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Chinese emigration in global context, 1850–1940*

  • Adam McKeown (a1)


Chinese emigration was part of the global wave of mass migration in the nineteenth century. After establishing the main quantities, sources, destinations, and timing of emigration, this article analyses trends in return and female migration, two quantifiable phenomena that are often said to distinguish Chinese from other migrations. These trends are compared between different flows of Chinese migration, both overseas and to Manchuria, and with non-Chinese migrations. The most interesting conclusions have methodological implications: first, comparisons should be situated as historical trends to better understand patterns of convergence or divergence between flows; second, some cycles and patterns may grow more similar across migration flows even as others diverge; third, the results of comparison will change along with the scale of units being compared; and finally, both extensive comparisons of specific flows and an awareness of the global context are necessary to understand the patterns and causes of mass migration.



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1 On the historical genealogy of these depictions, see Sucheta Mazumdar, ‘Chinese and Indian migration: a prospectus for comparative research’, in Wong Siu-lun, ed., Chinese and Indian diasporas: comparative perspectives, Hong Kong: Centre of Asian Studies, University of Hong Kong, 2004, pp. 139–67.

2 Qualitative overviews of Chinese emigration include Philip Kuhn, Chinese among others: emigration in modern times, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008; Adam McKeown, ‘Conceptualizing Chinese diasporas, 1842 to 1949’, Journal of Asian Studies, 58, 1999, pp. 306–37; idem, ‘From opium farmer to astronaut: a global history of diasporic Chinese business’, Diaspora, 9, 2000, pp. 317–60; Qiu Liben, Cong shijie kan huaren (Looking at the Chinese from a world perspective), Hong Kong: Nandao Publisher, 2000; Wang Gungwu, ‘Patterns of Chinese migration in historical perspective’, in China and the Chinese overseas, Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1991, pp. 3–21.

3 For example, Timothy Hatton and Jeffrey Williamson, The age of mass migration: causes and economic impact, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, makes generalizations about the seven-to-eight-decade lifespan of migrant flows and their positive effects on wage convergence, based only on transatlantic migrations. Many of these generalizations do not hold for Asian migrations (and sometimes fit poorly even for migrations from north-west Europe). In Global migration and the world economy: two centuries of policy and performance, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005, Hatton and Williamson pay more attention to Asian migration but make the common error of assuming that indentured migration accounts for the bulk of Asian migrations.

4 Li Minghuan, ‘We need two worlds’: Chinese immigrant associations in a Western society, Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam Press, 1999, pp. 27–52.

5 Chen Ta, Chinese migrations, with special reference to labor conditions, Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1923; Peter Richardson, Chinese mine labour in the Transvaal, London: Macmillan, 1982.

6 On migration services in Hong Kong, see Elizabeth Sinn, ‘Emigration from Hong Kong before 1941: organization and impact’, in Ronald Skeldon, ed., Emigration from Hong Kong: tendencies and impacts, Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 1995, pp. 35–50; idem, ‘Xin Xi Guxiang: a study of regional associations as a bonding mechanism in the Chinese diaspora: the Hong Kong experience’, Modern Asian Studies, 31, 1997, pp. 375–97.

7 Persia Crawford Campbell, Chinese coolie emigration to countries within the British Empire, London: P. S. King & Son, 1923; Chen Ta, Chinese migrations; Robert Irick, Ch’ing policy toward the coolie trade 1847–1878, Taipei: Chinese Materials Center, 1982; Arnold Meagher, The coolie trade: the traffic in Chinese laborers to Latin America, Bloomington, IN: Xlibris, 2008; David Northrup, Indentured labor in the age of imperialism, 1834–1922, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

8 See the investigations and documents in Proceedings of the Legislative Council of the Straits Settlements for 1874, 1876, and 1891.

