The Legacies of Chinese Exclusion

Why does the anti-immigration law of 1882 matter today?

Last Updated: May 18, 2018

How has the history of Chinese exclusion shaped enduring attitudes about difference, citizenship, and American identity?

May 2018 marks the 136th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first law to restrict US immigration on the basis of race. The activities below engage students in an exploration of the historical context and consequences of the 1882 legislation, drawing connections between the exclusion era and today. They also invite students to analyze a letter of protest from Chinese immigrant Saum Song Bo and consider how immigrants themselves played a role in shaping notions of democracy and citizenship within a polity that excluded them.

While the following resources and activities are intended to be taught sequentially, you may choose to teach one or more as stand-alone activities depending on students’ familiarity with the history of Chinese exclusion.

Note: We recommend that you preview the image used in Activity #1 before using it in class, as it contains stereotypical imagery of various ethnic groups, including Irish, African Americans, Italians, and Jews. If you have not done so already, we advise using our contracting guidelines for creating a classroom contract to help navigate challenging topics like race and racism. See the lesson Preparing Students for Difficult Conversations for more resources and guidance.

  1. Analyze a Political Cartoon from the Exclusion Era

    Before students dig into the history of the Chinese Exclusion Act, project or print copies of the 1882 cartoon "The Anti-Chinese Wall". (Be sure to read the background information from the Library of Congress in advance of class to help students grasp the meaning of the cartoon.) Ask students to analyze the cartoon using either the See, Think, Wonder or Crop It teaching strategy. Once students have individually analyzed the cartoon, have them debrief their answers in a Think, Pair, Share. Encourage students to generate hypotheses about the cartoon, prompting them with the following questions:

    • What’s happening in this cartoon? What was happening when this cartoon was made?
    • Who do you think was the audience for this cartoon?
    • What message do you think the cartoonist is trying to send? What connections can you draw between the message of the cartoon and the today?
  2. Explore the Context of the Chinese Exclusion Act

    To introduce students to the history of Chinese exclusion in the United States, show this clip from the PBS documentary The Chinese Exclusion Act. Ask students to take notes on the clip that will help them answer the following question:

    Why do many historians consider the Chinese Exclusion Act a turning point in American history?

    In exchange or addition to the clip, ask students to read the NPR Code Switch article As Chinese Exclusion Act Turns 135, Experts Point To Parallels Today. Since the article is fairly long and may be challenging for some students, consider previewing some vocabulary in advance, or using the Read Aloud or the Annotating and Paraphrasing Sources teaching strategy to promote students’ understanding of the ideas and arguments presented.

    Use the following questions to guide a class reflection and discussion after reading:

    • What was new about the Chinese Exclusion Act?
    • What parallels does the article draw between the Chinese Exclusion Act and today? What are some differences between the exclusion era and today?
  3. Reflect on Saum Song Bo’s Protest Letter

    Tell students that they will now be reading an excerpt from a protest letter from Chinese immigrant Saum Song Bo, who was mentioned in the NPR article. Explain to students that in 1885, the American Missionary magazine published a letter Bo wrote in response to a flyer requesting donations for the construction of the Statue of Liberty:

    SIR: A paper was presented to me yesterday for inspection, and I found it to be specially drawn up for subscription among my countrymen toward the Pedestal Fund of the Bartholdi Statue of Liberty. Seeing that the heading is an appeal to American citizens, to their love of country and liberty, I feel that my countrymen and myself are honored in being thus appealed to as citizens in the cause of liberty. But the word liberty makes me think of the fact that this country is the land of liberty for men of all nations except the Chinese. I consider it as an insult to us Chinese to call on us to contribute toward building in this land a pedestal for a statue of Liberty. That statue represents Liberty holding a torch which lights the passage of those of all nations who come Into this country. But are the Chinese allowed to come? As for the Chinese who are here, are they allowed to enjoy liberty as men of all other nationalities enjoy it? Are they allowed to go about everywhere free from the insults, abuse, assaults, wrongs and injuries from which men of other nationalities are free?1

    Divide the class into small groups. Give each group a large sheet of paper on which you have taped Saum Song Bo’s letter (above) and have students respond to it in a Big Paper activity. Once all students have responded, ask a representative from each group to share their group’s responses.

  4. Connect the History of Chinese Exclusion to the Present

    Note that Activity #4 requires students to have completed Activity #3.

    Next, project and read aloud the following quotation from writer Rosemary Bray:

    When people wrote "All men are created equal," they really meant men; but they didn't mean any other men except white men who owned land. That's what they meant. But because the ideas are powerful, there's no way that they could get away with holding to that. It's not possible when you have an idea that's as powerful and as revolutionary as a country founded on the idea that just because you're in the world, just because you're here, you have a right to certain things that are common to all humanity. That's really what we say in those documents. The idea that we begin the Constitution with, "We, the People" . . . even though they didn't mean me! They had no idea I'd ever want to make a claim on that. And they'd have been horrified if they'd known that any of us would. But you can't let that powerful an idea out into the world without consequences.2

    First in a Think, Pair, Share and then in a whole-class discussion, ask students to reflect on the following questions:

    • What tension does Bray identify in founding documents such as the US Constitution? What does she mean when she says “you can’t let that powerful an idea into the world without consequences”?
    • How do the ideas in this paragraph connect to Saum Song Bo’s letter?

    Encourage students to point to specific quotes from the Bo letter to support their reasoning.

    Then, close the lesson asking students to reflect on the following question, either privately in their journals, in an exit card, or in a class discussion:

    • Why do you think the history of Chinese exclusion matters today? What lessons should we as a nation or as a society draw from it?

Additional Resources to Explore the History of Chinese American Exclusion and Experience

  • The Chinese Exclusion Act Film
    To give students a deeper understanding of the history of the Exclusion Act and its implications today, consider showing the full length version of the 2018 PBS documentary The Chinese Exclusion Act. The website for the film includes additional clips as well as an image gallery that you can use to supplement the content in this teaching idea. You may also wish to explore materials from the Center for Asian American Media, a co-producer and educational partner for the film.

  • Becoming American: The Chinese Experience Film and Study Guide
    The PBS film Becoming American: The Chinese Experience describes the ways the first arrivals from China in the 1840s, their descendants, and recent immigrants have "become American." It is a story about identity and belonging that will resonate with all Americans.

    Facing History’s Becoming American Study Guide that accompanies the film explores these universal themes in the context of a particular history. Throughout the guide, students are encouraged to relate the story of the Chinese in America to their personal history and to the history of the nation.

  • "Who Can Become American?" Teaching Idea
    Who Can Become American? A mini-lesson on the 2018 Immigration Debate seeks to explore and contextualize contemporary conversations surrounding identity and immigration in the United States.


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