The Chinese Question: The Gold Rushes and Global Politics

Lecture: Mae Ngai (Columbia University)
Commentary: Payal Banerjee (Smith College)

Drawing on ten years of research across five continents, prize-winning historian Mae Ngai traces the origins and consequences of the “Chinese Question” as a global racial discourse. By the turn of the twentieth century, the United States and the British Empire had answered this question with laws that excluded Chinese people from immigration and citizenship. Ngai explains how this happened and argues that Chinese exclusion was not extraneous to the emergent global economy but an integral part of it. She traces the origins of the Chinese Question to the gold rushes of the nineteenth century and links them to the globalization of trade, credit, labor, and the rise of Anglo-American power. Finally, she places this topic in the broader context of important themes in world history and economics, from Europe’s subjugation of China to the rise of the international gold standard and the invention of racist, anti-Chinese stereotypes that persist to this day.

Mae Ngai is the Lung Family Professor of Asian American Studies, a professor of history, and the co-director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University. She is the author of Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (2004); The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America (2010); and The Chinese Question: The Gold Rushes and Global Politics (2021).

Payal Banerjee is an associate professor and the chair of sociology at Smith College. Her research on the political economy of migration and Indian immigrant IT workers on H-1B visas in the US has appeared in Critical Sociology; Women’s Studies Quarterly; Race, Gender, and Class; International Feminist Journal of Politics; Irish Journal of Anthropology; Social & Public Policy Review; Man in India; and, in several edited volumes. Payal has also worked on Chinese minorities’ incarceration and disenfranchisement in postcolonial India. This work has appeared in Huaqiao Huaren Lishi Yanjiu (Overseas Chinese History Studies, in Mandarin); Security and Peace; China Report; Asian Journal of Comparative Politics; and, in Doing Time with Nehru (2016) and in Sino-Indian Border War of 1962: New Perspectives (2016). As a member of the Borders Studies Group, Payal has co-published India China: Rethinking Borders and Security (2016). At present, Payal is working on a book that takes up the question of race, immigrant labor, and international political economy beyond the basics of neoliberalism and US immigration policies.

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