The Search for Bertillon Cards from the Chinese Exclusion Act

Ill-Treatment of Chinese at San Francisco.  From Arthur H. Smith, "A Fools Paradise," Outlook, March 24 1906.


The Search for Bertillon Cards from the Chinese Exclusion Act

For the past few months, Aisling and I have been searching for the identification cards created for Chinese immigrants using the Bertillon system of measurement.  While we have found many earlier and later identification cards from the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Bertillon cards created during the system’s short-lived period of use, between 1903 and 1906, have eluded us.  The Bertillon system was used to create a database of Chinese laborers who were exempt from the Chinese Exclusion Act and thus allowed to remain in the United States.  While the law only required laborers submit to measurement, the definition of laborer was ambiguous, and any Chinese immigrant suspected of being a laborer, as many were, could expect to be measured.  The Bertillon system was considered incredibly degrading by those Chinese immigrants who underwent measurement, as Bertillonage was known as a method of criminal identification.  The repeal of the Bertillon system was part of a moderate liberalization of the Chinese Exclusion Act after the- Chinese boycott of American goods in 1905.

In the absence of the any Bertillon cards used during the Chinese Exclusion Act, there is at least one first hand account of the process written by a Chinese immigrant: “First, the person’s picture is taken, full body and from the waist up.  Then the face, frontal view; and then from the back of the head, and facing left and right.  Afterwards, a machine is used to measure the width of the skull.  The distances between the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth are measured as well as one’s height and the length of one’s hands and feet.  The distance between the shoulder, elbow, and wrist are measured, as are the distances between the hips, knee, and calf.  The arms are measured out-stretched and bent as are the legs measured while standing and in-step.  All of these measurements are taken while the person is nude.  The length of the fingers and toes between each joint is also recorded.  There is nothing that is not recorded in great detail.” Liang Qichao Ji Huagong jinyue. Excerpt translated in K. Scott Wong, “Liang Qichao and the Chinese of America: A Re-Evaluation of His ‘Selected Memoir of Travels in the New World,’” Journal of American Ethnic History, Vol. 11, No. 4 (Summer 1992): 3-24.

The striking revelation from Liang’s testimony is that the Chinese immigrants were measured in the nude.  Compare this to the account of an Ohio prisoner: “The second day of my imprisonment I was taken to the room for the identification of prisoners by the Bertillon method.  My photograph was taken with my glasses off, front and side view, with my prison number 31498 fastened across my breast.  Then I was weighed and measured in many dimensions, and my own clothes were taken from me, except my underclothing and shoes, and I was put into the gray uniform of the highest grade allowed to be given to any prisoner on his first coming there. “ Charles C. Moore, Behind the Bars; 31498, Lexington, K.Y. 1890.  While Moore’s self-aggrandizing tone leads one to question the reliability of this account, his reveals the Bertillon process as the critical moment in the transition from citizen to prisoner.  Moor associated the loss of his street clothes, which he claimed happened after measurement, with his (uncharacteristically enthusiastic) achievement of the grey prisoner’s uniform.

If we take Moore’s account to understand Bertillon measurement as a moment of transition from one state of identity to the next, what does that mean for the Chinese immigrant?  This person is also transition.  He or she is passing between national boundaries, transforming from national-citizen to immigrant-outsider, and being distilled from a complex background into two dominate identities: “Chinese” and “laborer.” According to Simon A. Cole in Suspect Identities, what emerged from the Bertillon system “was a new way of visualizing criminality: the authorities did not read criminality in the body itself, but rather used the body as an index to a written criminal record.”  The physical traces of the anthropological “born criminal” was replaced by the Bertillon system’s preference for the individual’s unique mark.  In other words, the grasping overreaches of the search for the identifiable characteristics of criminality in the nineteenth century were replaced by a system in which the criminal’s body was itself a unique trace of criminality.  Such an identity was permanent and unambiguous.  For the Chinese immigrants, this becomes more complex.  The enforcement of Chinese Exclusion Act was based on broad generalizations of  “Chinese-ness,” leading to infinite confusion and appeal as to the definition of identifiable physical and cultural characteristics for identifying those Chinese laborers to be turned away from the United States.  With the adoption of the Bertillon system, the Chinese immigrant was subjected to a method in which the label “Chinese laborer” was no longer a generalization, but the unique mark of their person, exposed in the moment of transition from an assumed state of personhood to the pretext of criminality.  Thus, for now, we continue to search for these cards.


  • Research Groups
  • Agency
  • Identity
  • Mobility/Exchange
  • Visual Knowledge
  • Current Projects
  • VMW