March 29th, 2009
This image is a political cartoon drawn by Thomas Nast. It is titled “The Chinese Question.” The cartoon features Lady America protecting a Chinese immigrant from a mob. Behind the crowd is a burning building labeled “Colored Orphan Asylum” and a tree with a noose hanging from it. The protesters are carrying signs labeled “Our Rights” “We rule” and “If Our Ballot Will Not Stop Them Coming To Our [unclear] the Bullet”. Behind Lady America there are newspaper clippings that insult Chinese immigrants, such as “John Chinaman is an Idolater Heathen” The cartoon is captioned “Hands off, Gentlemen! America means fair play for all men.” This cartoon was run in Harper’s Weekly on February 18th, 1871. It accompanied an article about attempts to limit Chinese immigration in New York by state senator William Tweed.
During the second half of the 19th century, there was widespread concern over the influx of Chinese immigrants into America. The first wave were hired laborers known as “Coolies” that had come to America from Latin America. The term “Coolie” began to apply to all Chinese immigrants, even those who freely traveled to America under the Burlingame Treaty of 1868. Due to racism and economic competition, there was a fear that Chinese immigrants were going to overrun America.
The cartoon can be found on the Harper’s Weekly website as part of their Cartoon of the Day feature to highlight cartoons from the magazine’s history. The image was created through woodblock printing, in which the image was carved onto a block of wood, inked, and stamped onto the paper.
The editors at Harper’s Weekly believed that Chinese immigration was not harmful to American society. In the article that accompanied this cartoon, the author said that there was no such thing as a “Chinese Invasion.” The purpose of this illustration would be to assure Americans that all immigrants are welcome. By having Lady America deliver this message, it is an explicit reminder of what America is supposed to stand for. Nast drew the American rioters as looking very monstrous; their features are either hard to make out or look almost like skulls. By drawing the rioters this way, Nast was continuing the physical stereotype of the Irish immigrant, as seen in his cartoon about Irish rioters from 1867. As a German immigrant, Nast would not only have been sensitive to the problems faced by immigrants, but would also have discriminated against Irish immigrants. It is unlikely that the only group to protest Chinese immigration would be the Irish; however, by using the stereotypical Irish features and emotional elements such as a burning orphanage, Nast was putting the focus on Irish immigrants. The cartoon could also have reminded readers that many Americans are descended from immigrants and should thus not judge the Chinese immigrants harshly.