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What's In a Phrase? Finding Historical Understandings in an Immigrant Guidebook

In this activity students analyze a Chinese-English phrasebook from the late nineteenth/early twentieth century. Students match phrases from the textbook to specific historical understandings, write their own historical understanding, and then generate possible phrases for immigrants to the United States today.


Students will be able to find evidence in a primary source to support the following historical understandings:

  • Chinese immigrants actively participated in the economic and commercial life of the American West.

  • Chinese immigrants educated themselves about American society in order to improve their livelihoods.

  • Violence was part of the experiences of Chinese immigrants and others in the frontier West.

  • Chinese immigrants in the late 19th century were mostly men, many of whom had left families behind in China.  

This activity supports the following Common Core Literacy Standards in History/Social Studies:

  • RHSS.6-8.2. Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.


Step 1: Pass out the Chinese-English phrasebook and review the description with students.  Discuss with students why such a handbook was necessary.  Can students think of similar or different resources for immigrants to the United States today?  

Allow students to work individually or in pairs to read through the first page.  Ask students to share out a few of their impressions about Chinese immigrant life based on the phrasebooks.  

Step 2: Now pass out the worksheet.  You may also want to project the historical understandings.  Model with students how they should complete the first four questions on the worksheet:  Students should analyze the phrases in the handbook and match them to each of the four historical understandings.  Students should be prepared to share their examples with the whole class.

Step 3: Now ask students to write a new historical understanding--or main idea--about the Chinese immigrant experience based on the phrases in the immigrant guidebook.  "Test" students' historical understandings by asking a few volunteers to write their historical understandings on the board and have other students find examples of phrases that match it.  Before moving onto the last step, review with students again the main four historical understandings about Chinese immigration.  

Step 4: Ask students to write one or two phrases that would be helpful for an immigrant arriving in New York City today.  Allow students who speak more than one language to translate the phrases into their native languages.  

Historical Context

Between 1849 and 1882, thousands of Chinese people immigrated to the United States. Even after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Chinese workers continued to enter the U.S., often through Mexico. The first wave of immigrants came to work in the gold fields of California, but Chinese workers quickly spread throughout the American West, performing hard, dangerous and low-paid labor in mines, on railroads, and on other infrastructure projects. Many immigrants also opened their own businesses; some, like restaurants and stores, primarily served the Chinese community, though many small Chinese-owned laundries served both white and Chinese residents. After the economy went bust in the 1870s, Chinese workers had a harder time finding employment and faced stronger opposition--and violence--from their fellow white workers. Consequently, many Chinese immigrants retreated into a few major cities, especially San Francisco. Despite these many challenges, Chinese immigrants formed vibrant social and cultural organizations in their communities, founding schools, temples, theaters and family organizations. Chinese immigrants maintained some customs and values from China, but also adapted to their new homes. 

New immigrants encountered an unfamiliar and often threatening world, where their lack of English meant they could be easily exploited by white employers, business owners, or landlords. Benevolent aid societies and family organizations attempted to help newcomers by publishing English-Chinese phrasebooks.

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2010.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “What's In a Phrase? Finding Historical Understandings in an Immigrant Guidebook,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed October 4, 2023,

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