The Chinese Must Go

Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America

Cover of 'The Chinese Must Go' by Beth Lew-Williams

Harvard University Press
Feb. 26, 2018


The American West erupted in anti-Chinese violence in 1885. Following the massacre of Chinese miners in Wyoming Territory, communities throughout California and the Pacific Northwest harassed, assaulted, and expelled thousands of Chinese immigrants. Beth Lew-Williams shows how American immigration policies incited this violence and how the violence, in turn, provoked new exclusionary policies. Ultimately, Lew-Williams argues, Chinese expulsion and exclusion produced the concept of the “alien” in modern America.

The Chinese Must Go begins in the 1850s, before federal border control established strict divisions between citizens and aliens. Across decades of felling trees and laying tracks in the American West, Chinese workers faced escalating racial conflict and unrest. In response, Congress passed the Chinese Restriction Act of 1882 and made its first attempt to bar immigrants based on race and class. When this unprecedented experiment in federal border control failed to slow Chinese migration, vigilantes attempted to take the matter into their own hands. Fearing the spread of mob violence, U.S. policymakers redoubled their efforts to keep the Chinese out, overhauling U.S. immigration law and transforming diplomatic relations with China.

By locating the origins of the modern American alien in this violent era, Lew-Williams recasts the significance of Chinese exclusion in U.S. history. As The Chinese Must Go makes clear, anti-Chinese law and violence continues to have consequences for today’s immigrants. The present resurgence of xenophobia builds mightily upon past fears of the “heathen Chinaman.”


The Chinese Must Go shows how a country that was moving, in a piecemeal and halting fashion, toward an expansion of citizenship for formerly enslaved people and Native Americans, came to deny other classes of people the right to naturalize altogether… The stories of racist violence and community shunning are brutal to read. Lew-Williams particularly excels at invoking the psychological effects of the law on Chinese people living in the United States after the exclusion acts passed.”

— Rebecca Onion, Slate

“In her skillful retelling of the history of white workers’ violence against Chinese immigrants and the formulation of laws to first restrict, and then exclude, Chinese laborers from the United States in the mid-late 19th century, Beth Lew-Williams weaves a story of racial discrimination and nativism that continues to resonate today.”

— Andrea Worden, The South China Morning Post

“An original and compelling analysis of Chinese exclusion in the second half of the 19th century, analyzing how the outbreak of anti-Chinese violence in 1885 was both caused by and helped shape American immigration policies.”

Ray Allen Billington Prize Jury

“Simultaneously a beautifully paced, moving read—a powerful and deeply humane account of the emergence of the racialized border, the consequences of which have echoed down to the present.”

Ellis W. Hawley Prize Jury

“With scrupulous research and conceptual boldness, Lew-Williams applies the nuances of a ‘scalar’ lens to contrast anti-Chinese campaigns at local, regional, and national levels, producing a social history that significantly remakes the well-established chronology of Chinese exclusion by highlighting the role of anti-Chinese violence and vigilantism in advancing immigration controls on the Chinese from goals of restriction to exclusion.”

— Madeline Y. Hsu, author of Asian American History: A Very Short Introduction

The Chinese Must Go presents a powerful argument about racial violence that could not be more timely. It shows why 19th-century pogroms against the Chinese in the American West resonate today. White nationalists targeted Chinese immigrants as threats to their homes and jobs and blamed the American government for failing to seal the borders.”

— Richard White, author of The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865–1896

“Moving seamlessly from the local to the international, The Chinese Must Go offers a riveting, beautifully written new account of Chinese exclusion, one that foregrounds Chinese voices and experiences. A timely and important contribution to our understanding of immigration and the border.”

— Karl Jacoby, Columbia University


  • 2019 Ray Allen Billington Prize, Organization of American Historians
  • 2019 Ellis W. Hawley Prize, Organization of American Historians
  • 2019 Sally and Ken Owens Award, Western History Association
  • 2019 Vincent P. DeSantis Book Prize, Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era
  • 2020 Caroline Bancroft History Prize