QUAINT #19 Roots of the Yellow Peril, Part I

Note: Jess Nevins’ entry on the Yellow Peril was just too fascinating to be abridged, and so it will be posted in two parts. Follow along next Wednesday for Part II.

Film poster for The Face of Fu Manchu, who is one of the best known examples of the Yellow Peril stereotype. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Yellow Peril. Although the anti-Asian stereotype of the “Yellow Peril,” the threat posed to the West by Asian countries and peoples, was made commonplace in the 20th century, the source of the modern Yellow Peril stereotype lies in the literature and cultural trends of the 19th century.

There are actually two different Yellow Perils. The first is of Asians as a group, and though usually applied to the Chinese or Japanese does not differentiate between nationalities and ethnic groups and has been applied to Indians, Vietnamese, and Slavic Russians. This stereotype, of Asians en masse, portrays them as a faceless horde of decadent and sexually rapacious barbarians. The roots of this stereotype lie in the historical threats posed to Western Europe from Eastern Europe and Asia: Visigoths and Huns from the 3rd through the 5th century C.E., and Mongols in the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries. Although the practical threat of a Mongolian or Asian invasion of Europe was nil by the mid-15th century, the unexpectedness of the Mongolian attacks and their vicious thoroughness left a deep impression on the Western psyche, so that the stereotype of an Eastern threat to “civilization” remained common in the Western for centuries.

In contrast, the more modern Yellow Peril is an individual: the evil Asian mastermind who schemes to conquer the West. Although there are numerous sources for this stereotype, its origins lie in Italy in the 14th century C.E.

In the 13th century the Spanish kingdom of Aragon, under the rule of King James I, conquered Valencia and secured the Aragonese frontier against the North African Muslim threat. James also conquered the Balearic Islands in 1235. This was the beginning of the Aragonese/Spanish empire in the Mediterranean. Under King Pedro III the Aragonese conquered Sicily in 1285; King James II exchanged control of Sardinia and Corsica for Sicily, which was taken by James’ brother Frederick. In 1302 the Aragonese, using a group of mercenaries called the Catalan Grand Company, caused riots in Constantinople, reportedly killing over 3000 Italians. Throughout the 14th century the Aragonese forcibly expelled the Genoese and Pisans from Sardinia. Additionally, in the 1350s the Spanish Cardinal Gil Alvarez Carrillo de Albornoz, at the behest of Pope Innocent VI, broke the power of the disobedient Italian barons, making it possible for the Pope, at this point living in Avignon in France, to return to Italy.

All of these events, and the accompanying Spanish cultural, political, and economic imperialism, provided Italians with a great deal of reason to hate the Spanish in general and the Aragonese in particular. One of the ways in which the Italians resisted the Spanish was to spread stories of their barbarities and atrocities in Italy.

In the century following the Spanish arrival in Mexico, the Native American population declined by the millions–estimates vary from fifteen to twenty-four million dead. Most of these died from disease, but tens of thousands of native lives were lost through slavery and atrocities. Although the conquistadors in Mexico did not disapprove of these atrocities, the Franciscan friar Father Bartolomé de las Casas (1474-1566) did, and wrote A Brief Relation of the Destruction of the West Indies, an account of the Conquest which harshly criticized the Spanish treatment of the natives.

Bartolomé de Las Casas, who wrote the "A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies" that strongly criticized Spanish treatment of the native population in the West Indies

A Brief Relation was published in 1552 and gave rise to a new round of stories about Spanish evil. These stories became the Black Legend of Spanish iniquity. Besides the horror stories about Spanish atrocities in Italy and the New World, the Black Legend also included anti-Catholic sentiments and fears of Jesuit conspiracies; stories (both true and exaggerated) about the Inquisition; and racist elements, based on the Northern European fear and hatred of the race-mixing the Spanish were engaging in in the Americas as well as the racial changes inflicted on the Spanish by North African Muslims during the invasions of Spain in the 8th century.

These stories were particularly popular in the Protestant countries warring with Catholic Spain in the 16th century: the Netherlands, Germany, and England. In England this resulted in, among other things, a persistent fear of Catholic and especially Jesuit conspiracies against the Crown. The Black Legend broadened to include Italians as well as the Spanish during the century. In France (which had its own wars with Spain during the 16th century) there was a substantial anti-Italian sentiment among the populace who were suffering under Florentine rule. This hatred for the Italians reached its peak during the brief reign of King Francis II (1559-1560). Francis’ mother, Catherine de Medici, was both Italian and Catholic, and her struggles against the French Bourbon Princes were quite public. During this time Italians were given preference in the French Court and royal policy favored Catholics over Protestants.

