Chinese boycott of 1905

The Event: Chinese nationalist movement against the mistreatment of Chinese immigrants in the United States

Date: Began on July 20, 1905

Location: China, Southeast Asia, the United States

Significance: The boycott signified the emergence of modern Chinese nationalism and the importance of immigration in Sino-American relations.

Significant Chinese immigration to the United States began during California’s gold rush, which began in 1849. By the early twentieth century, the number of Chinese in the United States was more than 100,000. Chinese immigrants were frequent victims of racial discrimination then prevalent in the United States, suffering various mistreatments such as harassment, mob attacks, massacres, and restrictive or exclusionary legislation, local and federal. At the federal level, the U.S. Congress passed a series of exclusion laws in 1882, 1888, 1892, and 1894 that prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the United States. This prohibition was extended to include Hawaii in 1898 and the Philippines in 1900—Chinese laborers in these regions also were not allowed to come to the United States. Meanwhile, the “exempted” groups of Chinese who were permitted to enter the United States—officials, teachers, students, journalists, merchants, and travelers—were often subjected to abuses and humiliations.

The mistreatment of Chinese immigrants, and especially the exclusion laws, triggered furious protests from the Chinese in the United States. They tried to fight injustice and seek remedies, primarily through the legal channel. Having failed to gain protection from the U.S. courts, they looked to their homeland for help. In May, 1905, when the U.S. plenipotentiary William W. Rockhill arrived in Beijing (then known to the West as Peking) for Sino-American treaty negotiations, Chinese merchants and members of the Emperor Protection Society (Baohuang hui) in the United States sent wires and telegrams to various departments of the Chinese government urging it not to sign any treaty that would restrict Chinese immigration. The Chinese in China also were outraged by the American mistreatment of Chinese immigrants and were ready to take actions to support the cause of their Chinese compatriots in the United States.

Boycott Begins

On May 10, 1905, the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce board met and decided to call for a boycott of American goods. The chamber sent telegrams urging joint actions to the merchant guilds in twenty-one cities throughout China and received positive and enthusiastic response. Agitated also were students, writers, entertainers, women, and even children, who held meetings pressing for an anti-American boycott. Adding fuel to the popular agitation, a Chinese by the name of Feng Xiawei, who had been wrongly arrested by the Boston immigration officers and later returned to China, committed suicide in front of the American consulate in Shanghai on July 16, 1905, in protest of the injustice he had suffered in the United States. On July 20, the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce held a meeting, announcing commencement of the boycott.

The anti-American boycott in China was a nationwide urban popular and peaceful movement. It spread to most Chinese cities, including those in Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Guangdong, Fujian, Sichuan, Hubei, Jiangxi, Jilin, Zhejiang, Shaanxi, Shandong, and Hebei provinces, and involved people from all walks of life and all social strata—merchants, scholars, students, laborers, women, and children. The Chinese participated in the boycott movement in different ways. Merchants, as the leading group of the boycott, stopped ordering or selling American goods, mostly consumer goods such as cotton textiles, petroleum, matches, cigarettes, flour, and other items in daily use—soap, candles, cosmetics, hardware, and stationery. Students and artists resorted to artistic and literary works—novels, plays, storytelling, songs or ballad-singing, posters, handbills and pamphlets, and speeches—to describe the suffering of Chinese immigrants in the United States, to express their opposition to the Chinese exclusion laws, and to demonstrate their pride in being Chinese. The anti-American boycott in China received support from Chinese communities in other countries and regions such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, Japan, and the Philippines.

The boycott movement in China reached its climax between July and September of 1905. Afterward, it gradually lost its momentum because of the withdrawal of merchants, especially those who dealt with American goods, and because of the change in the Chinese government’s attitude toward the movement from sympathy to suspicion and even hostility. The Chinese government was worried that the boycott would turn into an antigovernment movement. The boycott eventually died out in late 1905 and early 1906.

The boycott of 1905 did not reverse the U.S. immigration policy toward Chinese nationals, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 remained in effect until 1943. Nevertheless, the movement demonstrated the force of rising Chinese nationalism and helped reinforce the bond between Chinese communities in the United States and their compatriots in China.

Yunqiu Zhang

Further Reading

  • Cassel, Susie Lan, ed. The Chinese in America: A History from Gold Mountain to the New Millennium. Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press, 2002.Comprehensive history of the impact of Chinese immigration on the United States since the time of the California gold rush. 
  • McKee, Delber L. “The Chinese Boycott of 1905- 1906 Reconsidered: The Role of Chinese Americans.” Pacific Historical Review 55, no. 2 (May, 1986): 165-191. Scholarly analysis of the boycott from a Chinese perspective. 
  • Tsai, Jung-Fang. Hong Kong in Chinese History: Community and Social Unrest in the British Colony, 1842- 1913. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. Examination of the unique role Hong Kong has played in China’s history from the time it was taken over by Great Britain through the end of China’s Qing Dynasty. 
  • Wang, Guanhua. “Between Fact and Fiction: Literary Portraits of Chinese Americans in the 1905 Anti-American Boycott.” In Re/collecting Early Asian America, edited by Josephine Lee, Imogene L. Lim, and Yuko Matsukawa. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002. Examination of the lives of several of the key figures in the Chinese boycott. 
  • _______. In Search of Justice: The 1905-1906 Chinese Anti-American Boycott. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center, 2001. Full, scholarly study of the boycott by one of the leading authorities on the subject. 

See also: Anti-Chinese movement; California; Chinese American Citizens Alliance; Chinese American press; Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; Chinese Exclusion Cases; Chinese immigrants; Citizens Committee to Repeal Chinese Exclusion; Geary Act of 1892; Native Sons of the Golden State.

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