Mae NgaiJul 4, 2022
The Chinese Question
The Gold Rushes, Chinese Migration, and Global Politics
W. W. Norton 2022
Between 1848 and 1899, miners extracted more gold from the earth than in the previous 3,000 years of human history combined. Each gold rush in this period, from the Sierra Nevada to the highlands of Australia to the Transvaal, was a global event, drawing argonauts and others seeking new lives from all corners of the world, including from China. In her Bancroft-Prize winning book, The Chinese Question: The Gold Rushes and Global Politics (Norton, 2021), Columbia University Professor of Asian American Studies and History Mae Ngai seeks to dispel a long held myth that Chinese gold-seekers arrived as unfree labor to sites of gold rushes. Instead, Mae describes in great detail not just the global nature of gold rushes, but the complicated lives and politics of Chinese participation in imperial-era gold mining. Using a comparative study of three gold rushes in California, Australia, and South Africa, Ngai explains why "The Chinese Question" became a driving social and political question among White settlers in each of these zones of industrial gold mining, and how Chinese people navigated increasingly unfriendly and racist environments and legal structures. The Chinese Question is not just a thing of the past either, and Ngai makes a compelling case for its lasting impact on American and global politics into the twenty first century.
Dr. Stephen R. Hausmann is an assistant professor of history at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.