There hasn’t been much historical scholarship on the forms of political activism that existed within the Chinese-American communities in the US in the early part of the twentieth century. Historical research on the Chinese-American community has more often focused on poverty, discrimination, employment, immigration law, and racism. A very important exception to this is the life-long research of Him Mark Lai, collected in a fascinating recent book (Chinese American Transnational Politics, edited by Madeline Hsu). And, as Lai demonstrates, it is a fascinating and important story.
Lai was an independent scholar who devoted a lifetime to historical and archival research on the history of the Chinese communities in the United States. He was trained as an engineer and had a career as a mechanical engineer for Bechtel in San Francisco. But what he really cared about was history. And he became a founding pioneer in the field of Chinese-American studies. Here are several links to biographies and archives of Lai’s contributions (link, link). Here is how Lai frames his analysis of the Chinese-American Left:
The different Chinese left movements from the later nineteenth through the greater part of the twentieth century were offshoots of important political and social movements of the West. Probably because the Chinese population constituted only a small minority in the United States, little scholarly attention has focused on the historical development of these movements among them. This essay strives to piece together information scattered among many publications and oral sources to reconstruct this history and the varying roles of the individuals involved. This essay emphasizes activities concerning Chinese people in America rather than interpreting the inner workings, conflicts, or ideological leanings of global left movements.
Two factors stimulated the emergence and rise of left-wing activities among Chinese in America: the desire to improve their status in America, where they faced exploitation and racial oppression, and the hope of modernizing China into an internationally respected nation. (53)
The topic of interest here is the political identities that began to emerge within Chinese-American communities in the 1920s and 1930s. This is interesting for several reasons: the fact of an indigenous left in the US during these decades, which poses the questions of influence and alliance within the American left and radical working class movement; and the fact of rapid political development for reform and revolution in China itself, which raises the question of influence of Chinese radical thought on American Chinese intellectuals and activists. Lai documents the appearance of anarchist, socialist, and communist thought in leaders and intellectuals in leading Chinese-American communities, and he attempts to tease out the intellectual and political influences that created this efflorescence of the Chinese left in the US. (Here is an interesting link to short texts referring to Chinese anarchists in the United States in the 1920s.)
One potential influence that conspicuously did not occur was deliberate recruitment of Chinese people by left labor organizations in the US. “Even the Socialist Party, despite its emphasis on the common interests of the proletariat regardless of race or nationality, was hostile toward Chinese labor” (53). Only the IWW was able to genuinely embrace the anti-racist principles of the theory of socialism; only the Wobblies made determined efforts to organize and mobilize exploited Chinese workers in the US.
A key influence on Chinese-American activists was the impact that had been created in China by exposure to socialist and anarchist critiques of modern society.
During this period, Chinese Marxists and anarchists were chiefly intellectuals and students who had gone abroad to study and become politically active reformers and revolutionaries. Through Japanese and European writings, they learned about the ideas of Bakunin, Kropotkin, Marx, Engels, and others. Many articles touching on these doctrines appeared in newspapers and periodicals established by reform and revolutionary organizations in Hong Kong and Japan (54).
(Here is an online review by Jason Schultz of Arif Dirlik’s book, Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution. Dirlik gives a good representation of the thread of non-communist radicalism in China.)
These developments among Chinese activists and intellectuals diffused to the Chinese diaspora and concentrated Chinese populations abroad. “Around the turn of the twentieth century, first the reformers, then the Hongmen, followed by the revolutionaries, founded newspapers in major New World Chinese communities such as San Francisco, Honolulu, Vancouver, and New York City” (55). “The teachings of Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin gained in popularity as petty bourgeois Chinese intellectuals embraced the concept of committing acts of terrorism to help destroy the old order” (55). “Around 1907-08 the IWW recruited two Chinese sympathizers in San Francisco to translate some of their literature. In 1909 a Honolulu book club was already in existence and met periodically to discuss such works as ‘A Critique of Socialism,’ ‘Scientific Socialism,’ and ‘Marx'” (55-56).
Some of these political-social theories began to have an influence on ordinary working people in the Chinese communities of the United States. “Immigrants from China, many influenced by anarcho-syndicalist philosophies, were active in labor issues among the Chinese population on the North American mainland. The widespread labor unrest in the United States and Canada that peaked during the years following World War I probably contributed to such developments” (58). “One of the first major labor organizing efforts occurred in Vancouver, with the founding of the Zhonghua Gongdang [Chinese Labour Association] in 1916 and that group’s efforts to organize sawmill workers in the area. In 1918 and 1919 the association led successful strikes that won on such issues as shortening the workday from ten to eight hours” (58). “In the United States, Chinese spearheaded a major labor organizing effort in 1918, when Chicago waiters organized the Mon Sang Association to demand better working conditions. However, the largest group of Chinese organized workers was the Sanfanshi Gongyi Tongmeng Zonghui [Workers’ League of San Francisco, or Unionist Guild], founded in 1919 in San Francisco, which at the time had the largest population of Chinese shirt-factory workers” (58).
Anarcho-syndicalist ideas appear to have the earliest appeal to Chinese-American activists; but Marxism soon came along as well. “Chinese in America showed interest in Marxism as early as December 1919, when Oi-won Jung, a KMT party member who had also been active in the Chinese Socialist Club, helped organize Xin Shehui [New Society] in San Jose, California, ‘to study capitalism and communism and the radical politics of the New Russia'” (61). But, Lai argues, this influence did not reflect a connection between Chinese activists and the Communist Party of the United States of America; rather, the influence proceeded from debates occurring in China around the direction and strategies of the KMT. And the mortal split that eventually occurred between the KMT and the CCP forced division between radical Chinese groups in the US as well (70).
This summary only touches upon the complex and fascinating narrative that Lai constructs, interweaving the local grievances expressed by the Chinese-American community and the increasingly complex political relationships that evolved in China between KMT and CCP groups as China struggled towards revolution. It is a history well worth reading, and gives a good illustration of the power of “micro-history” as a way of discovering the underlying complexities of macro-level, world-historical phenomena — revolution, ideology, racism, injustice, and resistance.
(And now, for something completely different — Monty Python’s version of anarcho-syndicalism:)
One Reply to “The Chinese-American Left in the early 20th century”
Another book that might interest you is Josephine Fowler's Japanese and Chinese Immigrant Activists. Fowler also worked with Him Mark Lai while completing the book in 2005-6.