Diaspora's Homeland: Modern China in the Age of Global Migration

Diaspora's Homeland: Modern China in the Age of Global Migration

by Shelly Chan


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Diaspora's Homeland: Modern China in the Age of Global Migration by Shelly Chan

In Diaspora’s Homeland Shelly Chan provides a broad historical study of how the mass migration of more than twenty million Chinese overseas influenced China’s politics, economics, and culture. Chan develops the concept of “diaspora moments”—a series of recurring disjunctions in which migrant temporalities come into tension with local, national, and global ones—to map the multiple historical geographies in which the Chinese homeland and diaspora emerge. Chan describes several distinct moments, including the lifting of the Qing emigration ban in 1893, intellectual debates in the 1920s and 1930s about whether Chinese emigration constituted colonization and whether Confucianism should be the basis for a modern Chinese identity, as well as the intersection of gender, returns, and Communist campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s. Adopting a transnational frame, Chan narrates Chinese history through a reconceptualization of diaspora to show how mass migration helped establish China as a nation-state within a global system.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822370543
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 03/22/2018
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Shelly Chan is Associate Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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A Great Convergence

In 1893, the Qing empire abolished a ban on emigration that had been in place for more than two centuries. Yet most scholars have thought it inconsequential to Chinese history. The historian Wang Gungwu wrote, "Everyone knew how ineffective the prohibitions had been since the eighteenth century, how often they had been modified and reinterpreted, what hypocrisies were practiced after the two Anglo-Chinese wars in the nineteenth century to pretend that the prohibitions were still law, and how impossible it was to implement such laws among the southern coastal Chinese." Others have described the ban as "long overtaken by events," and its final abolition as "a last-minute move" by a fading empire to recognize emigration. Indeed, the end of the ban had little effect on the already free flow of emigrants, not only because the law was difficult to enforce, but also because a series of treaties permitting labor emigration after 1860 had effectively nullified it. If the 1893 edict meant nothing but the removal of a "defunct symbol," what made the Qing do it?

A look at the memorial that led directly to the imperial edict reveals a misunderstanding: the removal of the ban was not meant to endorse free emigration, but to encourage free returns. Submitted by the diplomat Xue Fucheng (1838–1894), the memorial portrayed a large, long-settled, yet still distinct Chinese population in Southeast Asia that, in spite of being divided into Cantonese, Hokkien, and Teochiu groups, was "deeply devoted to the former homeland." However, fearing that Qing officials and local gentry would use the formal ban on emigration to "accuse them of being fugitives, spies, smugglers, or kidnappers," almost none of these people wanted to return. Warning of changing "times" (shishi), Xue wrote that the current uncertainty around return could deprive China of a modern source of wealth and power — the overseas Chinese who were growing in numbers and influence — leaving it permanently at the disposal of the British and the Dutch empires. Instead of "driving fish into other people's nets and birds into other people's snares," implored Xue, the Qing state should sweep away all doubt by giving the overseas Chinese passports and welcoming them home.

Misunderstood and forgotten, Xue's memorial should be restored for the better understanding of China's rapid transformations through trade, diplomacy, and migration during the nineteenth century. Calling for the easing of "barriers" by permitting returns, Xue recounted how a great convergence of events had thrown together the Qing state, the emigrants, and other nations of the world: the opening to Western trade in 1842, the 1860 treaties with Britain and France, the 1868 Burlingame Treaty with the United States, agreements to regulate emigration to Peru and Cuba after 1875, and the establishment of consulates to protect emigrants since 1877. Central to Xue's message was that there was an ever-increasing contact and competition between China and Western powers in an emergent world, but the Qing state could also shape its fortunes by reconnecting with the emigrants and welcoming them home. Almost immediately, Xue's proposal was adopted. Emigration and return without legal impediment became state policy.

