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The Chinese Question: The Gold Rushes and Global Politics
by: Mae M. Ngai
How Chinese migration to the world’s goldfields upended global power and economics and forged modern conceptions of race.
In roughly five decades, between 1848 and 1899, more gold was removed from the earth than had been mined in the 3,000 preceding years, bringing untold wealth to individuals and nations. But friction between Chinese and white settlers on the goldfields of California, Australia, and South Africa catalyzed a global battle over “the Chinese Question”: would the United States and the British Empire outlaw Chinese immigration?
This distinguished history of the Chinese diaspora and global capitalism chronicles how a feverish alchemy of race and money brought Chinese people to the West and reshaped the nineteenth-century world. Drawing on ten years of research across five continents, prize-winning historian Mae Ngai narrates the story of the thousands of Chinese who left their homeland in pursuit of gold, and how they formed communities and organizations to help navigate their perilous new world. Out of their encounters with whites, and the emigrants’ assertion of autonomy and humanity, arose the pernicious western myth of the “coolie” laborer, a racist stereotype used to drive anti-Chinese sentiment.
By the turn of the twentieth century, the United States and the British Empire had answered “the Chinese Question” with laws that excluded Chinese people from immigration and citizenship. Ngai explains how this happened and argues that Chinese exclusion was not extraneous to the emergent global economy but an integral part of it. The Chinese Question masterfully links important themes in world history and economics, from Europe’s subjugation of China to the rise of the international gold standard and the invention of racist, anti-Chinese stereotypes that persist to this day.
About the Author:
Mae M. Ngai is Lung Family Professor of Asian American Studies and Professor of History, and Co-Director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. She is a U.S. legal and political historian interested in the histories of immigration, citizenship, nationalism, and the Chinese diaspora. She is author of the award winning Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (2004); The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America (2010); and The Chinese Question: The Gold Rushes and Global Politics (2021). Ngai has written on immigration history and policy for the Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, the Atlantic, the Nation, and Dissent. Before becoming a historian she was a labor-union organizer and educator in New York City, working for District 65-UAW and the Consortium for Worker Education. She is now writing Nation of Immigrants: A Short History of an Idea (under contract with Princeton University Press).
About the speakers:
Elizabeth Blackmar, Mary and David Boies Professor of American History, specializes in social history of American property relations and the built environment. She received her B.A. from Smith and her Ph.D. from Harvard. Her publications include The Park and the People: A History of Central Park (with Roy Rosenzweig, 1992) and Manhattan for Rent, 1785-1850 (1989). Articles include “Of REITS and Rights: Absentee Ownership at the Periphery” in City, Country, Empire: Landscapes in Environmental History (2005); “Appropriating the Commons: The Tragedy of Property Rights Discourse”in The Politics of Public Space (2005); “Peregrinations of the Free Rider: The Changing Logics of Collective Obligation,” in Transformations in American Legal History: Essays in Honor of Morton Horwitz (2008); and “Inheriting Property and Debt: From Family Security to Corporate Accumulation,” in Capitalism Takes Command: The Social Transformation of Nineteenth-century America (2011).
Lydia H. Liu is the Wun Tsun Tam Professor in the Humanities; Director, Institute for Comparative Literature and Society. Her research centers on modern China, cross-cultural exchange, and global transformation in modern history, with a focus on the movement of words, theories, and artifacts across national boundaries and on the evolution of writing, textuality, and media technology. Professor Liu teaches courses on modern Chinese literature and culture in this department and offers graduate courses on comparative literature, critical translation theory, and new media in the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society. Among her many activities, Professor Liu established a new Tsinghua-Columbia Center for Translingual and Transcultural Studies (CTTS) at Tsinghua University in Beijing to promote international collaboration and interdisciplinary research. Before joining Columbia in 2006, she taught at the University of Michigan (2002–2006) and at the University of California at Berkeley (1990-2002).
Mary Lui is Professor of American Studies and History at Yale University. Her primary research interests include: Asian American history, urban history, women and gender studies, and public history. She is the author of The Chinatown Trunk Mystery: Murder, Miscegenation, and Other Dangerous Encounters in Turn-of-the-Century New York City (Princeton University Press, 2005). The book uses a 1909 unsolved murder case to examine race, gender, and interracial sexual relations in the cultural, social and spatial formation of New York City Chinatown from 1870-1920.
Moderated by: Adam Kosto specializes in the institutional and legal history of medieval Europe, with a focus on Catalonia and the Mediterranean. He received his B.A. from Yale (1989), an M.Phil. from Cambridge (1990), and his Ph.D. from Harvard (1996). He is the author of Making Agreements in Medieval Catalonia: Power, Order, and the Written Word, 1000-1200 (Cambridge UP, 2001) and Hostages in the Middle Ages (Oxford UP, 2012), and co-editor of The Experience of Power in Medieval Europe , 950-1350 (Ashgate, 2005), Charters, Cartularies, and Archives: The Preservation and Transmission of Documents in the Medieval West (PIMS, 2002), and Documentary Practices and the Laity in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge UP, 2012). He is a member of the Commission Internationale de Diplomatique and currently serves as program director for Columbia's History in Action initiative.