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From the Editor

By Carol Berkin

In most major American cities today, Chinatowns are magnets for tourists and local people eager to enjoy dim sum and Hunan beef or to browse in the shops that line the streets of these enclaves. Non-Chinese Americans join the crowds that fill the streets for the parades celebrating Chinese New Year. Americans of all ethnic and racial backgrounds eagerly purchase clothing, toys, household gadgets, and high-end electronics that carry the label "Made in China." Daily newspapers carry front-page headlines about the shifting political and economic Sino-American relations. Yet too many of us know little about the long history of Sino-American relations—from the popularity of Chinese furniture and clothing in the eighteenth century, to the trade routes established between the two countries in the nineteenth century, to the role of Chinese laborers in the great revolution in transportation following the Civil War, and to the discriminatory immigration practices that were policy for decades. In this issue of History Now scholars offer rare insights into all of these issues.

Warren I. Cohen’s overview in his essay "The Role of China in US History" begins the exploration of this topic. Professor Cohen takes us through the rise and decline of China’s control over trade with Europeans and Americans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the impact of the Opium War and the Sino-Japanese war at the end of the nineteenth century. He examines the role of modern American diplomacy in China’s internal affairs, from efforts in the early twentieth century to aid China in the struggle against Japanese imperialism, to the Sino-American alliance in WWII, to efforts to mediate during China’s civil war after Japan’s defeat, and to the American recognition of Taiwan’s government. His essay then carries us through Nixon’s negotiations with China, George H. W. Bush’s diplomatic crisis after the massacre in Tiananmen Square, and the current challenge facing our nation as China continues its rise to power in the global economy.

In "America and the China Trade," William R. Sargent takes us back to the eighteenth century, when American and Chinese merchants began to engage in trade on a narrow strip of land in Canton. Sargent reminds us that, as early as the sixteenth century, Spanish and then Dutch traders had fed the appetite for Chinese luxury goods in both Europe and its colonies. American independence opened up direct trade with China as American ships carried silver coins, ginseng, seal furs and spices across the ocean and returned with tea, silk and porcelain. Although this trade eventually waned, its history and its impact on American society have been preserved in museum exhibitions and scholarly publications.

Denny Roy helps us understand Taiwan and its role in Chinese-American relations. In "Postwar Taiwan and the USA," Roy explains the origins of the government in Taiwan and the political divisions within this society of twenty-three million people. Here, long-established communities have created a national identity separate from the mainland while the descendants of postwar immigrants support reuniting with China. This essay traces the complex and often unsatisfactory relationship between a "friendly dictatorship" and the United States, and the growth of shared interests between the mainland and America based on opposition to the Soviet Union. By 1972, the US had decided upon a "one China" policy, which left it unclear whether Beijing or Taipei was its capital. The US continues to protect Taiwan and since 1990, the Taiwanese government has instituted progressive reforms. But the relationship remains challenging and China’s growing political and economic power makes the future of Taiwan uncertain.

In "Chinese American Politics in the Cold War Years," Charlotte Brooks provides a closer look at the impact of the Exclusion Act on immigration and the response of Chinese Americans to the rise of Communism in China. Brooks reminds us that the ability to integrate into and participate fully in American society had, until recently, a geographical component: Chinese Americans, she writes, were far more secure in their citizen status on the West Coast and in Hawaii than those living on the East Coast and in the Midwest. However, changes have occurred since the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965 which eliminated the national origins quotas. New York City is now the home to the largest Chinese American population in the United States although Chinese American political power remains strongest on the West Coast.

In "‘The Chinese Question’—Unresolved and Ongoing for Americans," John Kuo Wei Tchen examines the history of Chinese immigrants in America. He asks us to consider the influence of eugenics on immigration policy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the cultural impact that this exclusionary policy continues to have today. He reviews recent scholarship on the legacy of exclusion, and places the 1882 Act within the larger context of anxiety over national identity in a country that once elevated its imperialistic goals to the fulfillment of a "manifest destiny." Finally, Tchen shows us the resiliency of the Chinese immigrant community in the face of decades of discrimination and surveillance. For example, by using a loophole in the law that allowed the Chinese to be merchants, Chinese entrepreneurs created restaurants across the country. After World War II, the rise of Communism in China heightened American fears that, as Tchen puts it, a "red peril" had joined the "yellow peril." In 1965, the eugenics-defined racial quotas were finally dismantled, but under the Immigration Act of 1990, "skilled" immigrants were favored. Ironically, the arrival of an educated and financially advantaged Chinese population has created a new myth, the myth of a "model minority." For Tchen, the central question remains: can US society put aside stereotypes and misunderstandings and acknowledge its past failures of social justice?

In addition to these essays, this issue of History Now offers a collection of primary sources on US-China relations drawn from the Gilder Lehrman Collection. As a second special feature, you will find a mini-exhibition of six images taken from the Peabody Essex Museum entitled "The Role of China in US History."

Well, Spring is here at last and this means the end of the school year is approaching. We wish you a summer filled with a combination of relaxation and intellectual stimulation, a chance to read history at the beach, or after a walk in the park, or to celebrate finally reorganizing that closet or cleaning out the garage. But rest assured, we will be back in the Fall with a new issue of History Now.

Carol Berkin