Categorizing Chinese

People of Chinese ancestry... are they white? colored? oriental? mongoloid? The categorical labels placed on them have varied over time, place, and purpose.

Consider a study by Jian Li of the Chinese in Charleston, South Carolina at the beginning of the 20th century as an illustration. Chinese were listed in the white section of the Charleston City Directory but Census enumerators most often listed them as Chinese, but sometimes as Mon (Mongolian) or white.

There were only 3 marriages for which certificates could be found although there were probably common-law arrangements between Chinese men and women of other races. Of the three marriage licenses found, one involved a Chinese married to a white woman (1901), another a Chinese married to a black woman (1913) and  one with a Chinese, described on the license as "brown," married to a "brown" woman (1919).

Children of mixed race parentage were considered white if they had Chinese fathers and white mothers and they attended white schools. In contrast if the fathers were Chinese and the mothers were racially mixed, they were classified as black and attended private black schools.  However, children of mixed parentage varied in their self- identification, with some seeing themselves as black, others as mixed, and still others as Oriental or Chinese.

When they died, the death certificate identified them as either white or Chinese but they were buried in the white cemeteries.

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