The River – Historical Notes

Lien and Jing-Shen Tong were two of the first characters I actually created for Deadlands, besides Gabe and Violetta. I knew from the start Violetta would have this strange vision of a muddy river and decided to put her in one at some point. Her scene floating there is also one of the first things I wrote for Deadlands, though it’s been altered since inserting it into the actual story. I was not really a fan of westerns when this initial concept came to me, but I was aware of the tropes associated with the genre. The Chinese medicine man is still a fairly common trope in media today, as Americans have never really stopped seeing Asians as strange and mystical. Like my desire to have non-standard western protagonists, I wanted to humanize the tropes we are used to seeing and actually look at the cultural landscape of the period. I spent most of my research hoping to find information on the daily lives of Chinese immigrants, the sort of customs that were specific to them, so I could paint an accurate picture of their lives, but around this time in history, anti-Chinese sentiment had reached a fever pitch in America. From the University of Illinois:

By the 1880s Chinese immigrants were being viewed not only as an inferior and undesirable population, but also as an actual threat to American culture, American government, and even the Caucasian race. Peoples of European background could not understand how the Chinese could live in such crowded, poor conditions and work so hard for such low wages. They concluded that the Chinese possessed some super-human power, perhaps a result of their mysterious religion, their strange and isolated culture, or induced by smoking opium which allowed them to accept their situation and continue to work hard. Novelists wrote stories in which Chinese characters were outwardly quiet and submissive but were inwardly sinister and cunning. Some of these Yellow Peril novels predicted that Chinese immigrants were part of a secret plan to invade and take over the government of the United States replacing American culture with that of the Chinese.

In 1885 and 1886 the United States saw two major events where white Americans took out their anger on Chinese immigrants. The Rock Springs Massacre or the Rock Springs Riot, sparked by white mine workers who were angry that the Chinese workers were more likely to be hired due to their being paid lower wages, was started when ten white men attempted to kick the Chinese workers out of a desirable spot, resulting in them beating six Chinese workers, one of which who later died from the injuries. It ended in a mob descending on the workers, threatening them with guns, stealing their gold, and in some cases just shooting them and robbing their corpses. The Chinese workers fled and went to Washington, only to be threatened there as well. In 1886, similar mobs killed Chinese immigrants and forced 200 of them on ships, vowing to “sweep the city clean of Chinese”. More of the timeline can be seen here.

A large problem was that white Americans could not understand the Chinese immigrants and saw them as alien. Noticeably, the Naturalization Act of 1870 actively excluded Chinese immigrants due to the belief that they could not be assimilated. It wouldn’t be until 1898 American born Chinese were allowed to be citizens (it would not be until 1924 American Indians would be considered citizens either). The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 also refused any more Chinese immigrants. It would not be repealed until 1943.

The main role of the Chinese laborers in wild west stories are 1) gold miner who immigrated during the rush, 2) launderer, and 3) track layer. These do seem to be the main jobs taken, though they also participated in agriculture and fishing, and approximately 200 fought in the Civil War, primarily on the side of the Union. Women were rare to immigrate with their husbands or on their own, due to lack of work available to them, and the cost of immigrating. The 1870 census listed 60% of Chinese women in the US were prostitutes, which was used to make immigration for women all the more difficult. I couldn’t tell how many were actually sex workers, as some listed were also married and formed families and are noted to be part of the Chinese Christians. There does seem to be a large crossover with Chinese immigrants and African-Americans as well. I found 57% of interracial marriages with Chinese Americans was with African-Americans, and in the reformation South, Chinese workers set up grocery shops in primarily black communities.

Lien wants to go to Boston because of the New England Female Medical School (founded in 1848, which also graduated the first African-American female physician in 1864). It tried to find information on historical Chinese medicine that Jing-Shen would have practiced, but it mostly brings me to Traditional Chinese Medicine ™, the historical nature of which I could not quite determine. Not helped is that in the 19th century, Western missionaries were pushing western medicine in China, meaning that’s the only articles I can read on. Accupuncture does seem to be a component of Chinese medicine, and teapills were a thing I read up on, though I don’t understand enough about any kind of medicine to discuss them.  I looked for Chinese doctors that operated in America historically, but again the information is muddled. I would have to do more in depth research.

As for the monsters, there’s not much on either of them. I searched for “Chinese water ghost” hoping to find something I could use, and came across the shui gui, which I believe is literally translated “water ghost”. From the World of Chinese:

Shui gui are “water ghosts” and are the spirits of those who’ve drowned. Only once a shui gui lures another person to their death by drowning will their spirit be free (替身tì shēn, “replace the body.”) At that time, the spirit will return to the world of the living, while the hapless victim will become a new shui gui. In this way, shui gui create a cycle of bad luck and dangerous places.

This is about the most I can find on it. Similarly, I searched “California ghosts” hoping to find a local legend or area specific one, and I came across the California Ghost Deer. It is a mysterious, large buck with 10 points on its horn on one side and 12 on the other. Hunters claim to have shot at it, and it missed or the deer didn’t react at all. There’s an article on it here.

I entirely used Google translate for the Chinese in these segments since I know no one who speaks Chinese. Hopefully it was short enough that I didn’t embarrass myself too badly. I was going to do another Cryptid Corner in November but ended up getting swamped with NaNoWriMo this year, so if you are missing content I recommend checking out my southern werewolf story I posted on my writing blog. This of course has made it difficult to write the next chapter as well, so I’ll be chugging along to get that finished by the end of December. Once I’ve properly rested from my overdoing it in November, more things will appear on this site, and you can keep checking my other blogs as well.

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