The Congressional debate over the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 reveals characterizations of China and the religious traditions of China held by Americans in the mid-19th century. Here Representative Kasson of Iowa, speaking in opposition to the Act, reminds his colleagues of the ethical foundations of Confucian Chinese civilization and of the questionable role so-called “Christian” nations played in introducing opium into China.
Much, sir, has been said about the character of the Chinese. I think much misapprehension has existed. There is a low order of Chinamen who are pagans, (as the whole country has been called here erroneously to-day,) and who are idolaters, and who are not good citizens. I no more deny this than I deny that those white people who went to John Bidwell’s plantation in California and murdered five Chinamen were low, bad American citizens. I admit that there is a large class of Chinamen who are not good elements in our population, and ought to be excluded so far as we have the right to exclude them under the powers given to our Government.
But, sir, what is China as a government? What is the China which we know by our treaties? Is that pagan? No, sir. Is it idolatrous? No, sir. The China that we know as a government, embracing a religion whose adherents are estimated as 100,000,000, is without an idol. It adheres to the teachings of Confucius, who before the Christian era announced doctrines which to this day have the respect of the civilized and the Christian world. Every official of China is obliged to pass a civil-service examination, including an examination in that moral code and system known as that of Confucius, before he can enter an office in China. Among those moral principles was that which in another and more perfect form we bind close to our hearts every Sunday. It characterizes the great system of Christianity and was willingly incorporated by China in the twenty-ninth article of the treaty of 1858, where she secures the rights of the Christian religion and missionaries in China, because their faith is to “do unto others as they would have others do unto them.” Upon that principle China has stood for nearly 3,000 years, as we have stood upon it for 2,000 years. Let us stand upon it to-day in our legislation touching the rights of a friendly nation.
That Government of China is the government with which we have to deal. After Confucius, who made a prediction that a new and a better religion would come after him into China, and would come from the West, after his period there was introduced into China from India the religion of Buddha, which now embraces over half its population, and which has fallen in successive generations so low that it has become base material idolatry. In its origin it was spiritual, highly moral in tone and character, but has degenerated into the wretched idolatrous exercises of which we hear and read to-day.
While I am on this subject may I, without wearying the House, add one other note from the history given us by the old documents? It was said by Confucius that later there should come further light and more truth, and that it should come from the West—that was about five hundred years before the birth of our Savior—and the history of China shows that the government sent out commissions in the course of later generations to inquire of the new religions of which they heard. One of these reported of Buddhism. You read in your New Testament that at the birth of Christ, “three wise men came from the East” in search of the new-born King. There is more reason to believe that these wise men came from this much abused empire than from any other people, came in search of this new light and new truth which their great philosopher and teacher, Confucius, had predicted, and of which they were in search during successive generations, as shown by their books of history.
No, sir; it is not a debased empire. Its higher authorities are the peers of European and American statesmen. When you speak of it as a government, it is not a government acting upon low or barbaric principles unworthy of our commendation or respect. There was a famous house of American merchants in Canton at the time of the famous opium war. Ah! do you remember, my colleagues on this floor, when you speak of the comparative “Christianity” of nations, that while China stood with all her worthless armament of battle, but with all her moral power behind it to keep her people from becoming debased and falling into the wretched opium drunkenness which now characterizes the shops of San Francisco, Canton, and other cities; when she sought to prohibit the importation of opium as temperance men in this country are seeking to prohibit drunkenness from liquors? Your “Christian” nation across the water is was that sent her naval forces to compel China to break down that barrier and admit Indian opium, that the people of that empire might continue in spite of their enlightened government to become beasts, debased at the hand of her “most Christian” majesty’s government. At that time, at the close of war, this American merchant, whose name is known and honored–and I may speak it—Mr. Forbes, handed a memorial to the representative of the imperial government in the province. In that memorial he alluded to the imperfect military system in China, and recommended to that government to send to the United States and obtain twenty, more or less, graduates of West Point, and guns and ammunition and examples of military armament which should better defend the empire and show the way that “Christian” nations made war on each other, that China might use similar means for her own defense.
The Chinese official indorsed it, referring it to the imperial government at Peking. The answer came in about sixty days, and reads something like this, as was told me by a member of that mercantile house: “The imperial government, knowing the friendship of Mr. Forbes for China, departs from its usual custom of receiving such papers in silence, and not only notifies him that it declines the proposition but gives the reasons why. The memorial proposes to educate this government in the art of war. War is barbarism and belongs to the state of barbarism. China long years ago passed that stage of her existence and has no desire to return to it.”
There is your paganism; there is your idolatry; there is your debased country, which has been defamed on this floor! Sir, I appeal to gentlemen here to make the discriminations due from fair-minded men, discriminations not founded on costumes, not founded on the way of wearing the hair, not founded on ignorance of our language, but discriminations based upon better and higher principles and facts than these paltry distinctions.
We have here representatives of that people who are orderly, who are seeking education, who are in responsible places, and who are entitled to respect. On the other hand, you have bad classes who are not entitled to respect, and whom it is legitimate to legislate. Let us frame our bell in this spirit of accomplishing purposes admitted to be just. Let us be careful that we do not forfeit the friendship of a great empire, to be still greater in the future, when she shall have accepted more and more of the principles of progress that animate us. Let us take care that we do not forfeit that friendship, that we keep within the treaty, and assure that great government of the honest and good faith of this government and of the people of the United States. [Applause.]
House of Representatives
March 22, 1882