The legend of Niccolò Machiavelli as peculiarly rapacious and greedy and the ultimate in evil politicians, manipulators, and plotters arose in France during these years, and quickly spread to France, so that the evil Barabas, in Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (1590), is “a sound Machiavill.” English hatred of and fear of Catholicism widened as the century progressed, adding to the Black Legend in England. The Legend’s racist subtext similarly broadened to include the racial alteration of the Italians during the Muslim invasions in the 9th century. In Elizabethan and later Jacobean tragedies, particularly wicked arch-villains were customarily identified as either Spanish or Italian, and particularly gruesome stories had to be set in Italy.

Elements of the Black Legend had a surprising longevity. It crossed the Atlantic with the early American colonists in the 17th century and reappeared in the United States with a surprising strength in the 1840s, reinforced by nativist anti-Catholicism and the war with Mexico. In England it was fed by 18th century revelations (both true and exaggerated) of Jesuit plots. And as late as 1885, in the story paper serial Richard of the Raven’s Crest, the story of Spanish atrocities in Mexico is recapitulated:

“Ay, Francisco Pizarro,’ he muttered half aloud, ‘thou art indeed a fool, if thou thinkest that thy overbearing Spanish pride can daunt one of my race. I have heard of the infamous cruelties which Pizarro’s predecessor, Cortes, inflicted upon helpless women and children. Let me but see a sign that he intends to tread the same bloody path, and he shall find that he has no mean enemy to deal with in Richard of the Raven’s Crest.”

These were the pre-modern elements from which the modern Yellow Peril stereotype of the evil mastermind coalesced. The modern iteration, with its specifically Asian orientation, began with the translation of The Thousand and One Nights by Antoine Galland during the first two decades of the 18th century. This translation created the enthusiasm among Western readers for Arabian Fantasies and eventually gave rise to William Beckford’s Vathek, but it also gave the West the figure of the evil Arabian Vizier. This character type would reappear in different Arabian Fantasies throughout the 18th century.

One notable one is Thomas-Simon Gueullette’s Aventures Merveilleuses du Mandarin Fum-Hoam (The Marvelous Adventures of the Mandarin Fum-Hoam, 1723). Fum-Hoam, an evil Chinese Mandarin, is the novel’s protagonist. He has a range of magical powers, including flight and shape-shifting, and carries out a series of evil acts, similar to Jaffar in The Thousand and One Nights. Fum-Hoam is the earliest of the Yellow Peril masterminds, down to his pointed fingernails and mustache.

Replacing the evil vizier in the late 18th and early 19th century as the most common arch-villain character type was the Gothic Hero-Villain. The Gothic novel acted as a vector for xenophobic stereotypes. The Hero-Villain was nearly always an extracultural Other, a non-British male who threatened the white, often British heroine. And usually the Hero-Villain’s national and ethnic identity was Italian. When the Hero-Villain was not Italian, he was either Spanish, Arab, or Romany (Gypsy), identified at the time with Egypt; also, Heathcliff (whose taint is his “gypsy blood”) from Charlotte Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847)). These figures were also usually plotters and schemers, rather than men of action, so that the innocent heroine of the Gothic was at the center of a plot designed to, variously, deprive her of an inheritance, rob her of her virginity, marry her to an unsuitable man, or all three. Even after the demise of the Gothic this tendency continued. Count Fosco from Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859-1860) is Italian.

The popularity of the Gothic rapidly diminished after 1820, replaced by the newly popular genre of historical romances, and by the mid-century the Gothic genre was essentially extinct. Before it expired, however, the Gothic genre produced another non-white villain, one who was not just a murderous plotter but who was designed to remind readers of the Asian threat: the Monster of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). The story and the Monster are well-known today, but what is generally forgotten about the Monster is that he is not Caucasian.

Steel engraving (993 x 71mm) for frontispiece to the revised edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, published by Colburn and Bentley, London 1831. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Victor Frankenstein describes him in this way:

His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful!–Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion, and straight black lips.

The Monster, even before being given life, is yellow. His creator, by contrast, is specifically described as lying “white and cold in death.”

The Monster’s ethnic coding goes beyond his skin color. The reader’s first exposure in Frankenstein to the Monster occurs when Robert Walton and his crew, looking for a passage to China through the Arctic Circle, come across the Monster trapped on an ice floe. The next morning Walton rescues Victor Frankenstein, who is described as “not, as the other traveller seemed to be, a savage inhabitant of some undiscovered island, but an European.” Shelley twice explicitly describes the Monster as not European and not Caucasian. Moreover, the Monster is found by Walton in an island north of the “wilds of Tartary and Russia” where Frankenstein has pursued him.

To the 19th century readers of Frankenstein, a yellow-skinned, clean-shaven man with long black hair and dun-colored eyes who crosses the steppes of Russia and Tartary would be instantly recognizable as a Mongolian. Mary Shelley was friends with William Lawrence, a vocal proponent of the theory of distinct human races, each with different moral characteristics, and Frankenstein shows a knowledge of then-current scientific thinking about the various human races.

