The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair: Implications for the U.S. – China Relationship

| February 26, 2012

Amy Mungur at the Great Wall

Social Studies doctoral student Amy Mungur is using the past to look toward the future. Her pilot study looks to the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago as a framework to examine the relationship between the US and China. By examining how the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 shaped Chinese attitudes and involvement in the fair, Mungur endeavors to set a foundation from which to explore the parallels in our relationship with China today.

When the U.S. government decided to dramatically limit Chinese immigration in 1882 because of labor disputes and race riots in the West, the Chinese government responded by boycotting the World’s Fair. It was Chinese-American immigrants already living in the U.S. who chose to  get involved and represent China. The exhibit promoted traditional Chinese culture and was displayed on the Midway Plaisance.

The display, one of many ethnological exhibits representing other nations and colonized territories, turned out to be another way to highlight how the Chinese were viewed at that time. The exhibits along the Midway Plaisance stood out in contrast to those in the “White City,” the Fair’s center of high culture and an ode to the evolution and progress of the U.S. Both sides illustrated how imperialism and Social Darwinism dominated political and economic discourse during this period. .

By using the Fair and its historical context for educational discourse around imperialism, Mungur considers how an “otherness” was perpetuated around Chinese culture, and to what degree that “otherness” remains to this day.

“One of the reasons I wanted to do a historical study on this fair was because of our current fear culture about China,

China Pavilion at the World's Fair in Shanghai 2010

and this idea that we should arm ourselves to compete against this “other” that we don’t understand; We need to prepare. We need to compete. It seems that our curriculum is designed around a discourse of competition. “

Mungur also aims to show how the Chinese and the United States have had a relationship for over a century that is built around a political and cultural discourse. “It’s different now in 2012, but I think there are implications for how the Chinese were represented and regarded in the 1890s, and how we still have this “otherness,” this distance, about what China represents today.”

Because Mungur sees our curriculum is bifurcated in this “East/West” dichotomy, she hopes her study will address some real questions and pedagogical implications for teachers.  “We’re situated in the United States and we see everything in relation to us, not really regarding that there’s a history outside of our own. There’s definitely another side to it and that is often omitted.”

By investigating what a study of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair reveals about the economic, political, and cultural relationship between the United States and China, Mungur seeks to create a platform for dialogue and a consideration of deeper questions that impact our students and society as a whole.