The Chinese Diaspora?

17th August 2011

Article 5: Any person born abroad whose parents are both Chinese nationals or one of whose parents is a Chinese national shall have Chinese nationality. But a person whose parents are both Chinese nationals and have both settled abroad, or one of whose parents is a Chinese national and has settled abroad, and who has acquired foreign nationality at birth shall not have Chinese nationality

(1980, National People’s Congress).

The Chinese civilization has a history that spans several thousand years, during which time waves of Chinese people have migrated to virtually corner of the known world, an ancient Chinese poem remarks that, “wherever the ocean waves touch, there are overseas Chinese” (Wang, 1998, p.35, Lui, 1995, p.299). One of the oldest recorded “migrations” of Chinese people likely occurred during the Ming dynasty when Zheng He [1] became the envoy of Ming, sending many Cantonese and Hokkien [2] to explore and trade in the South China Sea and in the Indian Ocean [3]. According to Wang however, this was only the briefest description and it was not until the early seventeenth century that anything in china near to an awareness of overseas Chinese appeared (Wang, 2003, p.3). Differences in region and departure have led to the occurrence of subgroups between overseas Chinese, such as the new and old immigrants in Southeast Asia, North America and Oceania. Today’s however, overseas Chinese are collectively known as the Chinese Diaspora and are widely dispersed around the globe, residing in almost every country of the world.

This topic presents two major obstacles firstly in the defining diaspora and secondly the classification of people and groups. Historical meaning of the term “diaspora” referred to Jewish populations exiled from Judea by the Babylonians in 586 BC and later by the Romans in AD 135. It is derived from the Greek word diaspeirein meaning dispersal, and has also been historically used to portray the situations of both the Armenian and Greek communities. In this context, diaspora presents the notion of a forced exodus as a result of humanitarian catastrophe. Since the 1990 the expression has lost much of its negative connotation. Contemporary usage refers more broadly to global dispersal of ethnic populations of any nationality (Brault, 2010, p.9).

Defining who is or is not classified as overseas Chinese has proven to be a difficult matter, since whether or not a person or a group is classified as overseas Chinese is based on decisions made by governments, both Chinese and foreign, the individual persons themselves, the larger societies within which they live, and by individual scholars. As such, definitions vary from country to country and from scholar to scholar. In its simplest terms, overseas Chinese are people of Chinese birth or descent, possibly including partial Chinese ancestry, residing outside the territories administered by either the Republic of China (ROC) or the People’s Republic of China (PRC) [4]. In Southeast Asia, particularly in Malaysia and Singapore, the Peranakan [5], despite their partial adoption of Malay culture, remain classified as Chinese. Likewise, Korean minorities from China are often termed as overseas Chinese.

Pan explains the interlinked association of the Chinese people as a series of four concentric circles. The central circle represents the Chinese who reside in the PRC. The second circle denotes the Chinese living in Taiwan and Hong Kong, as well as Chinese citizens living or studying abroad. The third circle includes those most clearly identified as overseas Chinese, the hyphenated Chinese. This group, such as Chinese-Australians and Sino-Japanese for example, are “Chinese by descent but whose non-Chinese citizenship and political allegiance collapse ancestral loyalties”(Pan, 1999 p.15) The remaining outer circle contains people of “Chinese ancestry who have, through intermarriage or other means of assimilation, melted into another people and ceased calling themselves Chinese” (Pan, 1999 p.15)

Wang proposes that, during the past two centuries there have been four distinct emigrational patterns. The Huashang pattern [6] is the simplest pattern and has been the dominant pattern in the growth of Chinese emigration to other Asian countries, particularly Southeast Asia before 1850 (Wang, 2006, p.202). Typically this entails merchants, artisans, and, often their colleagues and members of their extended families, traveling abroad, and eventually setting up businesses. (Wang, 2006, p.201) These migrants were usually males, and over one or two generations, many of the unmarried males tended to “settle down and bring up local families” (Wang, 2006, p.201). It is believed, likely that the very first Chinese emigration, which was to either Japan or the Philippines, and which occurred during the Qin Dynasty [7], was of the Huashang type. (Zhu, 1991, in Wang, 2006 p.202). The second, the Huagong pattern [8], occurred between about the 1850s and 1920s, when Chinese migrated to North America and Australia; this migration involved the “coolie trade” in gold mining and railway building (Wang, 2006 p.202).

