SPICE Releases New Lesson Plans for PBS Documentary “The Chinese Exclusion Act”

Political cartoon of Chinese exclusion "Throwing Down the Ladder by Which They Rose" by Thomas Nast, 23 July 1870.

During this time of intense public debate on immigration, SPICE has partnered with PBS and the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) to encourage teachers to share the American Experience film, The Chinese Exclusion Act, with students. Teachers should be advised that the film contains language that some viewers may find objectionable, so we advise that they preview the film before deciding whether or not to use it with their students. The Chinese Exclusion Act was directed by Ric Burns and Li-Shin Yu and a description of the film from PBS follows:

Examine the origin, history, and impact of the 1882 law that made it illegal for Chinese workers to come to America and for Chinese nationals already here ever to become U.S. citizens. The first in a long line of acts targeting the Chinese for exclusion, it remained in force for more than 60 years.

Despite its passage 138 years ago and its repeal in 1943, the Chinese Exclusion Act has been referenced in numerous recent articles that have focused on rising anti-Asian sentiment—including violence against Asian Americans—during the coronavirus pandemic. The Chinese Exclusion Act as well as the internment of Japanese Americans have been referenced as examples of federal acts directed at Asian immigrants and Asian Americans in U.S. history. Given these recent references, the film can provide students with an overview of the Chinese Exclusion Act as they try to better understand the news. CAAM Executive Director Stephen Gong feels that many of the lessons from the film are relevant to the United States today. He stated, “We are thrilled to have partnered with Curriculum Specialist Waka Brown and the SPICE program at Stanford on the Teacher’s Guide to The Chinese Exclusion Act. This standards-compliant and comprehensive guide will help ensure that the important lessons of the Exclusion Act will become a regular part of secondary curriculum for generations to come.”

In order to help teachers use the film in their classrooms, SPICE partnered with CAAM to develop a teacher’s guide for the film. PBS LearningMedia recently posted the teacher’s guide for teacher use. Both the film and teacher’s guide are offered at no charge.

SPICE Curriculum Specialist Waka Brown, who wrote the teacher’s guide, noted that the guide is designed to meet certain national history, social studies, geography, and common core standards for high school. Brown also feels that the film is ideal for courses at the collegiate level in areas like ethnic studies, U.S. history, Asian studies, law, and political science. Brown decided to focus the activities in the guide around the following essential questions.

  • What factors led to increased immigration from China to the United States?
  • How did the Chinese adapt to life in the United States that sometimes included hostility directed at them?
  • How did Chinese immigration to the United States intensify ethnic and cultural conflict and complicate the forging of a national identity?
  • What role did new laws and the federal judiciary play in instituting racial inequality and in disfranchising various racial groups such as the Chinese?
  • What factors led to immigration restrictions of the Chinese and ultimately exclusion?
  • What arguments and methods did Chinese in the United States use to acquire equal rights and opportunities guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution?
  • How have ideals and institutions of freedom, equality, justice, and citizenship in the United States changed over time and from one community to another?

This may be an opportune time to have students consider these questions not only in the context of the Chinese American experience in the 19th century and today, but also to have students discuss the relevance of the questions to other groups who have immigrated to the United States and continue to do so today.

SPICE would like to express its appreciation to Adrian Arima and Monica Yeung Arima for funding the development of the teacher’s guide.

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