QUAINT #20: Roots of the Yellow Peril, Part 2

Note: Read Part 1 of this essay here.

Cartoon from The Wasp. Image courtesy of Berkeley University. Click for link.

Historical and cultural trends fed into the development during the 19th century of the Yellow Peril in the United States and Europe. The first Asian immigrants to the United States were the Chinese who took part in the Gold Rush in California in the late 1840s. They were the first free nonwhites to arrive in the United States in large numbers, and the racial, religious, cultural, and linguistic differences between white Americans and the Chinese immigrants, as well as the perception that the Chinese were taking jobs away from white Americans, led to hostility and racism directed at the newcomers. Among the manifestations of this hostility was a new set of anti-Chinese stereotypes. (The lack of Japanese immigrants in America as well as the perception in America that Japan was an ally of the West kept stereotypes about the Japanese to a minimum until the aftermath of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905).

From the mid-19th century the Chinese were seen as physical, racial, and social pollutants. White unfamiliarity with the Chinese cast their ways in the most unfavorable light. In the 1860s and 1870s, as the use of opium spread to America and as social interaction between Chinese and whites increased, the anti-Chinese movement in California mushroomed, and the Chinese were recast as drug-using sexual deviants.

During the recession of the 1870s the Chinese were stereotyped as coolies who stole jobs from white Americans. In the 1880s, when the competition for jobs on the American West Coast became increasingly stiff, the Chinese were no longer viewed just as job thieves but as deliberately flooding America with their numbers; their immigration to the U.S. was now viewed as an undeclared act of war. America reacted to this with anti-immigration laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Scott Act of 1888, but the corresponding drop in Chinese immigration to America did not stop the formation of anti-Chinese stereotypes. The Chinese were again recast, this time as a threat to overrun white America and the countries of Europe through military action and massive population growth. It was this perceived threat of an Asian conquest of Europe and America, a recrudescence of the medieval fear of a Mongol invasion, which Kaiser Wilhelm II saw as the “Yellow Peril” when he coined the phrase in 1895 and which was behind Albert Robida’s “La Vorace Albion” (1884) and Jules Clarétie’s “Le Napoléon Jaune (Hypothèse Historique)” (1900).

"The Coming Man" political cartoon. Image courtesy of Berkeley University. Click for link.

All of these stereotypes were reflected in the American literature of the time. Although there were a few positive portrayals of Chinese men and women, most of those were simple, sentimental peasants, and they were greatly outnumbered by the negative portrayals. In the 1880s the first novels were published in America which portrayed the Chinese as reenacting the Mongol invasions, this time invading the United States. These Future War stories and novels were written in imitation of George Chesney’s “The Battle of Dorking” and usually portrayed the Chinese as a unitary, undistinguished group. But one novel, Robert Woltor’s A Short and Truthful History of the Taking of Oregon and California by the Chinese in the Year A.D. 1899 (1882), showed a Chinese leader, Prince Tsa Fungyang Tungtai leading a military invasion of California. Although he is described as bearing “less resemblance to a human being than he did to Milton’s Satan,” Prince Tsa is otherwise left undescribed and uncharacterized, and constitutes only a vague proto-Yellow Peril.

The cartoon reads: The Chinese Paul Pry. CHINESE LABOURER: "I hope I don't intrude?" BRITISH COLONIST: "Yes you do. Get out!" A scan of a cartoon from The New Punch Library volume 1, page 44, published in London in 1932. The Rand mine-owners' employment of Chinese Labour caused much controversy and had a good deal to do with the Liberal victory in the 1906 elections. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The British stereotypes of Asians were less broad, no doubt in large part because the British had far more exposure to actual Asians than Americans. The British were interacting with the Chinese in China in the 18th century, with Chinese emigrating to Britain in the late 18th century as employees of the British East India Company. But the British did not develop the more visceral fear of a Chinese take-over of Britain in part because of Britain’s more restrictive immigration laws but primarily because of the pre-eminence of British power during the 18th and 19th century.

With so few Chinese entering Britain in the 19th century–at the turn of the 20th century there were only 545 Chinese officially in Britain–the threat of a Chinese take-over of Britain via immigration was non-existent. The minimal numbers of Chinese in Britain also prevented them from being widely seen as pollutants in a sexual or social sense.

This did not mean, however, that the British did not have any stereotypes about Asians in the 19th century. In addition to the stereotype about the dangerous, large Mongolian, which persisted late into the 19th century, and in addition to the less hateful stereotypes of Chinese and Japanese, such as those in Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado (1885), there was the association, in the British mind, between the Chinese and opium, which had links to ideas of criminality and racial contagion. The British had more stereotypes of West Asians than of Chinese or Japanese.

The individual Yellow Peril figure began appearing late in the century, although there were precursors. One appeared in 1880, when Emma Dawson wrote “The Dramatic in My Destiny” (Californian, January 1880). “The Dramatic in My Destiny” is set in San Francisco’s Chinatown and involves Yorke Rhys, a white man, studying Chinese with Tong-ko-lin-sing. Yorke ends up addicted to opium. Tong-ko-linsing seems to have been named after Tseng-ko-lin-ch’in (a.k.a “Sam Collinson;” ?-1865), a Qing Prince who gained fame in China for his successful sieges against the Taiping rebels in North China in the late 1850s. In 1860 Tseng was disgraced following his defeats during the Third Opium War. Tong-ko-lin-sing is highly educated and cultured and does not speak in any sort of stereotypical patois. He speaks Chinese, English, French and Sanskrit. He is also avaricious, vain, contemptuous of all women and of white men. Tong is addicted to opium and an evil influence on Yorke. Tong is only a minor Mandarin but does anticipate the shift from the threat of the Chinese (and other Asians) as a mass to the threat from one individual acting independent of a government.