9 On the organization of Chinese emigration, see Kuhn, Chinese among others, pp. 112–27; Carl Trocki, Opium and empire: Chinese society in colonial Singapore, 1800–1910, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990; Wang Sing-wu, The organization of Chinese emigration, 1848–1888: with special reference to Chinese emigration to Australia, San Francisco, CA: Chinese Materials Center, 1978. Any attempt to understand the actual conditions of Chinese migrant labour will run up against the problem of sources that obscure more than they reveal. See Marina Carter, Servants, sirdars and settlers: Indians in Mauritius, 1834–1874, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995; Madhavi Kale, Fragments of empire: capital, slavery, and Indian indentured labor in the British Caribbean, Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999; Adam McKeown, Melancholy order: Asian migration and the globalization of borders, New York: Columbia University Press, 2008, ch. 3; Radhika Mongia, ‘Regimes of truth: indentured Indian labour and the status of the inquiry’, Cultural Studies, 18, 2004, pp. 749–68.

10 Scott Nelson, ‘After slavery: forced drafts of Irish and Chinese labor in the American Civil War, or the search for liquid labor’, in Emma Christopher, Cassandra Pybus, and Marcus Rediker, eds., Many middle passages: forced migration and the making of the modern world, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007, pp. 150–65; Gunther Peck, Reinventing free labor: padrones and immigrant workers in the North American West, 1880–1930, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000; Robert Steinfeld, Coercion, contract, and free labor in the nineteenth century, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

11 Adam McKeown, ‘The Social Life of Chinese Labor’, in Eric Tagliacozzo and Wen-hsin Chen, eds., Chinese circulations: capital, commodities and networks in Southeast Asia, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, forthcoming; Anthony Reid, An Indonesian frontier: Acehnese and other histories of Sumatra, Singapore, Singapore UP, 2005, pp. 194–225; Eunice Thio, ‘The Singapore Chinese Protectorate: events and conditions leading to its establishment, 1823–1877’, Journal of the South Seas Society 26, 1960, pp. 40–80.

12 Adam McKeown, ‘Global migration, 1846–1940’, Journal of World History, 15, 2004, pp. 155–89. Other accounts of global migration include Jan and Leo Lucassen, ‘The mobility transition revisited, 1500–1900: what the case of Europe can offer to global history’, Journal of Global History, 4, 2009, pp. 347–77; Giovanni Gozzini, ‘The global system of international migrations, 1900 and 2000: a comparative approach’, Journal of Global History, 1, 2006, pp. 321–41; Dirk Hoerder, Cultures in contact: world migrations in the second millennium, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002; Patrick Manning, Migration in world history, London: Routledge, 2005.

13 McKeown, Melancholy order; Aristide Zolberg, ‘Global movements, global walls: responses to migration, 1885–1925’, in Wang Gungwu, ed., Global history and migrations, Boulder, CO: Westview, 1997, pp. 297–307; idem, ‘The great wall against China: responses to the first immigration crisis, 1885–1925’, in Jan and Leo Lucassen, eds., Migration, migration history, history: old paradigms and new perspectives, Bern: Peter Lang, 1999, pp. 291–305.

14 John Bodnar, The transplanted: a history of immigrants in urban America, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1985; J. D. Gould, ‘European inter-continental emigration: the role of “diffusion” and “feedback” ’, European Journal of Economic History, 9, 1980, pp. 267–316; Timothy Hatton and Jeffrey Williamson, ‘What drove the mass migrations from Europe in the late nineteenth century?’, Population and Development Review, 20, 3, 1994, pp. 533–59; José C. Moya, ‘A continent of immigrants: postcolonial shifts in the western hemisphere’, Hispanic American Historical Review, 86, 1, 2006, pp. 1–28; Walter Nugent, Crossings: the great transatlantic migrations, 1870–1914, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992.

15 Hatton and Williamson, Global migration, pp. 146–7.

16 McKeown, ‘From opium farmer’; Anthony Reid, ‘South-east Asian population history and the colonial impact’, in Ts’ui-jung Liu, ed., Asian population history, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, pp. 55–9.

17 Dudley Poston, Jr. and Mei-YuYu, ‘The distribution of the overseas Chinese in the contemporary world’, International Migration Review, 24, 3, 1990, pp. 480–508; Qiu, Cong shijie kan huaren.

