The Chinese Community in America

Despite legal exclusion, Chinese immigrants built self-reliant communities known as Chinatowns. These neighborhoods were places where Chinese could survive and thrive while still interacting with whites and other ethnic groups.

Benevolence, the core value of Confucianism, is rooted in family ties and extends to friendships and social relationships. It leads to virtues such as wisdom, courtesy, loyalty and self-discipline.


Chinese immigrants first came to America in the 19th century, in waves. They joined the California gold rush and helped build the American transcontinental railroad. Despite their hard work, they suffered from racial discrimination and the “Yellow Peril.” They opened restaurants, hand laundry businesses, and herbalists.

As the years passed, they transitioned from being transient migratory pioneers that always anticipated a return to China to becoming long-term resident sojourners. They began forming self-reliant ethnic communities known, to non-Chinese, as Chinatowns. This trend continued throughout the 20th century and beyond. Despite the hardships of being away from home, the overseas Chinese maintain strong family values and invest in their children’s education. Many also send remittances back to support their families. A hallmark of the Chinese culture is thriftiness.


While we often refer to “Chinese” as a single language, Chinese is actually a group of dialects within the Sino-Tibetan language family. There are currently about 13 different varieties of Chinese, each with its own unique sound.

Some of the more common Chinese dialects include Standard Chinese (or Mandarin), Wu, Yue, and Xiang. The Xiang variety is also known as Hunanese, and it is spoken in the provinces of Hunan, northern Guangxi, and parts of Hubei.

The Xiang languages can be divided into New Xiang and Old Xiang, with Changsha dialect representing New Xiang and Shuangfeng dialect representing Old Xiang. Unlike other languages, the syllables in Chinese are tightly linked to the morphology and characters of the language. Each syllable has a nucleus consisting of a vowel (which may be monophthong, diphthong or triphthong), an onset (consonant or consonant+glide) and a coda (consonant). The syllables carry tone as well.


As a culture, the Chinese place emphasis on mutual trust and the concept of ‘guanxi’. Guanxi is a principle that commits friends, family and, at times, business colleagues to assist one another in a way that benefits them both. Breaking this trust can cause loss of face or honour, so building relationships is prioritised in Chinese societies.

As a result of this tradition, many Chinese migrants have established Chinatowns in cities around the world where they can retain their culture among other immigrant communities and locals. However, these enclaves can also cause conflict between the Chinese and other ethnic groups in the area. Anti-Chinese sentiment was popular in the United States during the mid-nineteenth century as the economy struggled, with labor leaders such as Denis Kearney blaming Chinatowns for lowering wages and pushing out American workers.


While Chinese religions have evolved as time has passed, many traditional beliefs persist. For example, the worship of Heaven and the concept of a dynasty’s “mandate” remain important elements of the folk religion that has formed over the centuries from a mixture of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. And the reverence of ancestors and the practice of divination—which are common to all religious practices—are important components of Chinese religion.

While the Communist Party claims that it doesn’t interfere with religious affairs, it has targeted several organizations deemed as heretical by Beijing. These include a quasi-Christian group known as the Church of Almighty God and Falun Gong, which blends Buddhist teachings with Daoism and traditional qigong exercise. It is estimated that the number of adherents to these groups is much higher than the official statistics suggest.


Food is central to Chinese culture. The food is usually fresh and made to balance yin-yang. The Chinese do not follow five food group guidelines but rather eat a variety of foods to maintain health.

The Chinese often serve hot and cold dishes at meals to stimulate the appetite. These dishes can range from jelly to bean curd, noodle salads to cooked vegetables and meats.

Many Asian grocery stores and restaurants serve a wide range of Chinese foods. The Chinese are also known for their bakeries that sell sweet buns filled with red bean paste, egg custard or BBQ pork. These treats can be eaten as snacks or for breakfast. They also provide a great opportunity to introduce Chinese culture. The Chinese rarely have desserts as the main course of a meal.

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