Another precursor is Doctor Ping, in Ellen C. Sargent’s “Wee Wi Ping” (Californian, January 1882). Doctor Ping is a chemist and physician in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Doctor Ping and a white chemist named James Sheldon become obsessed with a poison which darkens the skin, makes the limbs hairy, and sharpens the fingernails. Both Doctor Ping and Sheldon become addicted to the chemical. Sheldon becomes concerned with his future and develops an antidote to the poison, while Doctor Ping never stops taking the chemical and eventually becomes an arsonist, setting fire to a Chinese theater. While also anticipating Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, “Wee Wi Ping” also fictionalizes the then-current image of Chinese doctors as possessing sinister and possibly supernatural powers. This image would culminate in the ultimate individual Yellow Peril character, Sax Rohmer’s Doctor Fu Manchu.

But the first true Yellow Peril figure, the first intelligent, evil Asian mastermind devoted to the goal of the conquest of the West, did not appear until 1892. Kiang Ho is a pirate and inventor educated in the West who preys on Western shipping in the Yellow Sea. Kiang Ho derives from the tradition of Genghis Khan and the Mongol invaders, but his size hearkens back to Frankenstein’s Creature.

The next Yellow Peril character after Kiang Ho personified a different aspect of the Yellow Peril stereotype. Robert Chambers’ Yue-Laou is a sorcerer and ruler of an empire in the middle of China. Yue-Laou’s ultimate origin lies in the sorcerer character type, which goes back into fable and whose members include Prospero, from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611), the fictionalized versions of John Dee, and William Gilbert’s Innominato. During the 19th century evil sorcerers appeared in various forms, but usually as Italians, Egyptian, or Arabs. Yue-Laou came from this fictional tradition but was given the Yellow Peril treatment and is the first Yellow Peril sorcerer.

The next significant Yellow Peril character was M.P. Shiel’s Doctor Yen How (1898). Unlike Yue-Lao Doctor Yen How is a military leader rather than a sorcerer; Yen How is brilliant but essentially human. And unlike Kiang Ho, Yen How’s goals are global rather than local and piratical. Although Yen How’s motivation can be reduced to wounded pride, he still aims at military revenge and world conquest. Doctor Yen How is the first Yellow Peril military leader whose threat is global, not local; he reflects the Western fear of the “limitless hordes” of Chinese overrunning the white countries of the West. Like Frankenstein’s Creature, Yen How is derived from Attila, Temujin, and Timur Lenk, the first Yellow Perils.

The last significant Yellow Peril character before the debut of Fu Manchu was Doctor C. W. Doyle’s Quong Lung. Quong Lung is both a crime lord in San Francisco’s Chinatown and a Yale graduate and barrister of London’s Inner Temple. Quong Lung’s significance to the Yellow Peril stereotype is his role as a geographically-centered crime lord. Unlike his predecessors Quong Lung is specifically identified with one place, San Francisco’s Chinatown. The action of the stories takes place there, and Quong Lung’s actions are taken to reinforce his rule over this location and the people in it. While the notion of a single man absolutely controlling the crime in one city predated The Shadow of Quong Lung–Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty is the undisputed ruler of London, and many dime novel villains similarly ruled their respective cities–Quong Lung was the first Yellow Peril crime lord who filled that role.

The culmination of all these fictional characters, and the character who started the craze for Yellow Peril villains in popular fiction and film, appeared in the 20th century: Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu. From the Mongols Fu Manchu takes the Asian threat to the West. From the Gothic villains he takes the schemer/master villain trait. From Kiang Ho he takes the inventiveness and the military aspect of the Yellow Peril concept. From Yue-Laou he takes sorcery (in the form of a superhuman skill at hypnosis) and the seemingly supernatural poisons and creatures under his control. From Doctor Yen How he takes the global aim of subjugating the West. And from Quong Lung he takes the local identification; in the first several adventures Fu Manchu was located in Limehouse and did not leave it.

About the Quest for Unusual & Adventurous International Notations & Tales (QUAINT).


Filed under QUAINT

2 responses to “QUAINT #20: Roots of the Yellow Peril, Part 2

  1. Great article. I like the connection between the Asian menace and the Gothic Catholic/Mediterranean villain (the most over-the-top example being Lewis’ The Monk). How close is the identification between the East Asian Chinese “Oriental” and the Near East Muslim “Oriental” (especially as far as the sexual aspect goes)? And doesn’t it go back even further, to the East/West divide discussed by Herodotus and exploited to such great effect by Octavian in his propaganda war against Anthony and Cleopatra?

  2. Jess Nevins


    Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it.

    At least as far as 19th & 20th century Western popular fiction goes, the Asian “Oriental” is portrayed differently than the Near East Muslim “Oriental”–two different kinds of Peril, not least because of the view that Asians and Near East Muslim were two different races. The final result, the Peril character type, was similar but had differing attributes. Certainly the Asian Peril is more common in popular fiction than the Near East Muslim Peril.

    Herodotus…I suppose, although I think there’s lack of continuity between the Classical Era and the East Asian invasion-caused stereotype. But, yeah, you can go back a long way with it.