Dehumanization, humiliation, assault, theft, rape, colonization, appropriation—these became the standard Western approach towards China and the Chinese; the Chinese people were “filthy yellow hordes,” an inferior, subhuman race, lacking agency, fit only to be colonized, exploited, enslaved, lynched, erased, and wherever possible, extinguished through race war.
It would continue.
The Yellow Peril and a Chinaman’s Chance
Inside U.S. territory itself, the mythology of the “yellow peril”—originally a German colonial war trope—became pervasive. Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune, argued that the Chinese were “uncivilized, unclean, and filthy beyond all conception, without any of the higher domestic or social relations; lustful and sensual in their dispositions; every female is a prostitute of the basest order.” Greeley, a progressive, was simply mouthing the platitudes of his day.
Much worse than rhetoric was the routine violence. Chinese immigrant labor was employed during the California gold rush and the building of the transcontinental railroad across the U.S. (1848 to 1869). What followed, prefiguring similar present-day fears, was the idea that the Chinese were stealing jobs, wealth, or threatening America. Thousands of Chinese were massacred, lynched, set on fire, expelled from their communities in the late 19th century.
Starting in 1871, violent mobs attacked Chinese immigrants. A mass lynching in the Los Angeles’s Chinatown that year was followed in 1880 by the Denver Yellow Peril pogrom. On September 3rd, 1885, during the Wyoming Rock Springs massacre, Chinese workers were scalped, mutilated, castrated, dismembered; 50 were murdered, and 78 Chinese homes burned to the ground. This was followed days later by incidents in Washington Territory: the Issaquah Valley attack, the Coal Creek mines attack, and the Black Diamond expulsions. In November of that year, in Tacoma, 200 Chinese were rounded up at gunpoint and forced into boxcars, expelled on trains whose tracks they had built. After their expulsion, the entire Chinatown of Tacoma was razed and burned to the ground.
This string of expulsions and atrocities would continue in 1886: the Seattle Riot expelled 350 Chinese; in 1887, Oregon Hell’s Canyon massacre robbed, mutilated, and murdered 34 Chinese.
At least 150 such attacks against Chinese in U.S. states and territories were recorded. “A Chinaman’s chance” became a common term: To be Chinese was to be subject to sudden death at any time at the whim of white people.
In response, the Chinese hid themselves inside ghettoes where they could. They fled pogroms, arson, and mass lynchings, and kept their heads down, “eating bitter” and trying to stay alive. Where they managed to settle down without being killed, they were subjected to cultural erasure, economic blockade, social isolation, a ban on owning property and businesses, and a proscription on marrying and having children ¾ in short, planned elimination.
U.S.-Chinese Foreign Relations and the Red Scare