One hundred fifty years ago this week, the Dragon, representing China’s Ching Dynasty, flew on a yellow banner atop the mast of one of the world’s largest steamers, the S.S. China, as it pulled into the docks of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company after a month-long crossing of the Pacific.
On board the ship was China’s first-ever government delegation to the United States. The men aboard were empowered to negotiate treaties on migration and trade — issues that today loom not only in California but in Washington and Beijing, the political capitals of the world’s two greatest economies.
This historic spot in San Francisco is where their mission began. Even at the time, it was seen as a history-making event. The news of the Chinese delegation’s arrival was telegraphed across the world. The news generated during the delegation’s 30-day visit was widely followed on front pages worldwide and set the stage for the two countries to sign the revised Treaty of Tientsin in Washington in July 1868.
That pact is remembered as the Burlingame Treaty, its name commemorating one of the most unusual elements of the Chinese mission: It was actually led by an American, Ambassador Anson Burlingame, who was joined by Chinese Ambassador Chih Tajen.
President Abraham Lincoln had appointed Burlingame to represent the United States in China in 1862. Over the next five years, Burlingame became such a trusted adviser to the Chinese that when the Ching government decided to send its first diplomatic mission abroad, it made the extraordinary request of having Burlingame represent China.
Ever since the Opium Wars of the 1840s, when China ceded more than a dozen “Treaty Ports” including Canton, Shanghai and Hong Kong to Britain, its territorial and trade rights had been trampled. China decided that Burlingame was the man to right this wrong. He agreed, resigning from his diplomatic position after receiving permission from the American government to represent China in its quest for fair treatment in economic relations and trade.
When the delegation arrived March 31, 1868, the receiving areas surrounding the docks buzzed with anticipation. Seemingly the whole city was on hand, led by representative groups of Chinese merchants and the political class who had come early to welcome the visitors. The possible rewards of the mission seemed endless: prosperous trade, the advance of Christendom, laborers to complete the transcontinental railroad and even the chance that China, with its ancient civilization, could serve as a guide for the United States, still a relatively new republic.
The Chinese chose San Francisco as the first diplomatic post for economic, political and logistical reasons. By 1868, San Francisco had established itself as the growing commercial and banking center of California. Trade with the Far East, which had always been part of the economic vision for the city, was now becoming a reality because of the transition from sail to steam transportation. The steamers allowed commerce to flourish because they provided scheduled mail and cargo deliveries, had room to carry the silver currency necessary for trade and could comfortably carry passengers enduring the long voyage to Japan and China.
Politically, San Francisco was the hub of Chinese life in California, with its burgeoning Chinatown and a growing Chinese merchant class and benevolent organizations. In 1868, the message of the Ching Dynasty was one of support to the new emigrants, whom Chinese officials encouraged to honor China and its government through their contributions and behavior while working in the mines, on the railroads, in the Napa Valley grottoes or for the merchants of San Francisco’s Chinatown.
The newfound ease of communication and transportation also helped build support in California for increased immigration from China. In fact, the ship carrying Burlingame also brought 700 Chinese emigrants. They had answered the call of the Central Pacific railroad labor agents and arranged the $45 payment in gold for passage to “New Gold Mountain” (Gum Shan). Their skills would be employed to build the tunnels and tracks above the canyons of the impenetrable Sierra Nevada, tasks necessary to complete the transcontinental railroad.
Support for Chinese immigration remained strong until circumstances changed. The completion of the transcontinental railroad coincided with the economic downturn of the 1870s, which led to increasingly stringent restrictions on Chinese immigration that culminated with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.
The Burlingame delegation of 1868 thus represents the high point in 19th-century U.S.-Chinese relations, a time when China and America were joined in the common interests of peace and prosperity.
In a moment of tension between the two countries, remembering that partnership is especially important. This special location along San Francisco Bay carries all sorts of messages: the importance of American commerce with China, the need for free emigration, the hopes for peaceful resolution of conflict in the South China Sea and the desire of the Chinese American community to come to terms with the legacy of the Chinese Exclusion Acts — which requires eradicating the racism that persists today.
So while it is still an obscure spot — one not far from AT&T Park along the waters of San Francisco Bay in a place near the China Basin — its meaning looms large in the United States today: It is a destination for Chinese Americans seeking out the place where their ancestors first set foot in California, and a reminder that allies are better than enemies. Maybe most important, it is a reminder of the way that the skilled Anson Burlingame earned the trust of China and the United States, exemplifying the way that diplomacy, skillfully advanced with the lives of everyday people in mind, remains a better alternative to conflict.