More importantly, this new understanding of Xue's memorial brings into focus one particular flow of Chinese emigrants that underpinned his account of trade and diplomatic expansion — the Chinese indentured migration to the Americas (1847–74). Spanning the arc of development underscored by Xue, the flow of indentured laborers to the British West Indies, Cuba, and Peru helped lay the basis of Chinese sovereignty in the global system but has been routinely overlooked in the history of China's modern transformation. Known as "coolies" or the "yellow trade" (la trata amarilla) in the West and the "buying of men" or "the selling of piglets" in China, Chinese indentured labor was widely recognized as both a trade and a migration. It arose during the 1840s and 1850s when British and French victories in the Opium Wars forced the opening of Chinese treaty ports, facilitating the amalgamation of the Caribbean, Atlantic, and Pacific worlds into a single marketplace, not only for manufactured goods but also for the extraction and transfer of labor resources. Enabled by Western imperialism, contract-based Chinese labor became a highly demanded, lucrative solution in sustaining the growth of plantation economies after the decline of the African slave trade. Nonetheless, violent kidnapping, mistreatment, and resistance of Chinese laborers soon drew worldwide attention, while Qing efforts to end the global crisis also initiated China into conversations of diplomacy and sovereignty and produced a new mandate to protect the emigrants. Consequently, this encounter with the coolie trade hastened China's modern transformations and was part of the historic integration between China and the world, as noted by Xue.

Readers familiar with the coolie scholarship will know that many scholars have already combed through the vast diplomatic and newspaper sources in various languages and produced outstanding works from them. Deeply indebted to their trailblazing efforts, my intention is not to provide new empirical facts about the trade but to draw out a broader connectivity between indentured migration and China's national development. In recent years, historians and theorists have argued for a larger significance of Chinese coolie migration in the nineteenth-century world and suggested new ways of reading the documents. Pushing beyond the entrenched debate over whether Chinese coolies were actually enslaved or free, Moon-ho Jung and Lisa Lowe have insightfully recast the phenomenon in hemispheric and transcontinental frameworks, suggesting its crucial function in the constructions of capitalism, colonialism, race, and liberal thought. Adam McKeown and Elliott Young have also shown that the Chinese migrant subject helped advance bureaucratic means of control in the Americas, as in the case of the passport during the Chinese exclusion era (1882–1943) and in the case of the labor contract during the coolie trade era (1847–74). Taken together, these new directions have brought fresh insights to the well-studied topic of Chinese indenture, not simply by discovering new sources but by asking questions that have not been asked before.

Joining this growing community of scholars, I ask in this chapter: How did the Qing encounter with the coolie migration transform China? As John King Fairbank has noted, "no foreign activity on the coast of China was more spectacular than the coolie trade." Yet not many scholars have examined its larger impact on China's evolution. This is partly because most historians have stopped seeing China's "opening" to the West in 1842 or the beginning of Western imperialist intrusions as the most decisive watershed in Chinese history, a view now associated with the old, much-criticized model of "Western impact, Chinese response." As for the small number of monographs on the subject, scholars have tended to stress Qing efforts to protect the coolie migrants and abolish the trade, as opposed to a dominant assumption of connivance, which, in the words of Robert Irick, have allowed Western observers to mitigate their "responsibility and guilt" and Chinese scholars to reinforce their preconception of "a corrupt dynasty in decline." Meanwhile, the coolie migration has also largely escaped the notice of historians of the overseas Chinese, who have tended to focus on Southeast Asia and Chinese merchant communities there. This led them to view Qing interest in the overseas Chinese as a late development that did not begin in earnest until the late nineteenth century, culminating in a series of political mobilizations after 1900, the Qing Nationality Law in 1909, and a widened use of the term huaqiao for Chinese abroad by the 1911 Revolution. Yet Xue's 1893 memorial serves as a reminder that things did not begin there. Rather, it is necessary to return our attention to a longer arc of developments that began with the indentured migration to Latin America and the Caribbean and largely consisting of poor Chinese laborers after China's forced opening to Western powers in the mid-nineteenth century.

