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Focus on Research: Emma J. Teng F'06 on the Hidden Histories of Mixed Race Families


ACLS asked its fellows to describe their research: the knowledge it creates and how this knowledge benefits our understanding of the world. We are pleased to present this response from Emma J. Teng, T.T. and Wei Fong Chao Professor of Asian Civilizations at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Teng_EmmaIn June 1914, a young American woman with a small baby boarded a ship bound for China. Although she was white, she traveled in accommodations meant for "Asiatic travellers only." (1) Why? Mae Watkins Franking, a native of Ann Arbor, Michigan, was traveling to China to reunite with her Chinese husband, whom she had met as a student at the University of Michigan. Due to the Marital Expatriation Act of 1907, which stripped U.S. citizenship from all American women who married foreign nationals, Mae had taken Chinese nationality, and thus, in an age of segregated travel, she journeyed to Shanghai under this status. Mae might have felt apprehensive moving to China, for although racial intermarriage was legal in Michigan at the time of the Frankings' wedding, the Chinese government prohibited the intermarriage of overseas students with foreign women. (Merchants and laborers were allowed to intermarry.) The Frankings had three children: Nelson, born in the U.S., was an American citizen by right of birth; while Alason and Cecile, born in China, were considered by the U.S. government to be "aliens ineligible for naturalization." Although the family returned to the United States in 1918, Alason and Cecile were not able to become citizens until the 1940s — despite the fact that one of their ancestors had fought in the American Revolution. These are just a few examples of the legal injustices faced by mixed (and in this case transnational) families up through the first half of the twentieth century.

Supported by a grant from the ACLS, in 2007 I set out to write a book that would bridge China studies and Asian American studies by comparing ideas concerning Euro-Chinese intermixing, or hybridity, in the U.S. and China between 1842, when China was opened to Western trade, and WW II. As the writing took shape, I realized that this was a story not only about the history of ideas, but also about mixed families and individuals whose lives were shaped by these ideas, and the laws and social proscriptions they informed. I thus went back and did more research: a rare luxury in the academic world. As a result, the manuscript that subsequently evolved also takes up the subject of how mixed families, who faced discrimination from both sides, negotiated their own identities within the constraints and opportunities of their social environments. In keeping with the comparative spirit that first inspired my project, I decided to juxtapose the lived experiences of Eurasians in the United States, China, and Hong Kong, three sites where the "Eurasian problem" became a topic of public discourse.

If many today tend to think of interracial marriage as a post-Civil Rights Era phenomenon, it is only because they have forgotten the mixed families of the past. From the mid-nineteenth century through the first decades of the twentieth, interracial relationships between Chinese and Westerners grew increasingly common as expanding trade, missionary activity, global labor migration, and educational exchange gave rise to new forms of cross-cultural contact. The growing numbers of Americans who traveled to China and Chinese who migrated to the United States engendered mixed families on both sides of the Pacific. Yet, the stories of these mixed families are not well known, for the prevailing sentiment against "miscegenation," as it was called, compelled many to hide their mixed origins, passing either for "white" or for "pure Chinese." (2)

Take Eric Peter Ho, for example. As Ho has recalled in a work of family history, growing up in Hong Kong he only learned of his family's European heritage when he was ten years old, and a mysterious granduncle, Walter Bosman, came to visit the family from South Africa with his English wife. After his parents told Eric and his siblings that their paternal great-grandfather was a Dutchman, and their maternal great-grandfather an Englishman, they "were told solemnly not to disclose these family secrets to anyone." (3) Thanks to changing ideas about mixed race, however, today many like Ho are openly reclaiming their heritage by publishing memoirs or family histories.

Ethnic studies is dedicated to understanding the profound role that race and ethnicity have played in shaping the world we live in. While bearing in mind this broad significance, ethnic studies also seeks to produce knowledge that has particular relevance to the communities, or minority subjects, that it investigates. By focusing on mixed families like those of Franking and Ho, placing their stories within a larger context of changing ideas, laws, and institutions, I sought to address both these crucial goals.


Believe it or not, mixed race people still face questions about their identity today, despite the increased social acceptance of intermarriage. . . . [M]ixed-race students report that they often get asked “What are you?” Many people today still continue to find mixed race somewhat unsettling, precisely because it disturbs our accepted ideas about where the boundaries between races and cultures lie.


My research therefore combined a reading of texts relating to biological, sociological, and legal discourses on mixed race with an investigation of Eurasian memoirs and other forms of life narrative. By combining these varied sources, I aimed to understand both dominant ideas concerning mixed race (which gave rise to powerful social taboos and anti-miscegenation legislation), as well as how Eurasians themselves generated their own narratives concerning the meaning of biracial identity. To produce knowledge of one without the other would be to fall short, I believe, of the core mission of ethnic studies.

Although I did not conduct oral history interviews for this particular project, in the process of researching and writing the book I did come into contact with a number of people whose personal or family histories link them to the past I sought to uncover, including the extraordinary Eurasian genealogist Peter Hall. Talking with them and hearing their stories reminded me of the crucial importance of producing socially relevant knowledge.

What can we learn from uncovering the hidden histories of Chinese Eurasians from an earlier era of globalization? First, there are interesting cross-cultural differences in the ways that so-called mixed-race peoples have been assigned social identities. In the United States during the era I studied the dominant convention was that of hypodescent. Known in its most extreme form as the "one drop rule," this convention assigns mixed-race peoples a racial classification based on the nonwhite component of their heritage. According to this logic, it is impossible to be mixed and also white. In sharp contrast, Chinese convention assigned children the identity of their fathers, essentially ignoring their maternal heritage. Therefore, it is entirely possible to be mixed, and still be Chinese—if one's father is Chinese. As I demonstrate in my book, historically there were also routes through which the children of Chinese mothers and Western fathers could claim Chineseness. The family of famed Hong Kong Eurasian Sir Robert Ho Tung, for example, invented a Chinese name and built a Chinese grave for Sir Robert's father (who was actually buried in London), practicing ancestor worship just like any other Chinese family. In time, the family became leaders of local Chinese society in Hong Kong.

