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.
Vathek was created by William Beckford and appeared in Vathek: An Arabian Tale from an Unpublished Manuscript, with Notes Critical and Explanatory (1786). Beckford (1760-1844) was one of English literature’s real oddities. He lived a life of scandal and extravagance, both financial and sexual, and even in the 21st century his name retains the faint air of scandal. But more important than Beckford’s personal life is the fact that he wrote Vathek, one of the greatest of all Gothic novels.
Vathek, the grandson of Haroun al-Raschid, is the Caliph of Samarah. He is dedicated to sensual pleasure and has built five palaces, one for the enjoyment of each sense. Vathek has a “pleasing and majestic” figure, and a keen intellect. When angered his glance can kill. He has an enormous amount of determination and is willing to sacrifice much for his goals. But he is magnificently dissolute and addicted to pleasure, sensuality, and new sensations. He is enormously self-centered and considers the lives of others small prices to pay for his own happiness and the achievement of his goals. He is unable to resist temptation, and his own “unquiet and impetuous disposition” will not allow him to be content with the wealth and comfort he already has.
Vathek builds a mighty tower to better pursue his interest in astrology and to penetrate the secrets of Heaven, and Mahomet Himself sends genii to help Vathek, but the tower only shows Vathek how much he enjoys looking down on humanity from the its summit. But one day an intensely ugly creature arrives at Vathek’s court bearing wondrous objects, knives that cut without the hand being moved and sabers which harm those who the wielder wished harmed. The stranger does not speak to Vathek, so the hot-tempered Vathek has him imprisoned, only to find him vanished the next morning and his guards slain.