Draft Lecture 5. A brief history of Chinese internal & international migration

Welcome to the first of two lectures on Chinese migration.

Today we will talk about Chinese migration. We will introduce

  • Historical migration patterns: Late Imperial, Republican, Maoist, Reform (and post-reform) eras.
  • Internal and international migration and the relationships between them. This includes the social organisation of migration (state regulation, political economy); structures and cultures of migrant communities; role of voluntary associations; impact of migration on home communities, employment, entrepreneurship, formation of regional + ethnic identities.
  • Scales, modes, gender, class and state regulation of migration


Part one: 16th to 20th century migration networks and patterns

  • From late 16th century Chinese labourers and merchants established settlements in south-east Asia, producing and trading in commodities such as tine, gold, pepper and sugar.
  • 18th century: approx 4000 to 10 000 Chinese labourers per year travelled
    on Chinese vessels bound for Chinese entrepots in Southeast Asia (Trocki, 2005:149)
  • They were members of egalitarian fraternities based on share-owning partnerships founded by the secret societies that ran peasant village networks in southern China. Members held shares in enterprises financed by merchant capital; distribution of shares and profits based on contributions
  • Shareholding companies (kongsi, gonsi) established themselves in Borneo, leadership by merit based democratic election. By 19th century companies had become federations in West Kalimantan; effectively running their areas as mini-state (Heidhus, 2003)

Periods, scale and destinations (international)

Period Scale Destinations Source
1800 to 1850 320,000 Southeast Asia, Americas, Australasia McKeown 2004
1850 to 1900 7,000,000 Southeast Asia, Americas, Australasia McKeown 2004
1849-1882 258,210 Northern America Yung, 1995
1882-1943 300,955 Northern America Yung, 1995

Chinese emigration increased massively in the second half of the 19th century.

Many of these travelled from Guandong province in southern China (adjacent to Hong Kong), where the European and American prescence had contributed to local instabilities of increased taxation and unequal economic and political relations at at time of civil and ethnic unrest, rapid population growth and natural disasters (Lee, 2006:2). These migrations established pathways for later migrations.

Modes of labour migration (18th to 19th centuries)

Labour migration under two kinds of contract; indentured labour and the credit-ticket system

Indentured labour system (dominant up until mid-19th century)

  • Followed the abolition of slavery, substituting Chinese labourers for African slave labour on plantations in Latin America and the Caribbean.
  • A major innovation in Chinese labour practices in response to European and American colonial interventions in Chinese trading networks.

Credit-ticket system (dominant from mid-century in California, Australia)

  • Individuals secured credit for their passage though personal contacts in their local communities or through supportive merchant houses, often against the security of property. Workers repaid their loans with interest from their earnings over time.
  • Native-place associations (or, ‘district clubs’) mediated between immigrants and creditors in China and Hong Kong. Clubs and shipping companies agreed to refuse transport back to China until debt paid.
  • Role of these associations viewed by immigrants as a mark of trust rather than bondage. For example, Yee Hing brotherhood (Victoria, Australia) ‘cultivated an ethic of equality, camaraderie, mutual assistance and independence for hierarchical constraints of late imperial China” (Fitzgerald, 2007: 66)

 Internal and international migration networks (16-19th centuries)


The appropriate unit of analysis in the history of Chinese migration is the extended family and long-term family migration strategies.

Nineteenth-century patterns of overseas immigration replicated long-patterns of internal immigration, where families spatially deployed their offspring throughout the empire to ensure the survival of the family or to maximise its status and income.(Fitzgerald, 2007: 48)

The movement and settlement of family members throughout China … was accompanied by a nostalgic commemoration of the original site of settlement (the old village, or guxiang) as a ritual site of family unity

Gendered and classed migration and settlement in the 19th century

The first generation of migrants were generally young men.They were …

 … sent abroad to make a living, to send money home in support of other family members and to test the likely reception in the host society to the prospect of permanent settlement by new sub-branches of the family. .. (Fitzgerald, 2007: 48)

In this generation, many young men married women in China, and lived and worked overseas to support their wives and children. Where there was social reproduction in the new country of residence, it often involved foreign women rather than Chinese women.

The promise of economic security that motivated Chinese men to migrate to the US also motivated many Chinese women. The majority of female migrants to the US during the exclusion era (1882-1943) travelled as wives of Chinese merchants or US citizens. Most Chinese women were not able to enter America independently, but had to rely on male relatives to sponsor or support their admission. The exemption categories for the exclusion laws – merchants, teachers, diplomats and travellers – favoured men with some degree of wealth, and generally excluded women.

Patriarchal attitudes in China and overseas also served to restrict independent female emigration.  “Decent” Chinese women were discouraged from migrating (even as dependents of husbands and other male relatives). US immigration officials viewed independent female migration applicants as probable or possible prostitutes and subjected them to harsher scrutiny (Lee, 2003: 93). Chinese women in this situation adopted strategies and offered evidence of their “proper character” or class status (such as fine clothes, and bound feet, both of which were viewed as features of elite status families) (Lee, 2006:17).

Most Chinese migrants were not the poorest of the poor, as thy had to have the means (or ability to repay) the passage fares and associated costs. The expense and difficulty discouraged less wealthy women, in particular,  from migrating. In Hawaii, discriminatory head taxes worked to restrict independent female migration as most could not afford it, outside of paid sexual labour (which was one of the sole means of earning an income sufficient to pay the debt of the passage). So in Hawaii, as in other American destinations, female migration was generally  restricted to the (dependent) wives of wealthy merchants and professionals (McKeown, 2001).

In Australia after Federation (1901), wives were prohibited from joining husbands. This led to greater male mobility with women raising families in China.

Western state restrictions on Chinese immigration and settlement (late19th-early 20th century)

From the late 19th century onwards, US states, Australia enacted increasingly restictive policies aimed at curtailing (and eventually, preventing) Chinese immigration and settlement.

Chinese Exclusion Act, 1882 (US)

While Exclusion policy (Chinese Exclusion Act, 1882) hampered migration to the States, many Chinese found a way to challenge or circumvent the exclusion. Nonetheless, the vast majority of post-exclusion emigrants went to other destinations.

Period Scale Destinations Source
1849-1882 258,210 Northern America Yung, 1995
1882-1943 300,995 Northern America Yung, 1995

During the period leading up to exclusion in America (1849-1882) there were 258,210 migrants from China to America (Yung, 1995: 22, in Lee, 2006:1).

The east-coast Antipodean colonies enacted anti-Chinese restrictions in the second half of the 19th century, seeking to limit Chinese immigrants to those most menial and badly paid work and, in particular, barring them from the benefits of the gold rush. Queensland enacted the Goldfields Bill 1876 (Qld) and the Chinese Immigration Restriction Act 1877 (Qld). New South Wales enacted the Chinese Immigration Restriction Bill 1897 (NSW).

In the lead up to federation, Western Australia was coerced into giving up its plans to use Chinese labour in its northern plantation as a condition of statehood. The federation legislation titled Commonwealth Immigration Act (1901) gave the White Australia policy legal status. The policy was specifically aimed at excluding Chinese immigrants and maintaining the Australian nation as a British (primarily ex-English) community. It mirrored the American Chinese Exclusion Act (1882).

Ren shan, ren hai ????



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