By 1815, thanks to science writers like William Lawrence and to travel writers like John Barrow, the image of Mongols as a separate race, yellow-skinned, black-haired, and beardless, was well established in both the scientific mind as well as the popular one. Likewise, the Mongols’ reputation as barbaric, destructive, and innately violent continued to linger in the West, centuries after the last Mongol invasion. This stereotype was recapitulated in Frankenstein when the Monster savagely murders Victor Frankenstein’s younger brother William, Victor’s friend Henry Clerval, and Victor’s fianceé Justine.

Although Mary Shelley’s linkage of the Monster with the Mongols has diminished in the public imagination with the passing of time, the association was a deliberate one on Mary Shelley’s part, and the Monster’s role as a precursor to the Yellow Peril, cannot be understated. The Monster was the first image of a Mongol in popular culture which portrayed an Asian not as a small figure but as a large one. The image of a large, dangerous Asian remained in British and American popular culture, becoming one of the motifs of the Yellow Peril.

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9 responses to “QUAINT #19 Roots of the Yellow Peril, Part I

  1. Jha

    Huh. That’s a reading of Frankenstein’s monster I’d never thought of before. Now, of course, my context is different, being that I don’t come from a place where yellow-skin is immediately coded racially, but that is still interesting given Shelley’s context.

    I did have a question though: when you say “the more modern Yellow Peril” (being the evil mastermind), how modern / recent are you saying here?

  2. Fascinating post, particularly in the way it’s tying together different streams of Otherness.

    A question about Frankenstein’s Creature, however. (There’s a trend, along with more sympathetic readings, to use a less pejorative designation; my students tend to be more sympathetic with the Creature, whose grievances they find reasonable, than they are with Victor, who they find to be overly self-dramatizing.) I wonder, though, considering the Creature’s genesis, where Victor got the non-Caucasian body parts around the graveyards of Ingolstadt, Germany? I agree the Creature is designated as Other, absolutely, but I’ve always read the “yellow” skin here to suggest jaundice or general unhealthiness.

  3. Jess Nevins

    Jha: I was largely influenced in that reading of Frankenstein by Anne Mellor’s “Frankenstein, Racial Science, and the Yellow Peril” (Nineteenth Century Contexts v23n2 June 2001) which makes the case at much greater length. It’s an argument that some of the more traditional Victorian scholars (like John Sutherland) disagree with–but they don’t address her points, merely scoff at her argument, which is a rhetorical tactic used by people who don’t like an argument but can’t rebut it, I think.

    “More modern Yellow Peril” is the figure of the individual arch-villain which begins around 1892, with precursors going back to 1880.

    Chelseagirl: The traditional reading is that his limbs are jaundiced, yeah, but I think the Yellow Peril reading works. As for where Victor got the non-Caucasian body parts…Asians were hardly unknown in Europe when Shelley wrote Frankenstein. Any company or country that did business in Asia had Asian sailors on their ships and dealt with Asian business factors, and a surprisingly large number of them came to Europe. Spain in particular had a lot of experience with Chinese traders–IIRC Mexico City’s Chinatown was thriving by around 1600 (the Chinese came to Mexico by way of the Philippines) and (again, IIRC) both London and Paris had small Chinatowns by the turn of the 19th century with an unknown number of undocumented Chinese immigrants.

    I don’t know off-hand how many Asian sailors, businessmen, or tourists got as far into Europe as Ingolstadt, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the average German graveyard circa 1810 had at least one non-Caucasian body in it.

  4. Fascinating reading with a thorough exploration of the history to support this view. An eye-opener!

  5. Jha

    Gotcha. When I read “more modern” I was thinking more along the lines of 20th century, Red Scare and all that.

  6. Jess, it’s an interesting reading on many levels, but the notion that he would have raided *only* Asian bodies in a late-18th century German cemetery (he certainly seems to have used more than one, due to the scale of the body) still sounds highly improbable. (As opposed to the ultra-realism of the text as a whole, ok. 😉 ) Certainly a racially hybrid Creature has great appeal for many reasons; there is no doubt of the Creature’s Otherness in any case. I’ll look for the Mellors article you recommended to Jha; I’m putting Frankenstein back on my fall freshman syllabus and would love to give them some fresh perspectives.

  7. Pingback: QUAINT #20: Roots of the Yellow Peril, Part 2 | Beyond Victoriana

  8. Asma

    I like your analysis, however you make one BIG mistake: Justine was not the fiance of Victor, she was the caretaker of William and the second victim of the creature. Elizabeth was Victor’s fiance, who eventually was also a victim of the creature.