Drawing on the multivolume Chinese collection Historical Materials on Chinese Laborers Going Abroad (Huagong chuguo shiliao), the British House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, and the extant secondary scholarship, I argue that the crisis over Chinese indentured migration was the first "diaspora moment" that helped create China as a sovereign nation in a global system. Coolies, not merchants, were the first group of emigrants to draw the Qing state into an expansive political economy based on Western industrial capitalism and free trade during the nineteenth century. Lasting fewer than thirty years and involving only a quarter million Chinese, the outflow to the Americas was not the largest in Chinese history, but it remained a major departure from a longstanding, locally regulated pattern of emigration in South China. More importantly, it signaled an emergent space where Qing leaders worked out their relationship with Chinese emigrants in the context of Western attempts to recruit and trade free labor. These intense exchanges on a global scale caused the modern Chinese diplomatic establishment to expand and new ideas about sovereignty and emigration to take root, a direct result of the encounter with the coolie trade. Writing about the rise of extraterritoriality in nineteenth-century East Asia, Pär Kristoffer Cassel has argued that sovereignty could be better understood as a "practice" on multiple grounds. Similarly, I argue that the question of coolies also belongs to a complex environment of different times, spaces, and actors — residents on the China coast, colonial administrators in Europe, planters in Peru, Cuba, and the British West Indies, shippers from around the world — who became intertwined in the wake of the abolition of slavery and in the search for the free Chinese emigrant. The Qing engagement led to some of China's earliest negotiations over sovereignty. Indeed, the official Xue Fucheng was a product of such practice. At the time of the 1893 edict inviting returns, he was Qing China's first consul-general to Britain, France, Italy, and Belgium (1890–94), a modern appointment that came with the mandate of protection of emigrants at the end of their indenture.

Creating the Free Chinese Emigrant

In 1851, the governor of British Guiana, Henry Barkly, called on the home government to provide a loan for the immigration of "hardworking and intelligent" Chinese to the West Indies. Citing a favorable report by John Bowring, the superintendent of British trade in China, who found a "disposition to emigrate" and a supply of labor to "an almost unlimited extent" in China, Barkly wrote that planters in the colony were anxious to "share in the advantages of Chinese emigration," with the hope that Chinese contract laborers would "form a middle class, better capable of standing the climate than the natives of Madeira, more energetic than the East Indian, and less fierce and barbarous than the emigrants from the Kroo coast of Africa." Imagined to be voluntary, unlimited, and racially superior to Africans, the Chinese emigrant seemed like a perfect solution to a nineteenth-century world wrought by Western liberalism, capitalism, and colonialism.

What the British did not expect was that the imagined reservoir of Chinese emigrants was nowhere to be found, a point rarely acknowledged in the vast scholarship on the coolie trade. The importance of the Chinese indenture trade to the plantation regime after the abolition of the African slave trade has been well documented, but what remains neglected is how hard British officials and merchants had to drive into a dynamic, long-established emigrant economy set in local patterns and traditions, much like what sixteenth-century Europeans faced in their first forays into the Asian-dominated Indian Ocean trade. By 1852, the trade had been violently driven out of Amoy and Shanghai by local riots, after which it was forced to relocate to nontreaty ports, opium stations, and Portuguese-held Macao. Even during the British and French occupation of Guangzhou (1858–60), a contract emigration under joint Western–Chinese regulation failed to take off, but kidnapping became the order of the day. Violence enabled by unequal power relations between China and the West, not the safety of the labor contract, succeeded in altering a self-regulating Chinese emigration. A fractured ideal, the free Chinese emigrant was not found but had to be made.

Stressing that the free Chinese emigrant was a construct can help complicate traditional narratives of globalization and explanations of Chinese migration. In a new study of the global historical origins of Western liberalism, Lisa Lowe argues that the Chinese emigrant labor was "instrumentally used as a figure, a fantasy of 'free' yet racialized and coerced labor." Criticizing a broad tendency to link the causes of Chinese emigration to a stream of chaos in nineteenth-century China — poverty, overpopulation, land shortages, rebellions, a weak government, and Western imperialism — Adam McKeown writes that "emigration as a family strategy depended more on stability, precedent, and opportunity than on disorder and poverty." Since the coolies made up less than 4 percent of China's mass emigration in the modern period, "the issue was not that Chinese were impoverished and ignorant of migration, but that they already had access to well-developed migration networks and strong commercial acumen." As this chapter will show, historians can no longer reduce the history of Chinese coolie emigration to push and pull, a close cousin of the impact–response model. Far from inevitable, indenture had to rely on a great deal of force and deceit, which provoked great amounts of resistance in Chinese towns and on the high seas.

