Chinese Immigrants and Heritage Schools in the United States


The current Chinese-speaking population in the U.S. is marked with rapid expansion and high geographic concentration. The U.S. Census 2007 reported a total of 3,538,407 persons of Chinese origin (90% in Chinese race alone and the rest in combinations), forming 1.17% of the U.S. population and indicating a 22.88% increase over the year of 2000 (2,879,636 in total).

Byron (Firm: New York, N.Y.). (1900). In Chinatown, New York [Online image]. Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. Retrieved January 11, 2016 from

Yun Xiao

Bryant University

The current Chinese-speaking population in the U.S. is characterized by rapid expansion and high geographic concentrations. The U.S. Census 20071 reported 3,538,407 persons of Chinese origin, 90% of which were of the Chinese race alone with the rest comprised of combinations. This total population constitutes 1.17% of the U.S. population, which indicates a 22.88% increase over the 2000 Census’ 2,879,636 total. Historically, there were three major waves of Chinese immigration to the U.S. The first wave occurred during the mid-19th century, the second in the mid-20th century (1949-1979), and the third from 1980 to the present. The first-wave pioneers were mostly Cantonese-speaking peasants or fishermen by origin, who came in large numbers during the 1849 California Gold Rush. Records have shown that 40,400 of them arrived between 1851 and 1860, when the Central Pacific Railroad needed a large labor force to build the Transcontinental Railroad. By 1870, the Chinese population rose to 63,000, with every tenth person in California being Chinese (Sung, 1967:42). However, they were culturally ill prepared to deal with a hostile environment, and so they struggled with inequality and racial discrimination. Unfortunately, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the subsequent exclusion acts passed in 1904, 1911, 1912, and 1913 made such discrimination legal, preventing naturalization, new immigration, and family unity for any person of Chinese descent (Sung, 1967). Seeing no opportunities in the new land, the early immigrants prepared their children to return to China (Koehn and Yin, 2002). For this reason, they started Chinese community language schools in Chinatowns as a solution to maintain the Chinese language and heritage, and as a remedy to compensate for the lack of Chinese instruction in American mainstream schools, where Chinese remained a less commonly taught language until very recent years.

Genthe, A. (between 1896 and 1906). The Vegetable peddler, Chinatown, San Francisco [Online image]. Arnold Genthe Collection (Library of Congress). Retrieved January 11, 2016 from

Thomas A. Edison, Inc. (1903). San Francisco Chinese Funeral [Online video]. Library of Congress Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division Washington, D.C. Accessed January 11, 2016 from

Compared to their European counterparts, Chinese speakers in the U.S. are a relatively new immigrant group, mainly comprised of contemporary immigrants arriving around the turn of the 21st century. Moreover, Chinese immigrants in the U.S. have been historically highly concentrated, with 78% of the first group residing in California and mostly clustered in Chinatowns (Chang, 2003); a pattern that has continued with the later groups. By 2010, over half of the Chinese immigrants in the United States resided in just two states: California and New York (McCabe, 2012), both of which have the largest Chinatowns in the nation. California had the highest number of Chinese immigrants in 2010 with 577,745 individuals, which comprised 32.0% of the total Chinese population, followed by New York with 20.8% of the total. Unlike their pioneer counterparts, later arrivals have been more educated and financially better off, and fortunately happened to arrive into a better environment. The social situation has improved by the enactment of new immigration policies in 1965, the normalization of US-China relations in 1979, and China’s Open Door policy and economic reform at the turn of the 1980s. The newer arrivals have included large numbers of scholars and students, who speak Mandarin Chinese and work or study in American universities or research institutions (Chang, 2003). Some of them have become leading scientists and academics, or entrepreneurs who engage in commercial activities and high-tech industries (Chan, 2002).

Chinese-Americans get officer rank (between 1940 and 1946) [Online image]. Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress). Retrieved January 11, 2016 from

Collins, M. (1942). Mr. Fing, a Chinese-American merchant, and his wife in their Flatbush home [Online image]. Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress). Retrieved January 11, 2016 from

