By Lorri Carlson

When considering the history of the Chinese in Prescott, I repeatedly ask "why?" Why would so many individuals leave their families, homes and the homeland of their ancestors? Why would they leave so much behind? Why would they take such risks and face such uncertainty? Indeed, the hope of finding gold in the Western United States during the second half of the 19th century lured Easterners and Europeans in addition to the Asian population. It is my intent to understand what circumstances pushed the emigrants to leave China.

The very specific pull factor, the lure of the gold rush and the promise of improved economic opportunity, certainly contributed to China's 19th century emigration and influenced many emigrants in choosing "Gold Mountain" as their destination. However, news of gold served as only one of the factors resulting in Chinese immigration to the United States. It is one thing to dream of wealth, but it is quite another to actually board the ship. In an attempt to better understand "why," it is imperative to examine the factors that worked to push individuals toward actually leaving China. The Opium War, the conflict between the Hakka and Punti, the Taiping Rebellion, a series of natural disasters, and the development of passage systems affected the exodus of many Chinese. 

Following China's defeat in the Opium War of 1839-1842, a series of unequal treaties disintegrated China's traditional rural economy. Cash crops and unequal foreign trade caused many peasants to lose access to the land. As indicated by the Chinese American Data Center, "History of Chinese Americans in the United States," increasing populations of peasants were concentrated on smaller parcels of land. The very small minority of wealthy landowners, from whom the peasants rented land, excluded the poor from any opportunity to improve their conditions. Other than death, the peasants were limited to the options of revolt or emigration. The economic hardships left no margin for the devastating consequences typical of natural disasters or war. Unfortunately, China was plagued with both during the mid to late 19th century. 

Him Mark Lai describes the background on the Hakka/Punti Conflict quite well. According to Him Lai, the conflict between the Hakka, which means "guest people," and the Han Chinese or Punti, "people of the earth," occurred in an area historically known as Sze Yup. Sze Yup means "four counties" and refers specifically to Xinhui, Taishan, Kaiping, and Enping along the China Coast in the Province of Guangdong. The Sze Yup became the Wuyi region in 1732 when a 5th county was formed, Heshan. Beginning in the 17th century, the Hakka people settled in Heshan and the other counties of the Wuyi Yup, having migrated from the overpopulated areas of East and Han Rivers. The Punti came to rely upon the Hakka for greatly needed field labor. Tension escalated between the Hakka immigrants and the Punti population with physical violence erupting in the early 1850's and eventually the long bloody conflict engulfed the entire county of Taishan. The Hakkas were forced into the southeast corner of Taishan, sold to the coolie trade, or fled to southern Guangdong and Hainan until the Punti finally prevailed with the realization of a truce in 1867. Even with the truce and the brutal enforcement of peace by a renewed central government, the Punti remained on the margin of survival. The devastating conditions for both the Hakka and Punti drove many to emigrate to South-East Asia, Australia and America. 

Simultaneous to the Hakka/Punti conflict, opposition to the Manchu government and the establishment manifested itself in the Taiping Rebellion, 1851-1864. In reaction to widespread impoverishment and misery, Hong Xiuquan formulated an eclectic ideology based on the ideals of Pre-Confucian Utopianism and Protestant beliefs. Thousands of followers soon organized militarily and by 1851 Hong initiated an uprising in Guizhou, the start of the Taiping Rebellion. The revolt lasted for 14 years before being crushed by the Chinese army at a cost of over 30 million lives. Again, captives were forced into the coolie trade, which often meant they were forced into being emigrant laborers. 

Geography and natural disasters also contributed to the mass emigration from the Wuyi Region of China during the second half of the 19th century. The hilly landscape included only limited arable land for agriculture. The Tan and West Rivers form a delta that has provided the richest land of the region. However, deltas and floods are almost inseparable and, in 19th century Wuyi, this was certainly the case. Between 1851 and 1908, the population of the area suffered from 14 serious floods, seven typhoons, four earthquakes, two severe droughts, four epidemics and five great famines. 

Finally, impoverished emigrants in particular needed the means to be able to leave their dire circumstances. The Chinese American Data Center explains the development of the passage system. Poor laborers had two basic options. Chinese middlemen organized a system whereby they advanced the cost of passage to an emigrant who then agreed to work out his debt after arrival. Most emigrants to Southeast Asia, Australia, and North America utilized this system. The other method commonly used in Peru, Cuba, and Hawaii "required the emigrants to sign contracts agreeing to serve in a foreign land for a specified time in return for passage. These arrangements were handled at the treaty ports by Chinese recruiters working for Western entrepreneurs." This system often resulted in deception or coercion of laborers going abroad only to wind up living in slave like conditions. Labor contracting in China became known as "pig selling" and transpired through notorious practices. 

By 1880, over 100,000 Chinese lived in the United States. It is estimated that 80 percent of all emigrants who went to the continental United States during the 19th century came from the county of Taishan. Clan-lineage gives us some clues as to where immigrants originally lived. Immigration to the United States is predominately from the north and central parts of Taishan and along the Tan River valley in Kaiping. Members of clans tended to settle in specific areas in North America. For example, the Huang clan is predominant in San Francisco and LA, the Chen in Seattle and New York, the Kuang in Sacramento, the Mei in Chicago, and the Yu in Detroit. Kaiping immigrants, such as the Deng clan, are numerous in Phoenix, the Guan in LA, and the Zhou in Mississippi. Many Chinese laundrymen in the US were Taishan immigrants or their descendants while the Kaiping people tended to own and operate grocery stores in Arizona and the Mississippi Delta region. The Xinhui clan names include Chen, Tan Lin, Zhao, Xue, Zhong, Tang, Jiang, and Lu. Fewer immigrants came from Enping and Heshan than these other areas of the Wuyi. Some prominent Enping names are Zheng, Tang, Feng, and Wu. These clans are largely found in San Francisco and New York. Therefore, Chinese immigrants in the Yavapai County area can potentially be identified with a specific place of origin and even family occupation just by knowing their surnames. 

Saying someone is American or Chinese gives very little description. The immigrants from China were individuals who came from specific communities and brought with them their own stories. They were primarily looking for a way to escape death by starvation, rebellion or disease. Dreams of Gold Mountain surely provided the degree of hope necessary for survival, even though it meant leaving all that was familiar in exchange for all that was strange. These powerful push factors help to explain why so many emigrants would leave China and come to the United States, where social hostility attended every economic opportunity they hoped for. 

(Lorri Carlson is the Director of Records Management for Yavapai County.)