considered the Chinese to be unwanted interlopers into their Western world. The Asians’ cultural difference was not only marked by their exotic physical appearance and traditional dresses, but also by their rather submissive behaviour, their patience, silence and absolute working diligence. Since the Chinese were so very persistent and hardworking, American men soon got increasingly envious and hostile. In his big illustrated history of the American West, William C. Davis adds that in the gold-digger camps people hated and discriminated the Chinese for their complexion, their reservation and their incomprehensible language.[4] On top of everything, the Western men were afraid that the Oriental ‘intruders’ could steal away their women, as Chinese women were not allowed to enter the country. Consequently, ‘Chinamen’ were forced to look for (or at least at) American women, if they did not totally suppress their natural desires.[5]

A consequence of the Americans’ antipathy for the Chinese immigrants was their racist anti-Chinese propaganda in order to reduce the foreigners’ influence on the American culture. Hence, countless bad rumours spread about disgusting and inhuman Chinese habits. Besides, ‘Chinamen’ were on no account allowed to marry non-Chinese women: Anti-miscegenation-laws were established, which should stop the Chinese spread in America and make them leave the country after having done their dirty, hard and perilous work for a cheap price (because without the chance to live together with a family and the right to life in America surely would not be very attractive for the foreigners). The anti-miscegenation-law was accompanied by segregation laws in the cities as well as another principle ensuring that the Chinese would not become rife in America: the law that only American citizens were allowed to buy American land – and, certainly, you could only become naturalized when you were white;[6] plus, a white woman who married a ‘Chinaman’ despite the anti-miscegenation-law would immediately lose her American citizenship, so that also this ‘mixed’ couple would not be able to settle down on private American property. On top of everything, Chinese people had to pay enormous taxes to the American government.


[1] In the 1840s thousands of Chinese, who had fled the famine in their own country, came, for instance, to search for gold in Auburn Ravine Chinese (cf. Davis: 63).

[2] The expression ‘Chinaman’ nowadays often is defined as offensive term. However, it is also and still used as a self-referential archetype by Chinese authors. In order to mark and remind of the ambivalence of the term, in this essay the controversial expression is consequently put in inverted commas.

[3] Cf. Davis: 129.

[4] Cf. Davis, 129.

[5] And, of course, Chinese were not allowed to interact with European women.

[6] By the way, the question who was white and who was not was not always easy to be answered, since it was dependent on the ‘subjective opinion’ of any judge. (Thus, sometimes a court would claim one person was white and the next one would say he was not.)

Excerpt out of 7 pages


Chinese in the American West
University of Siegen  (FB 3 (Literatur-, Srach- und Medienwissenschaften))
Fictions of the American West
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
410 KB
Chinese, American, West, Fictions, American, West
Quote paper
Sabine Buchholz (Author), 2007, Chinese in the American West, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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