These cross-cultural differences resulted in radically divergent ways of thinking about race and culture in relation to family, lineage, culture, and nation. Understanding such differences helps to explain, for example, why the Chinese remained profoundly indifferent to the issue of blood quantum, even as the United States developed a profusion of blood quantum laws to distinguish white from nonwhite during this era. Knowledge of these cross-cultural differences furthermore helps to denaturalize our own assumptions concerning the basis for assigning racialized identities. Why is it, for example, that President Barack Obama is often described as either "black" or "biracial," but never as "white"?

A second interesting difference I discovered in my research emerged from the writings of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Chinese intellectuals. Through reading the works of famous individuals such as Kang Youwei, Wu Tingfang, Pan Guangdan, and Wu Jingchao, I learned that leading thinkers of this era, in fields as diverse as Confucian philosophy, law, eugenics, and sociology, argued that Chinese-white amalgamation had eugenic benefits "productive of good to both sides," as Wu Tingfang put it. (4) Their advocacy of the eugenic effects of hybrid vigor stood in sharp contrast to the condemnation of racial amalgamation as a source of racial degeneracy, a notion that was widely propagated in the United States during this era, both in scientific works and by demagogues who opposed Asian immigration.

Reading these works prompted me to ask whether I could find Anglophone writers who similarly advocated the benefits of Euro-Asian amalgamation. And the answer was yes. Although these writers were in a clear minority, a number of racial theorists, colonists, missionaries, and sociologists (Thomas Griffith Taylor, Charles Brooke, James McKinney Alexander, and Sidney Gulick, for example) did sanction such intermixing: some on the grounds that racial amalgamation would help to produce a new "intermediate race" more fit to colonize the tropics than "pure Europeans;" others on the grounds that intermarriage would serve as a vehicle for assimilating immigrants into the white majorities of settler societies like the United States or Australia. Understanding this diversity of opinion from the past gives us a richer picture of the history of ideas concerning mixed-race.

Why does it matter for us to gain a more nuanced, less monolithic understanding of the intellectual genealogy of ideas concerning mixed race? The subject of mixed race is particularly germane today with increasing rates of intermarriage in our society. These intermarriages suggest that the old taboos against intermarriage and the barriers between races have diminished in the years since 1967, when the Supreme Court struck down the last of the anti-miscegenation laws. Yet, some of the old presumptions remain. First of all, the very notion of "mixed race," so frequently celebrated in the contemporary media, entertainment, and advertising industries, relies on the presumption that there are "pure races" to begin with. My research aims to debunk this presumption by adding to the growing scholarship showing intermarriage and intermixing as age-old phenomena, challenging the commonplace certainty by which many feel they can identify those who are "pure Chinese" or "pure white." Understanding histories of migration, cross-cultural contact, and interracial mixing allows us to see that, in fact, no such groups exist, other than as social and legal constructions, which may vary from country to country, time period to time period.

The example of the applicant in the case of In re Knight, who was born off the coast of China under the British flag, to a British father and an Asian mother, is instructive. Although Knight was deemed "not white" by a U.S. court in 1909 (and therefore denied naturalization as a U.S. citizen despite his service in the U.S. Armed Forces), he would certainly have been deemed British, or foreign, based on Chinese nationality laws of the time. Which was right? Posing this question to students unsettles many of their presumptions about the "natural" or "given" character of race. The issue of mixed race thus productively calls our attention to the arbitrariness of racial classification.

Believe it or not, mixed race people still face questions about their identity today, despite the increased social acceptance of intermarriage. When one of my Eurasian students attended a meeting of the Chinese Students’ Association at MIT a few years ago, people asked: “What are you doing here?” Other mixed-race students report that they often get asked “What are you?” Many people today still continue to find mixed race somewhat unsettling, precisely because it disturbs our accepted ideas about where the boundaries between races and cultures lie. I frequently receive enthusiastic queries about my project from young Eurasian students who are curious to know how earlier generations of East-West families dealt with some of the issues of biracial identity they face today.

The humanities help to make the world a better place by revealing to us the complexities and ambiguities of human society in its varied dimensions, helping to shake us from our old biases and habits of thought, from which prejudice and discrimination (even unintentional bias) stem. Both literature and history help us to step into the shoes of others, broadening our perspectives beyond the narrowness of our own experiences. There is an ancient Chinese saying that a frog at the bottom of a well thinks that the sky is only a small patch of blue. The humanities help to make that patch a little bit more expansive.

Emma J. Teng F'06 received a Frederick Burkhardt Residential Fellowship for Recently Tenured Scholars for her project "The Chinese Eurasian: East-West Interracialism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century." The complete series is available here.



  1. Holly Franking, Mae Franking's My Chinese Marriage: An Annotated Edition (Austin: U of Texas P, 1991), 82. Back to text.
  2. Although most mixed families were Chinese-European/Euro-American, Chinese also intermarried with African Americans, Native Americans, Mexican Americans, and others. Back to text.
  3. Eric Peter Ho, Tracing My Children's Lineage (Hong Kong: Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Hong Kong, 2010), 8. Back to text.
  4. Wu Ting-fang, America, Through the Spectacles of an Oriental Diplomat (New York: Stokes, 1914), 185. Back to text.
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