Editor's Note: This article is reprinted by permission of Stanford University Press from Dreaming of Gold, Dreaming of Home: Migration and Transnationalism between the United States and South China, 1882-1943 (2000).
Until 1994, a large sign in front of Taishan City's main bus station greeted arrivals with the following words, "You Are Welcome to Tai Shan--The Home of Oversea [sic] Chinese." (1) This sign conveys an unusual message, for it implies that the people of Taishan identify their county not by those who live there, but by those who have gone away. It seems that Taishanese identity is predicated on absence, that Taishanese consider their most distinguishing characteristic to be the large numbers of people who have left Taishan. Despite initial impressions, however, the sign is not intended to be self-deprecating. Most of the visitors who actually see it are Taishanese returned from overseas. It has been erected to remind absentee sons and daughters of Taishan that their presence in that town square is much appreciated and that they can always consider Taishan their home, regardless of how long ago either they or their ancestors departed the place. In other words, the sign does not denigrate Taishan as a place worth leaving but emphasizes that it is a place worth returning to, especially for those with any sort of claim to being Taishanese.
This inclusive definition of Taishanese permeates even census-taking activities. In the most recent count completed by the Taishan County Statistical Bureau in 1988, the county government found that Taishanese living in Taishan numbered 963,314, while Taishanese living abroad numbered over 1,100,000. (2) This figure included people living in seventy-eight countries around the globe, including sizable communities in the United States, Canada, Cuba, Mexico, Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong. (3) The Statistical Bureau did not offer an official definition of Overseas Taishanese, but this widely published and commonly quoted estimate almost certainly includes thousands of assimilated Chinese separated from Taishan by one, two, three, and even four generations of life abroad.
This habit of clinging to Taishanese who live overseas developed from a century of believing that Taishan's best hopes for progress and economic security lay with those who managed to escape bleak economic prospects within Taishan to live and work abroad. People "trapped" behind believed that without these overseas workers and the money they managed to send back, people in Taishan might very well starve. Taishanese also believed that their overseas countymen could acquire enough capital and technology to transform Taishan's moribund agrarian economy into a far more lucrative industrial, commercial one. For all these reasons, Taishanese encouraged their compatriots who were overseas to think of Taishan as their home and to continue contributing. Here, my goal is to describe how Taishan acquired this taste for dependency and became, by self-proclamation, the premier home community to Overseas Chinese.
To accomplish this end, I describe three conditions that led to Taishan's transformation into an emigrant community that relied heavily on out-migration as a survival strategy The first condition is that of high levels of overseas migration. In the case of Taishan, population pressures on insufficient land combined with bloody local conflicts to give many men reason to leave just as opportunities abroad increased in the form of industrializing demands for cheap labor. The second condition is the development of trade and communications networks that provided regular and reliable services allowing Taishanese to travel overseas safely yet remain in touch with life in Taishan through letters, remittances, return visits, migration chains, the consumption of Chinese groceries, books, and magazines, and participation in local charitable projects and war relief drives. The third condition consists of a mutual desire for keeping the home community intact. In order for Taishan to have survived as an emigrant community that included people living in Taishan as well as scattered throughout Southeast Asia, North and South America, and Australia, Taishanese overseas and at home had to share some commitment to remaining within the same family groups, clan organizations, and economic partnerships. Although this desire did not always survive in the hearts of Taishanese overseas, Taishanese at home have yet to lose sight of those who went away.
These three conditions combined in Taishan to produce a community and society that functioned in two parts, physically dispersed yet bound together by an uneven distribution of emotional and economic capital. Taishanese overseas made money so that their dependents in Taishan could enjoy comfortable lives, become educated, and hope for better futures. These breadwinners worked hard because they had families whose lives depended on the fruits of their toil. If they did not work hard, their family would suffer. And, as long as exclusionary immigration policies and economic realities made it difficult for Chinese to bring their families to America or to start families abroad, overseas Taishanese continued to look back to Taishan for the emotional satisfaction of marrying and having children. Until wives, children, and normal family life became possibilities for more men living in America, it would be difficult for them to uproot from Taishan. And until they felt less compelled to send support to Taishan, their re latives at home would continue gazing across the Pacific, hoping for a letter containing yet more money--or a summons to go abroad themselves.
