The Middle Kingdom under the Big Sky


The Middle Kingdom under the Big Sky

A History of the Chinese Experience in Montana

Mark T. Johnson

286 pages
21 photographs, 6 illustrations, 1 chart, 1 appendix, index


September 2024


$30.00 Pre-order

May 2022


$55.00 Add to Cart
eBook (PDF)
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May 2022


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eBook (EPUB)
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May 2022


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About the Book

2023 Winner of the WHA W. Turrentine Jackson Award
2023 Winner of the Caroline Bancroft History Prize

From the earliest days of non-Native settlement of Montana, when Chinese immigrants made up more than 10 percent of the territory’s population, Chinese pioneers played a key role in the region’s development. But this population, so crucial to Montana’s history, remains underrepresented in historical accounts, and popular attention to the Chinese in Montana tends to focus on sensational elements—exoticizing Chinese Montanans and distancing their lived experiences from our modern understanding. The Middle Kingdom under the Big Sky seeks to recover the stories of Montana’s Chinese population in their own words and deepen understanding of Chinese experiences in Montana by using a global lens.

Mark T. Johnson has mined several large collections of primary documents left by Chinese pioneers, translated into English here for the first time. These collections, spanning the 1880s through the 1950s, provide insight into the pressures the Chinese community faced—from family members back in China and from non-Chinese Montanans—as economic and cultural disturbances complicated acceptance of Chinese residents in the state. Through their own voices Johnson reveals the agency of Chinese Montanans in the history of the American West and China.

Author Bio

Mark T. Johnson is an associate clinical professor in the Institute of Educational Initiatives at the University of Notre Dame. Visit for information supplementing the book.


"The Middle Kingdom under the Big Sky is based on the important and well-accepted premise that historians and audiences need to know more about the lives of Chinese people in nineteenth-century America and in the diaspora from the perspectives of the Chinese (in America and abroad) themselves. Working with this compelling idea, Mark T. Johnson offers a fascinating history of the Chinese diasporic experience in Montana from 1870 to the 1950s, using previously ignored and untranslated collections at the Montana Historical Society."—Laura Madokoro, Western Historical Quarterly

"This is an excellent, very readable book that is meaningful to students and the general public on Asian American history, rural America, racial prejudice, transnationalism, and relations between China and the United States."—Sue Fawn Chung, Journal of Arizona History

"This is a model study."—Charles E. Rankin, Roundup Magazine

"This book is a unique and important contribution not only to Montana’s history but how primary voices can be used to explore the granular texture of events well-trodden in history books."—Christopher Merritt, Annals of Wyoming

"The Middle Kingdom under the Western Sky offers a valuable, close-up view of Chinese workers' almost century-long struggle, from the 1860s to the 1950s, to find a stable footing between their desperate homeland families' need for money and the unceasingly hostile, unwelcoming world of Montana where they labored to earn it."—Sara Tucker, Kansas History

"By spending significant time reconstructing the details of a Chinese community, this book resists and revises the outdated and stereotypical views of early Chinese immigrants that denied individuality and identity."—Zhihui Zou, World History Encyclopedia

“Johnson’s transnational approach to his subject sets his work apart from most other studies done on the Chinese experience in Montana. The author makes excellent use of primary sources, including materials that help to capture the Chinese voices in the story and have rarely, if ever, been utilized by other historians.”—Robert R. Swartout Jr., professor emeritus of history at Carroll College and coeditor of Montana Legacy: Essays on History, People, and Place

The Middle Kingdom under the Big Sky fills a gap in the history of Montana as well as of Chinese immigration. . . . Joining a group of new scholars, Johnson takes a transnational approach in dealing with the topic and provides a good example of this new kind of scholarship.”—Liping Zhu, author of The Road to Chinese Exclusion: The Denver Riot, 1880 Election, and Rise of the West

“Mark Johnson draws insights from a cache of untranslated documents . . . to understand the challenges of Chinese experiences in Montana and the American West. Highlighting voices of Montana’s Chinese residents via their own words, Johnson artfully connects personal accounts with regional and global history. The result is an important book about risk, agency, resilience, resistance, cooperation, and hope.”—Kelly J. Dixon, professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Montana

“With great care and insight, Johnson works to recover the rich history of Chinese in Montana, all the while grappling with limits of the historical record. Particularly noteworthy is his extensive use of Chinese-language sources, which add vivid details to the local community. Montana may seem an unlikely location for this transnational history, but Johnson reveals the deep roots of the Chinese diaspora in Big Sky country.”—Beth Lew-Williams, author of The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Note on Chinese Names and Transliterations
1. Telling the History of Montana’s Chinese Pioneers
2. Pressures on Butte’s Chinese Residents, 1880s–1920s
3. Chinese Resistance to the 1892 Geary Act
4. The Chinese Empire Reform Association
5. The Anti-American Boycott of 1905
6. Chinese Religious and Burial Practices
7. The Changing Status of Chinese Women, 1860s–1950s
8. Cold War Fears and Chinese Communities, 1930s–1950s
Appendix: Anti-Chinese Actions in Montana, 1866–1909


2023 WHA W. Turrentine Jackson Award

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