As we abandon the push–pull model and enter the complex milieu in which Chinese indentured migration took place, a different set of dynamics comes into view. Created to serve planter interests, the free Chinese emigrant ideal ran up against Chinese emigration in reality: well established, male centered, commercially based, and prohibited by the imperial Chinese state. Traditionally, Chinese emigration had been a strategy of flexible accumulation. A calculated family decision, it was not so much based on individual free will as it was embedded in local custom and preexisting networks of maritime commerce. With a lengthy history stemming from the intra-Asian trade across the Indian Ocean, Chinese emigration was nothing new. It was a way of life on the coast of Fujian and Guangdong provinces, controlled by clan and merchant networks, and financed by family groups or a credit-ticket system. Men going overseas intended to settle temporarily, send money home, and eventually return to their families. While away, many strove to work their way up from wage laborers to self-employed merchants and follow a pattern of circular migration involving visits and returns to home villages in China. Never sponsored by the imperial state and occasionally prohibited by law, Chinese emigration had been private and commercialized.

Cutting across maritime trading networks, these migrant patterns gave rise to a geographically flexible yet socially embedded economic practice, one that was at odds with the free emigrant ideal championed by the West. Imagining a new geography in the wake of China's opening, officials on opposite ends of the British empire spoke of a boundless and willing supply of Chinese settler labor that would satisfy the needs of West Indies planters. But British officials in China soon learned that most Chinese emigrated via the Chinese-controlled networks in Southeast Asia, borrowed passage money in exchange for a year's labor, or went independently to the goldfields of California and Australia in search of greater gain. To be effective, Western merchants had to rely on Chinese brokers pejoratively known as "crimps." Given the stiff competition for Chinese labor, it was difficult to recruit enough and quickly without the use of deception and coercion. At the same time, it was almost impossible to find Chinese women to emigrate. Furthermore, local Chinese officials refused to cooperate with British diplomats to regulate emigration, since such efforts to prevent abuses would have implied recognition. Entrenched in the commercial, patrilineal economies connecting maritime Asia but out of the purview of the central state, traditional Chinese emigration had to be radically remade to serve frontier expansion in another world that China was joining. Thus began the creation of the free Chinese emigrant.

Chinese indenture to the Western world began at the intersection of British free-trade capitalism and imperialism in China. In 1833, the British Emancipation Act coincided with another landmark event, the end of the British East India Company's trade monopoly in China, which had lasted more than two centuries. The ascendency of free trade brought the Opium War (1839–41) and the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing, which forced China's incorporation into the Western global economy. This important turning point opened China up not only to the free entry of Western industrial goods but also to the massive transfer of Chinese productive labor to burgeoning colonial and settler frontiers across the globe. By the time Governor Barkly called for Chinese contract immigration to the British West Indies in the early 1850s, mass Chinese emigration had already begun via the new treaty ports of Amoy, Shanghai, and Canton, and the British colony of Hong Kong. It reached as far as Australia, Hawaii, and California. Also growing rapidly was an indentured emigration controlled by Europeans following brief experiments in the colonies of Brazil, Mauritius, and Bourbon. Chinese coolies arrived in Spanish Cuba in 1847, independent Peru in 1849, and the British Caribbean in 1853. British and American merchants among others dominated the lucrative trade, linking coastal China to the global labor market supplying sugar plantations and guano mines. Indenture brought around 125,000 Chinese to Cuba and 92,000 to Peru by its end in 1874, and another 14,000 to British Guiana by its end in 1866. Relatively small and short-lived, this emigration nonetheless incorporated China into an emergent global system based on Western imperialism and industrialization.


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Table of Contents

A Note on Romanization  ix
Acknowledgments  xi
Introduction  1
1. A Great Convergence  17
2. Colonists of the South Seas  48
3. Confucius from Afar  75
4. The Women Who Stayed Behind  107
5. Homecomings  146
Conclusion and Epilogue  185
Notes  197
Bibliography  233
Index  261

What People are Saying About This

The Imperial Security State: British Colonial Knowledge and Empire-Building in Asia - James Hevia author of

"Shelly Chan's scholarship is superior in every imaginable way; her deft hand at bringing together the seldom connected fields of diaspora studies, modern Chinese history, and Asian American studies is a major contribution. I read this book straight through—I couldn't put it down."

Race for Empire: Koreans as Japanese and Japanese as Americans during World War II - Takashi Fujitani

"A major work that shows how an intelligently reconceived concept of 'Chinese diaspora' can open up new understandings of China in world history—especially how modern China is in many ways a product of the mutually constitutive relations between the invented homeland and its diasporic populations. Based upon superb research and an imaginative engagement with a broad range of theoretical and secondary works, this is cutting edge scholarship on global population movements and their effects."

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