Yellow Perils from a Future Past

The cultural construction of race and the racialization of the enemy in narratives and illustrations between the end of the Nineteenth and the first years of the Twentieth century

A particularly graphic chapter in the history of Western perceptions of the East is represented by the Yellow Peril trope, proliferating in a wave of narratives and illustrations between the end of the Nineteenth and the first years of the Twentieth century.

This trope fascinates me as I find it an apt example of how the cultural construction of race and of a racialized enemy may work in popular-culture products. The yellow peril idea also interacted especially with future scenarios and proto-sciencefictional imagination.

The Oxford dictionary of English defines the Yellow Peril as “a supposed danger that the Asiatic peoples will overwhelm the white, or overrun the world”. The expression is said to have been coined (or at least codified as an idiomatic expression) by Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany in 1895, after an ominous dream in which he saw the the European valchirias threatened by Buddha, surging at the horizon, an allegoric scene which Wilhelm had the court painter Herman Knackfuss draw, to sent the picture to zar Nichola II.

The common place of barbarous populations being closer to nature and animality finds, in the yellow peril, a specific declination in the entomological metaphoric realm of the ant colony, in which the strongly racialized imagine of the “others” is constructed by looking and a population as an whole entity, a collective body in which individual identities are not distinguishable any more.

The yellow peril thus embodies a form of xenophobia that taps into the racist notion of people belonging or coming from the same geographical and cultural area all looking the same, that according to John Kuo Wei Tchen is deeply rooted in the Eighteenth century, “within a European Enlightenment and European colonialist worldview”, but the origins of which have been traced, by further research, to Medieval Europe.

The topos of the Yellow Peril had been codified in fiction since the 1880s by narratives where early adventure and war-themed science fiction played an important part, both in English and in French. While public opinion in Europe and America increasingly feared Chinese competition in the form of low-price labour, wage dumping, and exports of cheap goods (the Chinese exclusion act in the United States dates back to 1882), the earliest Chinese conquest of the United Stated is to be found in Pierton W. Dooner’s Last Days of the Republic, as soon as 1880, while in William D. Hay’s Three Hundred Years Hence (1881) a racial conflict was resolved in favour of the “whites” thanks to the use of futuristic weapons.

The Battle of the Wabash: A Letter from the Invisible Police” published under the unidentified pseudonym of Lorelle, and “A Short and Truthful History of the Taking of California and Oregon by the Chinese in the Year A.D. 1899” by Robert Woltor (appearing in 1880 and 1882, respectively) imagined that Chinese immigrants were soon to outnumber the “whites” in America.

A few years later, in 1898, it was The Yellow Danger, by Matthew Phipps Shiel (a British citizen born in the West Indies) which launched the Yellow Danger as a science fiction subgenre, in David Lagford words “exploiting fears that Chinese hordes could take over the world by simple strength of numbers” and by benefiting from of the rivalry between Western powers: in fact, in the novel, an intra-European war is orchestrated by Chinese plotting.

The most notable example in English language remains perhaps Jack London’s “The Unparalleled Invasion”. An annihilation of Chinese people is operated successfully by Western powers with bacteriological weaponry, after the realization of China’s potential for world domination thanks to its demographic strength. Written around 1907 and first published in 1910, London’s short story is mainly set in 1976, and it is framed as written retrospectively from a yet even more distant future.

In France, the Yellow Danger subgenre of war fiction included books like L’Asie en feu. Le roman de l’invasion jaune by Féli-Brugière and Louis Gastine (1904), the trilogy L’Invasion jaune, by “Capitaine Danrit” (Émile-Cyprien Driant) (1905). Albert Robida and Pierre Giffard’s feuilleton La Guerre infernale (1908), written after the Russo-Japanese War is the case study which sparked my interest on the theme (here’s an essay, part of a volume on Law and Justice between East and West edited by Guido Abbattista in 2017).

P.W. Dooner, Last Days of the Republic (San Francisco: Alta California Publishing House, 1880) Chinese Mandarins in Washington, plate opposite to page 97, detail. Copy at Duke University Libraries via InternetArchive. No known restriction for scholarly use.

Digital history projects

Thoralf Klein, “The ‘Yellow Peril’”, EGO – European History Onlinehttp://ieg-ego.eu, ad vocem.

John W. Dower, “Yellow Promise / Yellow Peril: Foreign Postcards of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05)”, MIT Visualizing Cultures, 2008, see especially section ‘Yellow Peril’, https://visualizingcultures.mit.edu/yellow_promise_yellow_peril/yp_essay04.html

Essential readings

Michael Keevak, Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2011).

David Langford, “Yellow Peril”, in Clute, Langford, Nicholls, Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, June 2017, http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/yellow_peril.

Isiah Lavender, ed., Dis-Orienting Planets: Racial Representations of Asia in Science Fiction (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2017).

The Oxford English Dictionnary (Oxford: Calendon Press, Second Edition, 1989) vol. XX, p. 718b,§ d.

Elena Piana, The Yellow Peril (electronic edition: Sism, 2016).

Régis Poulet, Le Péril jaune, in La Revue des Ressources, 6 juillet 2010, par (Date de rédaction antérieure: 7 novembre 2005), https://www.larevuedesressources.org/le-peril-jaune,499.html.

John Rieder, Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2008), esp. 76 and ff.

John N. Swift, “Jack London’s ‘The Unparalleled Invasion:’ Germ Warfare, Eugenics, and Cultural Hygiene”, American Literary Realism 35, no. 1 (2002): 59-71

John Kuo Wei Tchen, New York Before Chinatown: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture, 1776-1882 (Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999).

John Kuo Wei Tchen and Dylan Yeats, eds., Yellow Peril! An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear (London: Verso, 2014).

Dewei Wang, Fin-de-siècle Splendor: Repressed Modernities of Late Qing Fiction, 1849-1911 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997), 337 ff.

Cite this article as: Giulia Iannuzzi, "Yellow Perils from a Future Past," in Geographies of Time, 14/04/2020, https://ian.hypotheses.org/1253.

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