Inscription on the Past from Present Inquiries Historiography of Nineteenth Century Chinese Immigrant Public Women

By Huang, Carol | Advancing Women in Leadership, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Inscription on the Past from Present Inquiries Historiography of Nineteenth Century Chinese Immigrant Public Women


Huang, Carol, Advancing Women in Leadership


Whenever women continue to serve as boundary markers between different national, ethnic and religious collectives, their emergence as full fledged citizens will be jeopardized."

Deniz Kandiyoti, "Identity and Its Discontents : Women and the Nation"

"There has been no single historical canon or permanent story, but an evolving argument rewritten by each generation."

Benjamin J. Barber, An Aristocracy of Everyone

Chinese immigrant women arrived in America's West in the mid nineteenth century. Their arrival marked the beginning of Chinese American women in the United States of America [1]. They left very few documents of their own. They were assumed to have followed the Chinese men to the West after the gold rush to serve the men. A majoritity of them were called "One Hundred Men's Wives" or prostitutes [2]. In the Western construction and conceptualization of Chinese women of this particular time, they have been portrayed as victims of patriarchy and the capitalist system.

Their histories up until the emergence of Women's Studies in the 1970s were mostly written by the missionaries who worked in China, Mission Home workers in the US who rescued them and journalists who sensationalized them. Since they did not leave much in the way of primary sources, it is very difficult to write their histories. Their experience poses a great challenge for any one who wishes to conduct research on them. Among the issues involved in their history, one of the major areas of contestation lies in the Mission Home education which claimed to educate a great number of Chinese immigrant women during this period [3].

Traditionally, up until 1970s, the consensus about the history of the Mission Home Educated Chinese immigrant women was that a majority of them were prostitutes because Chinese custom did not allow women to follow their husbands to the United States of America. Only indecent, poor or kidnapped women such as prostitutes came to the "Gold Montain". The pre-1970 consensus holds that during the Progressive Era when the Wild West began to make its transition to a more family oriented community, the Chinese women were rescued by the Christian Mission Homes and were reformed/educated to be good Victorian Christian women. Then under the miscengenation law, they were married to reputable Chinese merchants, and according to the pre-1970 view that was the origin of Chinese American Family in the United States. Chinese American communities contested many facts involved in this type of discourse. For instance, they considered the numbers of women rescued to be heavily exagerated. They were also very dubious about the Westernized education received by this group of women. Furthermore, they asked how the Chinese American Communities dealt with this shameful origin of their female ancestors? Nonetheless, Mission Home education had a long-lasting impact on the education of Chinese women and Chinese American families during the exclusion era.

In the past three decades, the history of Chinese immigrant women in the 19th Century has been retold and reinterpreted with rather creative ways of doing history. By analyzing the shifting of perspectives and innovative ways of using existing documents in viewing and interpreting the experience of Chinese immigrant women in the Nineteenth century, the article intends to uncover some of the hidden ideology and long muffled issues to further discuss the re/construction of the origin of Chinese American women and their education.

Women as Stigmatized Chinese Self-consciousness: East Meets West

The image of women as victims of Chinese tradition is a stereotype in which both Western scholars and Chinese May Fourth (1917-24) Western-educated intellectuals were complicit. During the May Fourth discourse, "women" became a figure for the struggle between tradition and modernity. "Women became the 'stand-ins' for China's traumatized self-consciousness" (Chow, 1991, p. …

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