The Value of Undergraduate Research Now

(I’m still working on a post to follow up on the last one I wrote. It turned out to be harder to write than I anticipated, though. And this felt like something I had to write before I lost my train of thought.)

I remember telling my undergraduate adviser at Johns Hopkins that I wanted to major in history (and East Asian studies). He warned me that history majors had to do a lot of research. He wasn’t joking, but I wasn’t deterred.

Many history departments require their undergraduates to write theses based on original research. What’s odd about Hopkins is that students are required write theses in their second (or sometimes) third year. To this day I am absolutely in love with this requirement.

It’s not that nineteen or twenty-year old’s have all the tools they need to spend a year producing a thirty-page or more paper. I certainly didn’t. I had only taken one year of Chinese and had yet to take a single course on Chinese history. But is there a better way to learn the confidence to teach yourself, the guts to follow your instincts when you find a group of sources that tell you a story you didn’t know existed, and the value of getting advice from people who know more about history and writing than you do (even if they aren’t grading you)? Not for my money.

I chose a topic that I’ve mostly thought of as quite obscure in the time since I wrote that paper. I suspect that even some of my Americanist colleagues who rattle off the names of pieces of legislation and government commissions like the days of the week don’t know what the Geary Act is. I wasn’t even looking for it when I found discussions of it in sources written by American missionaries in China in the 1890’s.

Americans are much more familiar with a piece of legislation that predated the Geary Act by ten years: the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. What history textbooks often gloss over is that the original act did not permanently or categorically ban Chinese immigration to the United States. This would have been in obvious contravention of American treaties with the Qing Empire (China), which had been revised in 1880 and allowed only the temporary suspension of the immigration of Chinese laborers. Construing ‘temporary’ broadly, congress quickly passed a ten-year “suspension.”

This meant, however, that exclusion would expire in 1892. To remedy this, congress passed a ten-year extension that year that also required Chinese persons in the U.S. to carry what we would call a photo ID with them at all times. This was the Geary Act.

This piece of legislation is not as well-known simply because it was not the first and, I suppose, because its name is not as descriptive as its predecessor. It was uniquely significant, though, because while the first act could be construed as at least remotely consonant with the letter (if hardly the spirit) of the treaties between the two countries, the Geary Act legislated what would be a surely illegal twenty-year prohibition by the time it expired in 1902. However, in 1893 the Supreme Court upheld the Geary Act in the case of Fong Yue Ting v. United States, which, along with other court decisions, paved the way for the permanent prohibition of Chinese immigrant laborers in 1902. This lasted until 1943, when the U.S. and China found themselves allies in a war against a country that was horrifically following the idea that some races are more desirable than others to its logical conclusion.

As I said, I first encountered the Geary Act in sources written by American missionaries in China around this time. From these sources, I had also learned about a series of anti-foreign riots along the Yangzi River in 1891. I wondered how missionaries, with these incidents fresh in their minds, would react to what was happening in their home country. Did they identify at all with the Chinese people living in the U.S.? Were they concerned about whether they would face reprisals for the actions of the U.S. government?

For the most part, the missionaries whose letters and published articles I read were not concerned about the possibility of violent reprisals. Some contemplated the possibility that the Qing government would respond with its own restrictions, which could have severely hampered their work since it required a steady infusion of new missionaries and what were seen as life-saving furloughs for health reasons. By and large, however, the missionaries trusted that God and gunboat diplomacy would protect them and that any temporary inconveniences would only result in a stronger position in the future.

To their credit, they did criticize the Geary Act, even if they were not terribly concerned about how it would affect them. They saw it as a clear breach of America’s treaty responsibilities. Moreover, they seem to have generally supported the right of Chinese persons to immigrate to China.

One of these missionaries, named Gilbert Reid, happened to be in the U.S. at the time and spoke with the press about his reaction to the Geary Act. In an interview with the New York Times he contrasted the great effort to which the U.S. had gone to secure its citizens access to China and its subsequent refusal to grant even remotely the same privileges to Qing subjects. He noted, “We had secured treaties guaranteeing us in China the footing of ‘the most favored nation,’ and we proceeded to violate those treaties by enactments that made China the most disfavored nation, for we certainly would not have offered to the meanest power in Europe the insult and the stigma that were put upon China by the terms of the Geary Act…nor would we have endured such a course from any nation on earth.”

Reid hard hardly been a sterling exemplar of American virtue in action in China in the years leading up to this interview. In fact, he was a real piece of work, alienating Chinese officials, American diplomats, and even his missionary colleagues. The American Minister (like an ambassador) to China, Charles Denby, said of him, “It is just such litigious and annoying gentlemen as he who embarrass diplomatic work.” Reid had plenty of reasons to be resentful as well. At the time of this interview, he had just gotten out of a nasty, years-long property dispute in Jinan (where I am now), at one point in which he had been beaten up pretty soundly. He would soon resign from the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions after it rejected his proposal to launch a special mission to build understanding between foreigners and China’s educated elite. True to character, he would launch the effort on his own.

Of course I’m glad I had to write a significant research paper as an undergraduate because of the valuable skills I learned. But personally, I might be even more grateful that it forced me to deal with a person like Gilbert Reid and the events with which his life intersected. I know both too much and too little about him to consider him a role model. Besides, my research forced me to maintain a certain distance, even as I tried to understand him as best as I could.

But even that can’t stop me from identifying with him. I know more about him than any other American who has lived in Jinan (besides my wife). Even more, he had to come to terms with being on the favorable end of unequal treatment. Sadly, I’ve had to think through similar things this week.

Racism in all forms is wrong, but words and actions that specifically threaten people of Asian descent affect me in a particular way because I have sought and received the kindness of strangers in China many, many times. To see people in my own country picked out for victimization in cruel and utterly unwarranted ways because they look my neighbors here is deeply disturbing. I’m glad I wrote my sophomore paper because I met a man like Reid, who for all his faults had the clarity of mind and spirit to allow his experience abroad to shape his view of events back at home. And that is where I find myself today.

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