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Chinaman's chance means little or no chance at all, freighted with a particularly anti-Asian racism.[1] It is an American idiomatic expression first attested in 1903.[2]


Potential originsEdit

When Federal officers mete out such treatment to a man previously established to be an American citizen, we can well understand the bitter irony of the current phrase "A Chinaman's chance."

Justices Denman, Stephens, and Healy, Chun Kock Quon v. Proctor (1937)[3]

The origin of the phrase is not well documented.

One potential origin of the phrase Chinaman's chance traces it to the construction of the U.S. transcontinental railroad. During its construction, unstable bottles of nitroglycerine were used for blasting. Chinese workers would be lowered over cliffs by rope and boatswain's chairs to set the nitroglycerine in place. In this work, if they were not lifted back up before the blast, serious injury or death would result.[citation needed]

Another potential origin is from the California Gold Rush of 1849. The travel time for news of the gold rush to reach China was quite long, and by the time Chinese from China arrived to prospect, many of the rich mines were already taken. These Chinese immigrants who missed out had to work with only those lands which had already been exploited or which were rejected by others, meaning these late-arriving immigrants had a slim chance of success. The historical record, however, indicates that many Chinese combined efforts with each other and did very well in the goldfields, introducing mining techniques then unknown to non-Chinese.[4][page needed] Alternatively, in 1920 the phrase was explained to describe the low probability for the Chinese in America to make a fortune at gold mining. Although there were Chinese in the gold mining camps soon after the news broke, "they were extremely unpopular [and] the slightest excuse was sufficient to warrant their being beaten or chased away; consequently they had no chance to get a real foothold" to establish mining rights.[5]

Not a Chinaman's Chance (1894), Charles Marion Russell

Another unsubstantiated claim is that the phrase was cemented by murders of Chinese that were condoned by state law,[6][page needed][better source needed] thus giving them no chance of success in the courts. The conviction of a white man for murdering a Chinese miner was overturned in the case of People v. Hall, 4 Cal 399 (1854). In that ruling, the California Supreme Court expanded the definition of "black person" in the California Crimes and Punishments Act of 1850[7] to exclude "all races other than the Caucasian", throwing out evidence provided by a Chinese person's testimony.[8] Bill Bryson believed the phrase could be traced to the Rock Springs Massacre of 1885, referring to the forced expulsion of Chinese American residents, whose chances of living were slimmed by the dual threat of armed mobs and freezing overnight temperatures.[9] In 1887, as many as 34 Chinese gold miners were massacred along the Snake River in Oregon by a gang of white horse thieves, typical of the anti-Chinese violence of the time. Three were arrested and tried for the crime, but none were convicted.[10]

In literatureEdit

  • "Asia is rising against me. / I haven't got a chinaman's chance. / I'd better consider my national resources." — Allen Ginsberg, America[11]

In artEdit

In filmEdit

The phrase "a Chinaman's chance" is used in the following films:

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Waldmeir, Patti (June 22, 2015). "The quest for the meaning of Chineseness from Beijing to US sitcoms". Financial Times. Retrieved January 1, 2016.
  2. ^ Google Books
  3. ^ Chun Kock Quon v. Proctor, F.2d 326, 329 (9th Cir. 1937).
  4. ^ Zhu, Liping (15 February 2000). A Chinaman's Chance: The Chinese on the Rocky Mountain Mining Frontier. University Press of Colorado. ISBN 978-0-87081-575-1. Retrieved 28 April 2018.
  5. ^ "A Chinaman's Chance". The Northwestern Miller. Vol. 124 no. 5. Minneapolis, Minnesota: The Miller Publishing Company. November 3, 1920. p. 586. Retrieved 28 April 2018.
  6. ^ Stephen Ambrose, Nothing Like It in the World
  7. ^ California State Assembly. "An Act concerning Crimes and Punishments". First Session of the Legislature. Statutes of California. State of California. Ch. 99 § 14 p. 229. No black or mulatto person, or Indian, shall be permitted to give evidence in favor of, or against, any white person. Every person who shall have one eight part or more of Negro blood shall be deemed a mulatto, and every person who shall have one half of Indian blood shall be deemed an Indian.
  8. ^ Chin, Gabriel J. (2013). ""A Chinaman's Chance" in Court: Asian Pacific Americans and Racial Rules of Evidence" (PDF). UC Irvine Law Review. 3 (4): 965–990. Retrieved 28 April 2018.
  9. ^ Loewen, James (2005). "3. The Great Retreat". Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism. New York City: The New Press. p. 51. ISBN 1-56584-887-X. Retrieved 28 April 2018.
  10. ^ Stratton, David H. (1983). "The Snake River Massacre of Chinese Miners, 1887". In Smith, Duane A. (ed.). A Taste of the West: essays in honor of Robert G. Athearn. University of Colorado Press. pp. 109–129. ISBN 9780871086419. Retrieved 25 April 2018.
  11. ^ Ginsberg, Allen (1988) [1956]. "America". Collected Poems 1947-1980. Harper Perennial. ISBN 978-0-06-091494-3. Retrieved December 7, 2011.
  12. ^ "The Poker Game". Amon Carter Museum of Art. Retrieved 28 April 2018.
  13. ^ "Not a Chinaman's Chance". Yale University Art Gallery. Retrieved 28 April 2018.

External linksEdit