Most of the people who left Taishan did so for economic reasons that played themselves out in complicated ways during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The most fundamental reason, however, traces back thousands of years and still poses a problem today. The cause most commonly cited for high levels of migration from Taishan is the land.
Descriptions of the Taishan's terrain follow two main themes. The first theme focuses on the beauties of Taishan. Scenery of the Four Counties, written during the 1970s, provides an example: "Taishan is a beautiful abundant place at the edge of the Southern Sea, inland there are flat plains, hills and high mountains." (4) The second theme is more common and much grimmer: "Xinning is an out-of-the-way place. Although the land is broad, rural areas are narrow, probably sixty or seventy percent mountains and seas. An examination of production [reveals that] it is certainly not enough to satisfy necessity. The people of this place consider this a matter of life and death. The insufficiencies [suffered by] the people [are why] they hire themselves out overseas." (5) Both descriptions contain some measure of truth, for Taishan is a pretty place with blue skies, white clouds, and fields laid out in a patchwork of varying shades and textures of green tucked between tree-covered hills. These hills, which are so pictur esque, pose the greatest obstacle to economic development in Taishan because they make it difficult to increase the amount of cultivated land and they make the cost of building roads, railroads, or canals, which might improve commerce, prohibitively expensive. In a county that by 1893 produced only enough grain to feed its inhabitants for half a year, such limits to economic growth posed serious problems. (6)
Despite the limits of its geography, Taishan closely borders neighboring counties and towns better endowed by nature to become wealthy. It is close to three international ports--130 km south of Guangzhou, 170 km west of Hong Kong, and 119 km northwest of Macao--and sits on the southwest corner of the Pearl River Delta's cornucopia of commercial farms. (7) Since 1573, Guangzhou and its surrounding environs had also become part of a profitable trading network in silk, silver, porcelain, peppers, and cloves with the Americas, the Philippines, Japan, and Southeast Asia. (8) Unfortunately Taishan has neither the natural waterways nor the acres of rich alluvial soil needed to duplicate the successes of these nearby regions.
Instead, Taishan lies on the southern coast of Guangdong, wedged in the middle of three other counties that, together with Taishan, are known as the Four Counties, the dialect grouping most commonly found in Chinatowns in the United States and Canada. (9) Taishan itself forms a triangle between the counties of Xinhui to the northeast and Kaiping and Enping to the northwest. In this north-pointing wedge are the county seat, Taishan City, as well as the districts of Duhu, Sijiu, Shuibu, Dajiang, Gongyi, Sanhe, Duanfen, Sanba, Baisha, Chonglou, and Doushan. (10) This is the hilliest portion of the county and the most heavily populated. The southern portion of the county has more arable land and access to fishing, but fewer people. These southern districts border the ocean and include Tiantou and Guanghai as well as a spur jutting southwest from the main wedge consisting of the districts of Longwen, Shalan, Haiyan, Wencun, Shenjing, Beidou, and Nafu. This southwestern arm is known collectively as Haiyan. Seventy- seven islands sit off the coast of Taishan, the largest of which are Shangchuan and Xiachuan Islands.
With 587.7 km of shoreline, Taishan seems advantageously situated for travel across the ocean. Recorded contact with Southeast Asia occurred as early as 1373, when one Ruan Dixian of Doushan took to the seas and fled to Vietnam to escape punishment for a crime he did not commit. (11) Direct contact with Europeans also occurred fairly early with the Portuguese establishing a trading center on Shangchuan Island in 1516. By the next year, Taishanese were trading copper coins, silverware, silk, porcelain, and tea for rhinoceros horns, ivory, crystal, and rattan. Missionaries followed on the heels of merchants, and in 1523, a Jesuit monk...