AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 670

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Session 670: New Sources and Research on Overseas Chinese Hometowns (Qiaoxiang) in Guangdong: Late 19th to Mid-20th Centuries

Organizer: Wing-Kai To, Bridgewater State University, USA

Discussants: Wing-Kai To, Bridgewater State University, USA; Haiming Liu, Independent Scholar, USA

This panel brings together three historians from the Guangdong Qiaoxiang (overseas Chinese hometowns) Research Center in Wuyi University in Jiangmen as well as two scholars in Chinese American transnationalism studies to explore new sources and perspectives for the study of Chinese diaspora in North America. They address the significance of immigrant letters and overseas Chinese hometowns journals (qiaokan) in providing insights about various perspectives on family, economy, education, and gender in south China transnational relations with the United States. Immigrant historian Haiming Liu compares Chinese immigrant letters in south China and the INS files in the United States by offering some case studies of social history of south China transnationalism. Jin Liu, an author of two books on Chinese immigrant remittances, explores the development of remittance networks in highlighting issues of social mobility and cultural change in Kaiping and Taishan counties in the early Republic period. Jinhua Tan, a historian of diaolou (watchtowers) architecture known for the World Cultural Heritage, examines educational reforms as a key to cultural development in Kaiping county especially in the 1920s and 1930s. Jinping Shi, a historian of lineage of south China, addresses the problems of social disorder and the plight of women in post-WWII overseas Chinese hometowns. Chaired by a historian of South China and Chinese Americans, this panel shows the breadth and depth of overseas Chinese studies by utilizing local sources and new perspectives in the social history of “qiaoxiang”.

Understanding Chinese America as a Transnational Community Through Chinese Immigrant Letters
Haiming Liu, Independent Scholar, USA

In studying early Chinese migration to the United States, two types of primary sources are most specific in facts, meticulous in detail, and “precise” in describing immigrants’ demographical characters, kinship relationship, and social and economical conditions on both side of the Pacific. One type is Chinese immigrant letters (mostly in Chinese). The other is US INS immigration files especially built for Chinese immigrants during the Exclusion period (1882-1943). In both types of documents, we could find names of parents, grand parents, marriages and wives, multiple names of Chinese men, age and gender of siblings and children, kinship relationships, village schools, ancestor hall, physical layout of the home villages, architecture style, even furnishings of the houses. We could probably write the most detailed social history of Guangdong, China based on Chinese immigrant letters and the INS files. Neither of them were neutral, objective or value-free primary research materials. Each was significant in its own respective way and helped make Chinese America a transnational community. While INS files reflected immigration officers’ deep suspicion of Chinese community as an effective network of illegal immigrants, many Chinese immigrant letters were actually “coaching papers” that prepared their relatives and friends to survive the grueling INS interrogations. Each was also growing in amount. While US INS officers continuously accumulated the files and became increasingly professional as gate-keepers, the Chinese immigrants refused to give up their American “dream” and continuously wrote “coaching” letters. When we cross-examine Chinese immigrant letters and INS immigration files, we should not just distinguish mere truth from fabricated facts but also critically determine when, how and why Chinese American community became a transnational world.

Remittances Network and Social Mobility in the Hometowns of Overseas Chinese in North America—A Case Study of Kaiping and Taishan in the Late Qing and Republican Period
Jin Liu, Independent Scholar, China

This paper will focus on the social mobility in Qiaoxiang – the Overseas Chinese hometown, with the process of transnational migration from South China to North America during the Late Qing and Republican period. In modern times, the Chinese immigrants in North America were mainly from South-western part of the Pearl River Delta, Guangdong Province. Most of them were from Taishan and Kaiping counties. The main purpose for the peasants in South China to go abroad was to seek for job opportunities, with the hope that one day they could make a good fortune – to achieve their “Gold Mountain Dream”. As such, lots of remittances were sent back to these emigrants’ hometowns, and that formed the connections of the hometown and other countries in terms of emigration and circulation of goods and information. It was very difficult for Chinese peasants to gain higher social status in modern China. However, to some degree, the peasants in South China could achieve this via the transnational network of remittances sent from overseas. They had economic capital and symbolic capital by showing off their wealth, which could help them obtain social status. They invested in industry and business; they transferred their residence from villages to towns and cities, they invested schools and education in their hometowns, through which their younger generations could gain social status. The paper provides evidence about these myriad networks of remittances through letters and other sources.

Local Education in the Hometowns of Overseas Chinese in North America during the Republican Period (1911-1949): Kaiping County as a Case Study
Jinhua Tan, Independent Scholar, China

After the establishment of the Republic of China, Dr. Sun Yat-sen paid great attention to educational reforms. Similar to contemporary developments in Shanghai and the Jiangnan region, Guangdong’s educational reform spread in the whole province like a raging fire, especially in the hometowns of Overseas Chinese. The Overseas Chinese experienced racial discrimination in the United States but they also benefitted from the exposure to western modernity. They understood that the only way to save China, their motherland, is to reform and develop a better educational system, through which the country will become strong. They donated to build schools, libraries and also newspapers and periodicals, to ensure younger generations could have better opportunities to introduce advanced western ideas and modern education. They even hope, at the same time, that they could modernize their hometown villages with a better educational system. They believed they could “have Kaiping as a base and with a small brigade of army, turn the fate of China” The majority of Overseas Chinese living in North America during the early Republican Period was from Guangdong Province, the Siyi District in particular. This paper attempts to focus on the education of Kaiping in early Rpublican China, to analyze the educational development in the hometown of Overseas Chinese in North America.

Remittances, Watchtowers, and Gender : Reconstruction of Post WWII Overseas Chinese Hometowns in the Siyi Counties
Jianping Shi, Independent Scholar, China

After the Second World War the networks of financial remittances from overseas Chinese were restored in the Kaiping and Taishan areas of Guangdong. The return of overseas Chinese capital was instrumental in promoting social order. The wartime instability and corruption of the customs agencies had resulted in the coercion of overseas Chinese for payment as well as loss of remittances from banditry. In order to deal with this social disorder many overseas Chinese began to donate funds to construct watchtowers, purchase ammunitions and organize local militias for self-defense. Thanks to the support of overseas Chinese to restore social welfare and remittances in the postwar period many lineages and schools were rebuilt. Yet the sex ratio was disproportionate with many young male villagers left for work during wartime which led to much ordeal of local women. Wives of many overseas Chinese died of starvation and families were dislocated due to the interruptions of overseas remittances. While public opinion supported these men to return to China to get married the chastity of local women remains a matter of public concern. Many journals reported and debated about court cases such as rape and remarriage in an effort to promote traditional female chastity and moral order. This paper highlights the social problems facing overseas Chinese hometowns in economic security, public order, and gender inequalities.