4. Emigration – An Important Step in China’s Modernization

Many historians have focused on economic hardship as the only cause of Chinese emigration to America. The reasons espoused have been reduced to a simplistic formula of “fighting, flood, and famine”. The fighting part of the formula cites the Taiping Rebellion, but as can be seen by the map to the right, the Rebellion, though it was led by a Cantonese, never reached Guangdong. In addition, the Taiping Rebellion started after the Chinese started emigrating to America.

Flooding and famine were constants in a pre-modern China that affected every region of the country. The Pearl River Delta was able to weather the effects of these natural calamities better than many other parts of the country because it was more developed. Rather than being the poorest province, Guangdong was among the richest. The almost one century when Canton was the only open port for trade with the West affected the Pear River Delta economy in a profound way. Trade created wealth. In 1850, the richest man in the world was a Cantonese merchant named Howqua, who made his fortune in international trade. His fortune was so immense he invested in projects in England and the United States.

As the filter through which all western trade had to pass, Canton along with the surrounding Pearl River Delta soon surpassed the other provinces that had no access to international markets. The reliance on a subsistence agriculture economy was no longer necessary. Now food, primarily rice and other grains, were being brought in from Southeast Asia to feed the people.

A forgotten reason for emigration had its roots in the political history of Guangdong. In 1644, the Manchus invaded from the north, breached the Great Wall, and occupied Beijing. The Ming Dynasty court fled south. Capturing the capital did not mean the end of the Ming. Just as when the Mongols invaded, the conquest would take years. The Qing warriors forced the Ming south. Fighting would continue for another decade and a half as the new Qing Dynasty consolidated its power.

As the southernmost province, Guangdong, once again played host to the victims of a barbarian attack from the north. In the early 1650’s the Ming Emperor, Yongli established his capital at Zhaoquing in the Pearl River Delta. As the Qing forces advanced, he fled to Guangxi. But he left many loyal forces in Guangdong. A resistance movement by the loyalists of the Ming grew. They build a fortress in the south of Taishan at Wencun where they fought off the Manchu armies for years. Finally in 1659, Wencun was defeated, the last stronghold of the Ming Dynasty.

The Qing Dynasty, seeking revenge against the Cantonese for their fierce resistance, instituted polices to prevent a rebellion. Much of the resistance to the Qing had been supported by the Cantonese who had traveled abroad, to places like Taiwan, the Philippines and Southeast Asia. To break this connection, the Qing decreed that any area within 16 miles of the coastline was a “dead zone”. Anyone caught in the dead zone would be summarily executed. Taishan with one of the longest coastline of any country in Guangdone was the most heavily affected.

In addition to creating a dead zone, the Qing also outlawed emigration on the penalty of death and requested that foreign governments repatriate those that had gone abroad. All emigrants were treated by the Qing and traitors or potential traitors. This law would remain in effect until 1894 when it was finally repealed.

Almost from the time the Manchus completed their conquest, the Cantonese started a resistance movement. The Cantonese never forgot the lesson taught by Minister Lu Xiufu: Never Give Up.

When the British started the Opium War and invaded Guandgong the Cantonese did not wait for the Manchus to defend them. Rather they organized local militias to fight. In San Yuan Li, the local militia routed the English in one of the few battles the Chinese won. From this battle, the Cantonese developed a strong hatred for the British.

…You have killed and injured our common people in many villages, and seriously hurt the universal harmony….This is properly a time when Heaven is angered and mankind is resentful….
– Cantonese placard, 1841

The hatred for the English was so strong, that the British, after winning the Opium War, rather than try to expand their presence in Guangzhou, moved north to the friendlier city of Shanghai.

At the same time, the Cantonese understood that in order to defend China, they had to modernize their society by using technology from the West. The Cantonese had tasted directly how destructive western technology could be if used for evil purposes.  They felt that by combining Western technology with Chinese culture, they could produce a more harmonious society.  It is a dream they are still pursuing today.

Canton had always been one of the intellectual and academic centers of China. Starting with the Opium War, the students, scholars, and mandarins and Canton would study and debate how to modernize China. They were particular interested in the relatively new country of the United States, a country that rebelled against England and formed a democracy. Unlike the hated British, the Chinese had always felt that the Americans were a more fair and honest people.

Economic opportunity, overthrowing the Qing, modernizing China and studying the political system of democracy, all were important themes in examining the larger narrative of Chinese emigration to America.

For the Cantonese, these were not mere abstract concepts to be discussed over a cup of rice wine. Almost from the day the first Cantonese set foot on American soil, they formed secret societies (Tongs or Triads). These Tongs were established for the very purpose of destroying the Qing Dynasty. “Fan Qing, Fu Ming” (Overthrow the Qing; Restore the Ming”) was their rallying cry. Every member of a tong was sworn to support this cause.

About 90% of the Chinese that emigrated to America joined a Tong. While it is difficult to estimate how many of the Chinese immigrants came here for political purposes, it would be hard to deny that overthrowing the tyrannical Qing Dynasty played a large role in motivating the Chinese to come to a nation that was

“…conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men were created equal.”

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