Rebel Coolies, Citizen Warriors, and Sworn Brothers: The Chinese Loyalty Oath and Alliance with Chile in the War of the Pacific

Friday, January 5, 2018: 3:30 PM
Congressional Room B (Omni Shoreham)
Heidi Tinsman, University of California, Irvine
This paper examines Chilean reports of a loyalty oath sworn by Chinese coolies in Peru to the Chilean Army during its 1881 attack on Lima. Chilean stories about emancipating Chinese coolies from brutal Peruvian masters were central to affirming Chilean superiority. However, Chilean stories about the oath portrayed Chinese men as similar to themselves: brave men who fought on behalf of their nation. This projected onto Chinese actions the very ideals of masculine honor and citizenship through which Chileans understood their own actions against Peru. From a Chinese perspective, I argue that the oath was less about Chinese loyalty to Chileans than about loyalty to other Chinese men in a collective fight against coolie labor. Chinese men saw Chileans as strategic allies for accomplishing their own goals, not as liberators. The ceremony in Lurín enacted a Chinese sworn brotherhood, a fraternal organization common in China, through which men pledged mutual military and economic protection. As the war progressed, Chinese men leveraged Chile‚Äôs invasion to replace coolie arrangements with free peonage and subcontracted work-gangs controlled by Chinese labor bosses.

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