Community education has been the centerpiece of the ethnic Chinese population for over 100 years. Data have shown that almost all US-born Chinese children or young arrivals have some level of experience in Chinese community schooling (Xiao, 2008), where they learn the heritage language (HL) and culture, make friends, and weave their socio-ethnic fabric. Although the U.S. ecological environment for Chinese immigrants fluctuates from time to time, these schools have remained strong, especially in recent years. For instance, the first Chinese HL school was established in San Francisco in 1886 (Liu, 2010), with Cantonese as the main medium of instruction and classic written Chinese texts as the teaching materials. By the end of the 1920s, there were over fifty Chinese-language schools, most of them in the western states (Chang, 2003), which offered longer teaching hours (afterschool and full days during the weekends) than other contemporary Chinese schools, which only offered 2 to 3 hours of instruction per week during weekends. However, these schools were generally independent of each other with no interaction or collaboration until 1994, when two non-profit organizations were established to serve and lead. The National Council of Associations of Chinese Languages Schools (NCACLS2) was established by Taiwanese immigrants and the Chinese School Association in the United States (CSAUS3) was established by people from China. Each organization has its own member schools and lends support in curricula development, mainstream communication, advocacy, and articulation. Under their leadership, the Chinese community schools have experienced a rapid expansion. By 1996, approximately 82,675 students were enrolled in 634 Chinese language schools across the country (Chao, 1997). Presently, there are 200,000 students enrolled in these schools; specifically, NCACLS has close to 100,000 persons across 47 states, and CSAUS has over 100,000 students and 7,000 teachers across 43 states. Together, they cover all the major and medium metropolitan areas across the country. Apart from language teaching, some of these schools also engage in a wide range of activities, such as administering the Hanban4-authorized Chinese standardized tests, preparing students for the SAT or SAT II Chinese and/or math exams, and organizing summer camps, Chinese festival celebrations, and cultural exchanges with China or Taiwan. Moreover, unlike most college Chinese programs that are struggling with mixed-classes containing both HL and non-HL students, large enrollment rates allow the weekend Chinese schools to run multiple tracks, such as classes designed specifically for English-speaking children, Chinese-speaking children (young arrivals), English-speaking adults, SAT or math exams, and seminars for parents (Xiao, 2014).

Ford. E. (1965). Americanized Chinese women on Mott St. [Online image]. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. Retrieved January 11, 2016 from

After more than a century and a half, Chinese settlers have grown, from an insignificant discriminated group, to become the largest Asian group and second to the largest non-English speaking population (only after Spanish) in the U.S. They have made homes from west to east and founded a legacy of community and history even in the face of exclusion laws and social violence (Cassel, 2002:15).

End Notes:

1. U.S. Census Bureau: S0201. Survey: American Community Survey Selected Population Profile in the United States; Population Group: Chinese alone or in any combination; Data Set: 2007 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates

2. NCACLS (National Council of Associations of Chinese Language Schools)

3. CSAUS (Chinese School Association in the United States)

4. Hanban (Chinese: 汉办) is the colloquial abbreviation for the Chinese National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language (NOTCFL).


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Additional References:

Cassel, Susie Lan, ed. The Chinese in America: A history from Gold Mountain to the new millennium. Vol. 10. Rowman Altamira, 2002.

He, Agnes Weiyun. & Yun Xiao. Chinese as a heritage language: Fostering rooted world citizenry, Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii, National Foreign Language Resource Center. 2008.

Kwong, Peter, and Dušanka Dušana Miščevič. Chinese America: The untold story of America's oldest new community. New Press, 2005.

Lai, Him Mark. "Organization among Chinese in America since the Second World War." The Chinese Diaspora 2. 1998.

McKay, Sandra Lee, and Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong. "Multiple discourses, multiple identities: Investment and agency in second-language learning among Chinese adolescent immigrant students." Harvard educational review 66.3, 577-609. 1996.

McGinnis, Scott. From mirror to compass: The Chinese heritage language education sector in the United States. In Donna M. Briton, Olga Kagan, & Susan Bauckus (eds), Heritage Language Education: A New Field Emerging (eds.), New York and London: Routledge. 229-242. 2008.

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Wang, Shuhan C. Building societal capital: Chinese in the U.S. Language Policy, 6(1), 27-52. 2007.

Wiley, Terrence G., “Chinese ‘dialect’ speakers as heritage language learners: A case study”, in: Donna M. Briton, Olga Kagan and Susan Bauckus, eds., Heritage Language Education: A New Field Emerging, New York and London: Routledge, 2008, 91-106.

Xiao, Yun. Chinese language in the United States: An ethnolinguistic perspective. In Linda Tsung and ken Cruickshank (eds.), Teaching and Learning Chinese in Global Contexts. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group. 2011, 181-196.

Yung, Judy. Unbound feet: A social history of Chinese women in San Francisco. University of California Press, 1995.

Published: Wednesday, February 25, 2015