During the mid-nineteenth century, colonialism reached its peak and the so-called “Great Chinese Diaspora” began. Pan’s writes in her book, Sons of the Yellow Emperor, that following the abolition of slavery the Chinese coolie emigration began to emerge throughout those colonies possessed or administered by the British. Facing a shortage of manpower and lacking a large pool of laborers, many European merchants and Colonists endeavored to replace African slaves with indentured laborers from China and India because of “…their strong physique, their eagerness to make money, their history of toil from infancy…” (Pan, 1990, p.46) Huagong pattern Chinese migrants were often male, illiterate, poorly educated and of peasant origin. The services of these migrants were sold by labor recruiters as unskilled Chinese labor in the coolie trade to overseas colonialists, where their labor was exchanged for money to feed their families back in china. This type of trading was known by the Chinese as maai jyu jai [9]. Although these migrations were usually transitional, meaning that a “large proportion of the contract laborers returned to China after their contract came to an end” (Wang, 2006, p.202), the laborers’ lives were harsh, most were treated badly, and many died in route as a result of poor transport conditions (Gamer, 2008, p.164). Some labor recruiters made promises of good pay and working conditions to entice men to signed three-year labor contracts; very few of these recruiters fulfilled these promises. More often the case was that these men were cheated out of their wages and were denied the ability to return to China after their contracts expired. Those that did not perish or return home stayed to set up laundries or small shops or work for other Chinese (Gamer, 2008, p.164).

Most sources argue that the Qing Empire had been forced to allow its subjects to work overseas under colonial powers, Chen however disagrees writing that, “previous studies on have Chinese emigration invariably emphasized the adversity faced by the emigrant communities around the mid-nineteenth century, which was characterized by high population density and a severe shortage of arable land” (Chen, 1997, p.532). The situation further deteriorated, she explains, where In the provinces of Fujian and Guangdong, widespread famine and a surplus of labor as a result of the poverty, ruin caused by the disruption of agriculture and economic activities due to events such as the Second Opium War [10] and the Taiping Rebellion [11]. All these factors impoverished the emigrant communities, forcing people to escape. Thus, from the traditional approach, the migrants’ exodus to America “was not a matter of choice but of necessity.” (Chen, 1997, p.532) Many Hokkien chose to work in Southeast Asia, where social and cultural links already existed having started during the Ming era, as did the Cantonese. This created an increase in emigration in 1849, when Cantonese sailors and merchants returned with stories of the California Gold Rush. Chinese gold-seekers began departing, at first in modest numbers and later in the thousands, to “Gold Mountain” [12]. Emigration during this period was directed primarily toward Western countries such Australia, the United States, and Western Europe, where laborers were required for the tasks of gold mining and railway construction, until, the U.S. Congress under President Chester Arthur, passed The general Immigration Act [13] and the Chinese Exclusion Act [14], prohibiting Chinese immigrants for the next ten years (US Congress Papers, 1892). In 1892, The Geary Act extended the law, relating to the immigration of Chinese nationals, and Chinese immigration remained under severe restrictions until World War II (Vickery, 2005). In Australia significant Chinese migration existed until the nineteenth century, associated with the exploration, discovery and mining of gold, but with the introduction of the White Australia Policy in the early twentieth century almost all immigration from china came to a stop. The White Australia policy was gradually dismantled during the post-war years, with its final dissolution in 1973 (Hugo, 2008).

Following the downfall of Imperial China in 1911, the third, Huaqiao [15] (Ang, 2006, p.328) pattern began. Although including all types of migrants, was comprised heavily of select, well-educated professionals with strong nationalistic feelings. From the 1920s, many teachers left China to go abroad to instruct the children of Chinese immigrants in the countries of Southeast Asia (Pan, 1990, p.206). The Chinese revolution in 1911, the Chinese Civil War between the Kuomintang (KMT) [16] and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) [17], and the resulting establishment of the PRC forced many economic and political refugees to flee overseas [18]. During the years that followed the KMTs withdrawal to Taiwan, the ROC often sought the support of overseas Chinese communities, through branches of the KMT, as a means to raise funds. As such, the PRC often perceived overseas Chinese as possible capitalist infiltrators, to be treated with suspicion. A view that tended to value the strengthening of existing relationships within southeast Asian as more important than gaining the support of overseas Chinese. Ironically, overseas Chinese were frequently persecuted as a result of their suspected association with Communist China. Such was the case when in1965 during the overthrow of President Sukarno’s pro-Beijing government; large numbers of Chinese were killed because of lingering fears of loyalty (Kornberg, 2005, p.168). This pattern remained the most dominated until the 1950s.

The fourth, Huayi pattern [19], is a more recent phenomenon, and prevalent since the 1950s. Wang writes that, “while they are largely foreign born, they also include some that were born in China, Taiwan or Hong Kong who have acquired foreign citizenship and are … not Huaqiao temporarily resident abroad” (Wang, 2006, p.38) What he explains this to mean is the process where people of Chinese descent, Huai in one foreign country migrate or re-migrate to another foreign country, such as Australian-Chinese who have migrated from Malaysia. Between the 1950s and 1980s, the PRC strictly enforced restrictions placed on emigration. During this period, many of the Chinese immigrating to Western countries, particularly during the post-war period when many from the Territories of Hong Kong emigrated to the UK and the Netherlands, were either already overseas Chinese or were from Taiwan or Hong Kong. Of the four, the Huashang is the most elementary and has been occurring for the longest time. It is also the most common form of Chinese global migration today, and likely to remain so in the future.

