Push & Pull: Motives for the Immigration of Chinese Women to America

by Chung-Yu Hsieh '01

A Chinese immigrant woman faced many physical dangers such as sexual molestation by sailors and harsh traveling conditions aboard long ship journeys en route to America (Ling 1998).

Once in America, if she was able to gain entry, she faced discrimination and anti-Chinese violence. In fact, in the US "a typical description of Chinese women referred to them as "queer and diminutive specimens of the human family . . . walking through the streets with as much delicacy as a turkey treading on hot ashes" (Yung 1986:15).

Why then did the flow of Chinese immigrant women to the US gradually increase in the second half of the nineteenth century?

"Chinese immigrant women were "pushed" by forces in China and "pulled" by attractions in the United States" (Ling 1998:20).

The Push

In the 1840s and 1850s, China was hit with a series of natural disasters. For example, in 1847, Henen suffered a massive draught. Then two years later, a famine struck Guangxi. The provinces of Hubei, Anhui, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang were flooded by the Yangtze River . The Taiping Revolution from 1850 to 1864, set off by flood and famine in Guangdong, disrupted the land and the peasantry politically and economically. (Ling 1998) Economic disasters also ravaged the nation. The Opium Wars increased the import of opium from 33,000 chests in 1842 to 52,929 chests in 1850. The outflow of more than ten million teals of silver in 1848 exacerbated the copper-silver exchange rate. The influx of foreign goods caused the collapse of local household industries and the self-sufficient agrarian economy. All those affected by these "push" factors became potential emigrants. Ling 1998)

The Pull

What pulled Chinese women to come to America? One of the more predominant reasons was the desire to reunite with their families. According to immigration records, more than ninety percent of the thousands of women granted entry into the United States between 1898 and 1908 were coming to join husbands or fathers already in America.

Many Chinese women also came to America to marry Chinese merchants settled in America. The women, however, were first raised in China, and then brought over to the US when they were ready to marry. This practice stemmed from the belief that it was safer and cheaper this way. After all, the anti-Chinese sentiment on the West Coast was increasing and as it was, many Chinese in the US had financial difficulties. (Ling 1998)

Another motive to immigrate to the US was more economical. The lure of the "land of gold" was too great. Unfortunately, often times, the women found themselves tricked into slavery and prostitution. For example, one of the early prostitutes of San Francisco recounted how she came to be a prostitute. She describes a laundryman who came to her home and told her mother and her stories of making much money in the US and how he needed a wife. Both mother and daughter were delighted that he chose the daughter for marriage, but when she arrived in San Francisco, she learned that she was brought over as a "slave" and would be forced into prostitution. Her tale was an all too common one told. (Ling 1998)

However, not all motives for immigration were economical or due to a sense of family. Many women came for personal fulfillment. The number of Chinese female students immigrating to the US increased between 1910 and 1930. In fact, Chinese female students arrived as early as 1881. (Ling 1998) The motives of Chinese women immigrating to the US ranged from factors in homeland China to lures of "the land of gold". These push and pull factors caused an increase in the population of Chinese women in the US that changed the face of America's Chinese communities, or "bachelor societies" as they were often called, forever.


Why did I choose the topic "Chinese immigrant women's motives for coming to the US"? I chose early Chinese immigrant women because I am a modern Chinese immigrant woman. My twelve years of history education at school never ever once mentioned Chinese women in history. I recall vague references to Chinese immigrants when my teachers were talking about immigration patterns in the early twentieth century, but that was about it.

From readings in college history classes and common sense, I already figured that two main motives of Chinese women coming to the US were (1) to reunite with their husbands and / or fathers and (2) economic reasons. The motive of personal fulfillment, which for some was to obtain an education, surprised me somewhat, especially since women's suffrage in the US was just barely beginning to grow.

The push factors surprised me as well because of my ignorance of China's history, also due to a sadly lacking education in world history. After doing my paper, I can relate more to early Chinese immigrant women. Before, it was difficult for me to find much in common with them. I say this because I had no ancestors among the immigrants. In fact, my father and his brothers were the first in my whole family to ever set foot on American soil and then, not until the early eighties. I have no family members living in China. We are from Taiwan and were already there before 1949 and before Chiang Kai-shek.

How is it then that the motives of Chinese immigrant women can make me feel a connection I barely felt before? Because my mom had the same motives when she packed up her three young daughters and came to America fourteen years ago. My father had come to the US a year and a half before to see if there was a better life to be had here. His brother, educated and married in America, persuaded him to leave his young family at home and come find new opportunities. Almost two years later, my mom decided to join him.

In the US, my parents hoped to fare better economically for the family and give their three daughters the education they (my parents) never had. Now fourteen years later, I sit here as a student of a prestigious college and the younger sister of two women with college degrees and rising careers. I feel like my life, in a way, was what those immigrant women desired and what many of them were prevented from having because of gross injustice.



Ling, Huping. (1998) Surviving on the Gold Mountain. Albany, NY. State University of New York Press.

Yung, Judy. (1986) Chinese Women of America: A Pictorial History. Seattle, WA. University of Washington Press.