Posted: February 16th, 2022

Family and Marriage of Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century

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Family and Marriage of Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century Chinese Immigrant Women


Migration occurred in the late 19th century and early 20th century America partly because of work opportunities and political freedom. However, not all immigrants had equal status. Social and legal discrimination targeting specific groups like the Chinese meant that many could not make the choices they wanted. They thus had to adopt through unconventional social or economic structures. Immigration severely restricted Chinese immigrants’ economic conditions and marital options, so they adapted by constructing new marriage structures like polygamy, joint breadwinning, and the absence of interracial marriages. 

Article’s evidence

The author shows how immigration changed marriage structures through joint breadwinning. Before Chinese women came to the United States, their status in marriage was subordinate to the man or husband’s family. People lived with extended families in China, sometimes to the third and fourth generation. The arrangement meant that mothers-in-law had a greater say than wives in the home. Furthermore, many considered it disgraceful for women to work, so their roles were predominantly domestic. However, extended families no longer lived under one roof upon migrating to the US. Ling quotes Helen Hong, who affirmed that life in America allowed women to rule alongside their husbands (47).

Additionally, immigration restricted Chinese migrants’ participation in the economy. They could only engage in trades that other American families were uninterested in. Chinese women thus had to help their husbands run their laundry businesses or restaurants. Ling gives the example of a Paul Chan Pang Siu study in which wives of laundry workers did the laundry work and cared for the children, cooked, and spent time alone at the back of the laundry (47). This economic participation might have been mentally and physically strenuous, but it also empowered women’s position in the family.

Apart from economic restrictions, immigration also reduced the number of marriageable Chinese women. 19th Century and early 20th century Americans discriminated against the Chinese legally. Legislators passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned the entry of Asian women for prostitution. Therefore, Chinese men were disproportionately more than their female counterparts. Ling cites a statistic to this effect; by the late 19th century, the ratio of Chinese men to women in America was 20:1 (58). 

This lack of female suitors bred polyandry as one woman would engage with several men. Some men were polygamous since they had wives in China and new ones in the United States. They needed someone to bear children with them in the US and curb the loneliness of migrant life. Additionally, the gender gap led many male Chinese migrants to marry young girls born in the US and were probably their peers’ daughters. Ling gives the example of Gue Gim, a 15-year-old who got married to a 43-year-old restaurant owner (52). Generational differences between these women and their husbands often led to misunderstandings and unhappiness.

Interracial marriages were almost absent among Chinese women because of restrictive immigrant laws. Anti-miscegenation laws started in Maryland after white society panicked over racial mixing. By the 1800s, several states forbade Chinese-Caucasian unions or other interracial marriages. Ling mentioned section 60 of California law which rendered Asian and white marriages void (53). Therefore, Chinese immigrants could not marry outside their race. A few men did, owing to the glaring gender gap between men and women. It became redundant for Chinese women to look outside their race because so many Chinese men wanted them. Furthermore, because of society’s negative attitude towards the Chinese, many families encouraged their women to marry from their community. 

Articles sources

The author employed plenty of secondary sources that relate to the topic. Books like “Unbound Feet” and journal articles like “Split Household, Small Producers and Dual Wage Earner” cover studies on family and marital relationships among Chinese people in the study era (Ling 61). The author endeavored to determine topics that Chinese immigrant studies in the late 19th century and early 20th century covered, then showed how this journal article is filling the gap. Primary sources include case files from the National Archives of San Francisco, Certificates of Residents, and smuggling files (“The movement”). Additionally, items like California statutes help explain the legislative background of the decisions made.

Connection course

The course focuses on American history within the late 1800 and early 1900s. Certain economic, political, and social forces affected the way people lived. The course addresses aspects like immigration and how this affected the economy (3). Likewise, the author focuses on how Chinese immigration affected job opportunities in the article. However, the course may not have covered other aspects like marital structures and how immigration changed these.


Immigration restricted Chinese migrants’ economic options and marital opportunities, thus forcing them to explore alternative marital arrangements. Chinese men could not participate in ordinary labor opportunities, so they started their businesses and co-opted their women in running them. The businesses turned women into joint breadwinners, who were overworked but empowered. Legal immigration restrictions like the Exclusion Act and miscegenation laws severely restricted the number of Chinese women available for marriage. Therefore, these communities adapted through polygamy, having large gaps between men and women, and having no interracial marriages between Chinese women and other communities. 


Works Cited

“The movement of peoples changing America in the late 19th century.” XXX University. 

Ling, Huping. “Family and Marriage Of Late-Nineteenth And Early-Twentieth Century Chinese Immigrant Women.” Journal of American Ethnic History, vol. 19, no. 2, 2000, pp. 43-63, Accessed 29 January 2022. 


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