Early in the 1850s, a greater number of Chinese immigrants began to enter the United States, leading to a Sinophobic frenzy that would continue for decades. Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, Americans sought to exclude the Chinese literally and figuratively. Americans employed negative imagery to demonstrate the necessity of excluding the Chinese in order to “protect" white America. The negative imagery that became Americans' common view of the “Chinaman," enabled the United States to enact discriminatory laws without compunction. In the face of intense persecution and bitter discrimination, many would simply have given up and returned to their homeland. However, the Chinese were determined not to give in to Americans' desire to exclude them. Though often viewed as a passive and stoic race, in reality the Chinese were proactive and eloquent defenders of their rights, and used two primary means of resistance to resist American exclusion: legal appeals and poetry. In response to their literal exclusion, the Chinese utilized the United States judicial system, litigating cases that either reduced the force of discriminatory laws or abolished them all together. In so doing, they managed to alter U.S. legal history, setting new precedents, and requiring judges to rule regarding the rights of non-citizens and the balance of power between state and federal governments, especially with regard to immigration policy. With regard to their figurative exclusion, the Chinese were similarly vehement in their defense. On the walls of the Angel Island barracks, where many of the Chinese immigrants were incarcerated during the Chinese exclusion acts, Chinese inmates carved and painted poetry emphasizing their sense of self-worth and their anger at the American “barbarians." The immigrants employed imagery that counteracted and even reversed the widely held negative images of the Chinese in American literature and speeches. As such, the poetry became a source of strength, a rallying cry providing the Chinese with the courage and determination to combat American prejudice. Previous studies have largely ignored the Angel Island poetry and none have brought the poetry into the discussion of the Chinese immigrants' legal battles, this thesis seeks to do both.



College and Department

Humanities; Humanities, Classics, and Comparative Literature



Date Submitted


Document Type





Angel Island poetry, Chinese immigrants, U.S. immigration policy