The Yellow Peril.

The following is an excerpt from my Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana, Second EditionThose story and novel titles in boldface are entries in the Encyclopedia.

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 twentieth century, the source of the modern Yellow Peril stereotype lies in the literature and cultural trends of the nineteenth 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 third through the fifth century C.E., and Mongols in the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries. Although the practical threat of a Mongolian or Asian invasion of Europe was nil by the mid-fifteenth 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 (see: “Voracious Albion,” “Yellow Napoleon”).

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 fourteenth century C.E.

In the thirteenth 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 three thousand Italians. Throughout the fourteenth 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. 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 sixteenth 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 (see: Father Darcy). 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 sixteenth 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 Thomas Heywoods’ Preface to Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (1590), is described as “a sound Machiavill.”[1] 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 ninth 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 seventeenth 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 eighteenth 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.”[2]

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 eighteenth 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 eighteenth century. One notable one is Thomas-Simon Gueullette’s The Marvelous Adventures of the Mandarin Fum-Hoam (original: Aventures Merveilleuses du 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 eighteenth and early nineteenth 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 (see: The Monk), Arab (see: Vathek), or Romany, identified at the time with Egypt (see: Rookwood; 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. 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.[3]

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.”[4] 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”[5] where Frankenstein has pursued him.

To the nineteenth 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.[6]

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.

Historical and cultural trends fed into the development during the nineteenth 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-nineteenth 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 “Voracious Albion” (1884) and Jules Clarétie’s “The Yellow Napoleon” (1900).

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 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 eighteenth century, with Chinese emigrating to Britain in the late eighteenth 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 eighteenth and nineteenth century. With so few Chinese entering Britain in the nineteenth century–at the turn of the twentieth 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 nineteenth century. In addition to the stereotype about the dangerous, large Mongolian, which persisted late into the nineteenth 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 (author of “A Stray Reveler”), 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-lin-sing 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 (see: “Tom Edison’s Electric Sea Spider”) 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 (1896; see: “The Maker of Moons”) 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 (see: Guy Fawkes), and William Gilbert’s Innominato (see: The Wizard of the Mountain). During the nineteenth century evil sorcerers appeared in various forms, but usually as Italians, Egyptians (see: Pharos the Egyptian), or Arabs (see: “Sufrah”). 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; see: The Yellow Danger). 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 (1897-8; see: The Quong Lung Adventures). 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 (see: “The Adventure of the Final Problem”) 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 twentieth 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.

Political and ethnic tensions between white Americans and Asian-Americans and Asians, and between the the countries of the West and the Asian countries, wax and wane, but the Yellow Peril threats, of white America being overwhelmed by unnumbered Asians and of a sinister criminal Asian mastermind, remain embedded in the cultural and political consciousness of white Westerners thanks to centuries of cultural brainwashing. The appearance of Yellow Peril characters like Dr. Fu Manchu is likely to increase in the future, not decrease, unless significant action is taken to negate the stereotype’s poison.

For Further Research

Christopher Frayling, The Yellow Peril: Dr. Fu Manchu and the Rise of Chinaphobia. London: Thames & Hudson, 2014.

Ruth Mayer, Serial Fu Manchu: The Chinese Supervillain and the Spread of Yellow Peril Ideology. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2013.

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

[1] Qtd. in Edward Stockton Meyer, Machiavelli and the Elizabethan Drama (Weimar, DE: E. Felber, 1897), 48.

[2] The Devil’s Diamond, 16.

[3] Shelley, Frankenstein, 42-43.

[4] Shelley, Frankenstein, xxi.

[5] Shelley, Frankenstein, 297.

[6] Mellor, “Frankenstein, Racial Science, and the Yellow Peril,” covers the relationship between Frankenstein and the Yellow Peril myth, and Shelley and certain “racial scientists” of her era, at length and is (to my eyes) quite convincing.


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