Author Interview: Tian Xu

Author Interview: Tian Xu

Today we share an interview with Tian Xu, who published an article in the December 2023 JCWE, titled “Chinese Women and Habeas Corpus Hearings in California.” Tian Xu is a postdoctoral fellow at SUNY Buffalo’s Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy. His work has been published in Journal of American Ethnic History and The New Rambler.

What interested you in contributing to this special forum on the transpacific connections to the Civil War era?

During the Civil War era, transpacific communities started to take roots in the American West. These communities of course became enmeshed in the American sociolegal debates over slavery and freedom, but they were also active participants in the country’s everyday search for meanings of enslavement and emancipation. This encounter fascinates me. I have chosen the lens of legal mobilization to understand how transpacific subalterns, in this case, Chinese women migrants, navigated the Civil War era legal devices to further their own life plans.

What are the key takeaways that you hope that readers might gain from your article on Chinese women’s use of the law for demanding rights and justice in California?

I hope this article could decenter terms like rights and justice and attract readers’ attention to alternate concepts like survival strategy and agency. The Chinese women in this article migrated under the shadow of a transpacific marketplace of human trafficking. The dearth of primary sources makes it hard to ascertain the actual degrees of freedom they managed to enjoy through legal action. For them, California’s courts and their openness to nonwhite population’s use of habeas corpus writs offered an imperfect but nonetheless useful legal space to voice their preferences in life. Nonetheless, these preferences were constrained by patriarchal expectations within and without the courtroom. Not unlike Barbara Fields’ Black Marylanders, what Chinese women demanded (and what they could get) was “no fixed condition but a constantly moving target.”[1]

The women’s actions were met with at least two competing imperial approaches of governance carried out by American authorities. The first approach sought to regularize the sociolegal status of Chinese women and fit them into the emancipationist, patriarchal civic ideals of the Civil War era. The question of how this approach panned out is covered by the article’s discussion over domestic habeas corpus cases in the antebellum and Civil War decades. The second approach gave up on inclusion and sought to expel Chinese women as unworthy immigrants at America’s gates. The immigration cases after the Civil War, especially the legal battles that led to the famous Chy Lung case, reflect the preponderance of this approach’s persuasion. My article identifies the 1870s as a key decade when the exclusionist strategy overshadowed the emancipationist one. But this does not mean that the latter ceased to function. In practice, the tensions and overlaps between the two continued to create room for Chinese women’s legal action. I would be grateful if readers see the contested nature of this historical development.

After this forum, what’s next? Can you provide our readers with a preview of your current research project?

I am currently working on two projects that speak to each other. The first is a book project about the Pacific genesis of immigration lawyering in America. Chinese migrants and Chinese Americans played a central role in this history. I am making the case that the durability of anti-Asian laws since the 1870s put lawyers at the center of a transpacific “migration industry” and gave rise to the first modern immigration bar in the United States. The second is a project that compares immigration lawyering for the Chinese with military pension lawyering for Black Union families after the Civil War. The comparison explicates the role of race in the expansion of the US administrative state, which created immigration and welfare barriers for minority groups but also gave rise to meaningful, racially specific legal service markets. Instead of characterizing such lawyering as civil rights action, I am interested in how these lawyers’ work served to legitimate unjust laws and/or unjust law enforcement while facilitating resistance.


[1] Barbara J. Fields, Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland During the Nineteenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 193.

Hilary N. Green

Hilary N. Green is the James B. Duke Professor of Africana Studies at Davidson College. She previously worked in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama where she developed the Hallowed Grounds Project. She earned her M.A. in History from Tufts University in 2003, and Ph.D. in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2010. Her research and teaching interests include the intersections of race, class, and gender in African American history, the American Civil War, Reconstruction, as well as Civil War memory, African American education, and the Black Atlantic. She is the author of Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (Fordham, 2016).

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