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1868 – The Early Years and Contributions

The First American Ship to China

Since the 1760s all trades between China and the Western nations had been conducted in Guangzhou (Canton), southern China. In August 1784, the Empress of China arrived in Guangzhou, became the first vessel to sail from the United States to China. This journey marked the new nation’s entrance into the lucrative China trade in tea, porcelain, and silk.

According to The Maryland Journal, the Pallas by commander O’Donnell from Guangzhou arrived at Baltimore on August 9, 1785. Among the 34-member crew were Ashing, Achun, Accun, they were – on historical record – the first three Chinese, who came to America.

The First Wave of Chinese Immigrants

Throughout the early 1800s, Chinese immigrants trickled into the country, including students, sailors, businessmen, servants, and laborers. The first wave of Chinese immigrants came to the United States in the 1850s, eager to escape the economic chaos in China and to try their luck at the California Gold Rush (1848).

When the Gold Rush ended, Chinese laborers were considered cheap labor. They easily found employment as farmhands, gardeners, domestics, laundry workers, and most famously, railroad workers who built the Transcontinental Railroad (1864-1869). Many Chinese laborers also worked at southern plantations after the Civil War.

The population of Chinese immigrants reached about 25,000 in 1852; by 1880, it increased to over 300,000.

The Contributions of Chinese Immigrants

The Senate Resolution 201 in 2011 recognized “[t]he contributions of persons of Chinese descent in the agriculture, mining, manufacturing, construction, fishing, and canning industries were critical to establishing the foundations for economic growth in the Nation, particularly in the western United States.”

Anson Burlingame

On June 14, 1861, Anson Burlingame, a congressman from Massachusetts, was appointed by Abraham Lincoln as the American envoy to China.  Burlingame was a Methodist with high moral standard and integrity, as exhibited by his stance against slavery.

Upon arrival in China, Burlingame traveled to many cities and rural regions to understand the country’s history, culture and its people. Burlingame quickly recognized China as a sovereign nation under enormous pressure exerted by the imperialist powers, started speaking up on the issues of unfair treatment and injustice perpetrated by the Western powers in the years following the two Opium Wars.

At the end of his appointment as American envoy to China, the Chinese government appointed Burlingame in November 1867 as China’s envoy to Washington and as roving envoy to major capitals of Europe for the purpose of renegotiating China’s treaties with these foreign powers.

The Burlingame Treaty of 1868

Representing China, Burlingame negotiated with Secretary of State William H. Seward to amend the Treaty of Tientsin under the principles of equality, fairness, and reciprocity enjoyed by other nations. As a result, the U.S.-China Burlingame Treaty of 1868 granted China the “Most Favored Nation” status, established formal friendly relations, bilateral trade and free flow of immigration between the two countries.

The Burlingame Treaty effectively lifted all restrictions on emigration from China to America. However, the Chinese immigrants were excluded from obtaining citizenship through the naturalization process.