After the death of Mao Zedong [20] in 1976, Deng Xiaoping [21] began a series of reforms [22] that not only “sustained economic growth, unprecedented rises in real income and living standards” (Walder, 1995) but also dramatically altered the attitude of the PRC toward the overseas Chinese. Where they were once looked upon with suspicion, they were now seen as a collective group who were in a position, through their capital and skills, to aid PRC develop. During the 1980s, the PRC actively attempted to encourage support from overseas Chinese through numerous means such as, the returning properties confiscated after the 1949 revolution. More recent, policy has sought to maintain the support of newly emigrated Chinese, many of whom are seeking western graduate education, or to entice them to return following graduation (Lui, 1995, p.299). Increasing numbers of overseas Chinese are again investing in Mainland China providing valuable financial resources, socio-cultural networks, contacts and opportunities. The overseas Chinese populations of Southeast Asia and North America are “filled with ethnic Chinese entrepreneurs who have proved to be a valuable source of knowledge and investment, serving as a bridge between Mainland China and the world economy” (Walder, 1995). There remains however, varying degrees of distrust between the peoples of mainland China and the overseas Chinese.

Chinese emigration to other Asian countries began thousands of years ago, particularly into areas in Southeast Asia. Despite the frequent imposition, through most of China’s history, of strict controls to prevent large numbers of people from leaving the country, during the 19th and early 20th centuries, large numbers of Chinese emigrants migrated to virtually every country of the world. Nowadays the direction and magnitude of Chinese international migration are largely affected by the migration policies at origin and destination though as the world’s largest country (2006 population of 1.311 billion [23]) it is not surprising that China features as one of the major origins of global migrants (Hugo, 2008). Immigration is now limited in many countries, including such host countries as Australia and the United States; this has resulted in a sizable number of illegal emigrants arriving from China and other areas of Southeast Asia (Lui, 1995, p.303-304). It is expected that the growth patterns of overseas Chinese communities in the future will be affected more by international emigration and immigration than by fertility and mortality. Massey wrote that, “China’s movement towards markets and rapid economic growth may contain the seeds of an enormous migration … that would produce a flow of immigrants that would dwarf levels of migration now observed [in the US] from Mexico (Massey, 1995, 649). In 1997 Goldstone estimated that the number of migrants from china was approximately 180,000 each year. He likened the potential for international migration from the PRC to a “tsunami on the horizon” (Goldstone, 1997), indicating that the number of overseas Chinese is likely only to increase in future decades. The overseas Chinese have had, and will continue to have, important and significant influences in their host countries and are certainly not an inconsequential population.


[1] 1371–1435. Several voyages between 1405 an 1433 traveling as far as Eastern Africa (Gamer, 2008, p.50-51)
[2] Linguistic reference to areas of Southern Fujian provence
[3] Older migration dates can be found to other areas of Asia, however at the time many Contemporary Asian states were viewed as tributary states to the Chinese Empire not as independent as opposed to those of India, Africa and other areas further abroad which were seen as not belonging to the Empire.
[4] Established October 1, 1949
[5] Descendants of the Chinese who migrated to the Nusantara region on the Indonesian archipelago during the 15th and 16th centuries
[6] Chinese trader
[7] 221-207 BC
[8] Chinese coolie
[9] selling piglets
[10] 1856-1860
[11] 1851-1864
[12] Gold Mountain was the name given to California by the Chinese
[13] August 3, 1882
[14] approved on May 6, 1882
[15] Chinese Sojourner
[16] National People’s Party; Founded November 24, 1894 as Revive China Society and October 10, 1919 in its modern form
[17] 1927 – 1950
[18] In this instance the use of the term Diaspora would be aptly identified
[19] Chinese descent or re-migrant
[20] Mao Zedong, December 26, 1893 – September 9, 1976, leader of the Chinese Revolution. He was the founding father of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from its establishment in 1949 and remained in office until September 9, 1976, background information can be found in Shoppa, 2002 p.218
[21] Deng Xiaoping, 22 August 1904 – 19 February 1997, Social reformist and leader of the Communist Party of China. He served as the Paramount leader of the People’s Republic of China from 1978 to 1992.
[22] An outline of Dengs reform strategies can be found in Kornberg, , 2005p.54-60
[23] According to the Population Reference Bureau the 2010 Chinese Census results indicated that the current total population count was 1,370,536,875, however, that includes 7,097,600 in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), 552,300 in the Macao SAR, and 23,162,123 in Taiwan, the Republic of China (China claims Taiwan as one of its provinces). For mainland China, the count was 1,339,724,852. Mainland China is the entity normally listed in population statistics, consisting of 31 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities, and servicemen of the mainland of China. (Huab, 2011)


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