18 Moya and McKeown, ‘Global migration’, Table 2.

19 On Manchurian migrations, see Thomas Gottschang and Diana Lary, Swallows and settlers: the great migration from north China to Manchuria, Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, Center for Chinese Studies, 2000; Robert H. G. Lee, The Manchurian frontier in Ch’ing history, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970; James Reardon-Anderson, Reluctant pioneers: China’s expansion northward, 1644–1937, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005.

20 Chen Ta, Emigrant communities in south China, New York: Institute of Pacific Relations, 1940, pp. 118–45; Donna Gabaccia, ‘Women of the mass migrations: from minority to majority, 1820–1930’, in Dirk Hoerder and Leslie Page Moch, eds., European migrants: local and global perspectives, Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 1996, pp. 115–40; Sucheta Mazumdar, ‘What happened to the women? Chinese and Indian male migration to the United States in global perspective’, in Shirley Hune and Gail Nomura, eds., Asian American and Pacific Islander women: a historical anthology, New York: New York University Press, 2003, pp. 58–74; Adam McKeown, ‘Transnational Chinese families and Chinese exclusion, 1875–1943’, Journal of American Ethnic History, 18, 2, 1999, pp. 73–110; Leslie Page Moch, ‘Connecting migration and world history: demographic patterns, family systems and gender’, International Review of Social History, 52, 1, 2007, pp. 97–104; Pei Ying, ‘Huaqiao hunyin jiating xingtai chutan (The patterns of marriage and family of overseas Chinese)’, Huaqiao Huaren Lishi Yanjiu, Spring 1994, pp. 41–5.

21 Nicole Constable, ed., Guest people: Hakka identity in China and abroad, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996; Luo Xianglin, Kejia yanjiu daolun (Research on Hakkas), Taibei: Zhongwen Tushu Co., 1981.

22 Janice Stockard, Daughters of the Canton Delta: marriage patterns and economic strategies in south China, 1860–1930, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989; Marjorie Topley, ‘Marriage resistance in rural Kwangtung’, in Arthur Wolf, ed., Studies in Chinese society, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1978, pp. 247–68.

23 Adam McKeown, Chinese migrant networks and cultural change: Peru, Chicago, Hawaii, 1900–1936, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2001, Chapter 2.

24 Proportions of European women also varied between destinations. For example, fewer Italian women migrated to Latin America than to the United States. Also, a chart of overall proportions of female migration to the United States looks different than this chart differentiated into separate streams. Overall female migration held at a relatively steady 40% from the 1840s until the late 1890s, when it dipped to about 30% until the First World War. This dip represents both the increased proportions of migrants from south-east Europe and a slight decrease in the proportion of women from north-west Europe. See Donna Gabaccia and Elizabeth Zanoni, ‘Gender transitions among international migrants, 1820–1930’, unpublished paper for the Social Science History Association Conference, Long Beach, California, October 2009.

25 An anonymous reviewer suggested that the First World War had the effect of pulling European women more strongly into the labour market. This does not help to explain shifts in Chinese migration.

26 José C. Moya, ‘Immigrants and associations: a global and historical perspective’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 31, 2005, pp. 833–64.

* Special thanks must go to José C. Moya for his role in the conceptualization of this article. An early version of this paper, written for a panel on gender and migration that he organized for the 2008 Social Science History Association Conference in Miami, Florida, compelled me finally to analyse and write up my data. More importantly, more than four years of discussion and co-teaching a lecture course on world migration helped generate many of the ideas in this article. For a fuller account of our points of agreement – or at least of points on which we are willing to compromise – see José C. Moya and Adam McKeown, ‘Global migration in the long twentieth century’, forthcoming both as a pamphlet in the American Historical Association series on the history of the twentieth century and as part of a volume of these pamphlets edited by Michael Adas for Temple University Press. This article, on the other hand, is equally inspired by our points of agreement and disagreement (most of which revolve around the relative scale and importance of Euro-Atlantic as compared to Asian migration) and by the need to address some of the methodological difficulties that have pervaded our debates.


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