The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Yellow Danger (1898)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Yellow Danger was written by M.P. Shiel. Matthew Phipps Shiel (1865-1947) was a professional writer best-known for detective and science fiction novels. The Yellow Danger is one of the vilest of the Yellow Peril novels of the nineteenth century.
The Yellow Danger begins with a racist snub and ends with an apocalyptic slaughter. Yen How is a half-Japanese, half-Chinese doctor, educated at the University of Heidelberg and practicing for years as a specialist in diseases of women and children in San Francisco. But when he meets Ada Seward, an English domestic, he is smitten with her, and tries to arrange a tryst with her. She rejects him, and when he persists she makes it clear that it is because he is Asian: “The girl did not listen to him, and rejected him; she rejected him without taking him into consideration at all. It was as though a mule, or a cat had asked her to be his.”1 Some months go by, and she continues to sneer at him, and he continues to approach her, and when he approaches her while she is on a date she rejects him again (“Oh, don’t be a stupid little goose of a Chinaman! Just fancy!”2) and her date shoves Yen How, leading to an exchange of blows. When Yen How recovers consciousness, he secludes himself in his home and then leaves for Japan. In the space of a few months he ascends to positions of power in both Japan and China.
What happened with Ada Seward is the catalyst but not the cause of what happens next. All along he has “cherished a secret and bitter aversion to the white race,”3 and he feels, as he explains to a high ranking Japanese official, that in a few hundred years there will be a race war, “the white man and the yellow man in their death grip, contending for the earth,”4 and that the white race is far ahead now and that by the time the two races clash the white race will be so far ahead that it will utterly destroy the yellow race. So Yen How, thinking in the long term–he imagines himself a statesman, someone who thinks in terms of centuries and millennia–decides that “if we don’t eat them all now, at once, they all will swallow us whole some day, soon–soon.”5 So he sets out to initiate the inevitable race war—but on his terms. He enters the Chinese civil service and through his natural ability rises to become the second in command to the Emperor of China, while also having the ear of the highest Japanese officials. Yen How then uses his superior intellect and cunning to set the European countries at each others’ throats by ceding each country control of various Chinese territories, which excites each country’s greed and makes the other countries envious. While this is happening Yen How reorganizes both Chinese and Japanese societies so that they become purely military in nature. He achieves this by ordering the complete militarization of Chinese society and putting them on a war footing.
The European countries war on each other, and many long battles follow. Luckily for Britain, a plucky and dashing young naval officer, John Hardy, has been one of only three men in Britain to see what Yen How has been doing, and more fortunately still for England Hardy is in a position to do something about it. Through good fortune, guile, and his innate superiority, Hardy is almost solely responsible for beating back an invasion of the Home Islands by the Continental forces. He then wins three naval battles in which the Royal Fleet was badly outnumbered. After Europe has temporarily exhausted itself, and the armed forces of all the Great Powers are greatly diminished, Yen How puts his plan into motion. He first orders the slaughter of all the whites in Asia and begins preparations for the invasion of the West. John Hardy, investigating the status of the European militaries in Asia, stops in China and is caught by Yen How’s men. Yen How interrogates Hardy, and on discovering that Ada Seward had once kissed Hardy, for Hardy is a nationally known war hero, Yen How orders Hardy to be tortured to death. Weeks of gruesome torture follow, and Hardy escapes only through his torturer’s stupidity. Hardy returns home to warn Britain that Yen How’s forces are set to invade the West.
The invasion takes place. Yen How’s armies, comprising nearly the entire population of China, number over four hundred million. They sweep across the Continent, devastating Russia and then Europe, committing genocide as they go and leaving few white men or women alive. They reach the Channel, taking Paris and turning it into their headquarters. Their invasion fleet is on its way to England with Yen How at the bridge of one of the battleships when Hardy leads the British counterattack. A series of torpedo attacks starts a chain reaction of explosions which destroys the massed Chinese and Japanese ships, including Yen How. British sailors and fishermen seize the invasion barges of the invading fleet containing twenty million Chinese troops and tow them into the Norwegian Maelstrom, where they are sucked down to the bottom of the North Sea. Hardy then has one hundred and fifty Chinese men injected with cholera and released into various cities on the Continent. The ensuing plague kills millions, but the Japanese armies kill all those suspected of having cholera, and when the plague burns itself out there are still one hundred million Asians on the Continent. They are defeated by the combined surviving armies of Europe, Britain, and America, and at story’s end the white race is the undisputed ruler of the world. Hardy, meanwhile, is killed in a duel.
As a narrative The Yellow Danger has its flaws. It is readable and entertaining, to a limited degree; Shiel was trying to combine the Future War story with a more straightforward adventure story, but the combination is not harmonious. The extended descriptions of battle scenes, down to the ink illustrations of naval formations, are tedious and overdone, and the character moments, including the putative love story of Ada Seward and John Hardy, is not compelling. Shiel tells the story in nearly the exact opposite style that he used in Prince Zaleski: the narration is simple, brisk and even conversational, and the occasional images are not described in Shiel’s usual lush style. Shiel has a number of real-life figures make cameos or deliver speeches, including Émile Zola (1840-1902) as the leader of an anti-English mob which nearly kills John Hardy. And there is a brief passage of unexplained spookiness in which the skies dim for a week and the sun is only seen as a “garish blotch of leprous lavender.”6
But it is in the novel’s content that The Yellow Danger moves from being flawed to truly objectionable. Shiel inveighs against the threat of France, Germany, and Russia:
It is true that the Russian hated the German, and the German the Russian and the French; but their hatred was the hatred of brothers, always ready to combine against the outsider. This had been begun to be suspected, then recognized by the British nation. Alone and friendless must England tread the winepress of modern history, solitary in her majesty; and if ever an attempt were made to stop her stately progress, she was prepared to find that her foe was the rest of Europe.7
But the European powers are not Shiel’s ultimate target. The Yellow Peril is what Shiel aims at. The Yellow Danger is a classic and even archetypal example of the fear of the “yellow danger,” the threat of a faceless horde of decadent and sexually rapacious barbarians overwhelming the West by sheer weight of numbers. The constant refrain of The Yellow Danger is that “the East” really is different from “the West,” that the Chinese are innately vile, and that the Japanese are little better:
The principal points of this character are an immeasurable Greed, an absolute Contempt for the world outside China, and a fiendish Love of Cruelty.
It is impossible for the vilest European to conceive the dark and hideous instincts of the Chinese race.8
Whether Shiel believed it or not, the message of The Yellow Danger, the preferred inscribed narrative, is not just of the necessity of a race war, but of the moral virtue of one. Both races, in the world of The Yellow Danger, embody differing and antithetical spiritual values, and the race war is not merely inevitable but preferable. Most Future War novels arose from the authors’ disquiet about Britain’s political, military, and economic place in the changing world order. The Yellow Danger comes from an unease about the white race’s place in the future.
The racist ethos of The Yellow Danger does not end there. Shiel indulges his antisemitism by aligning the Jews with Yen How. And the grotesque torture scenes with John Hardy cap off Shiel’s orgy of turpitude. John Hardy may or may not have been Shiel’s “Me” character; Shiel might well have suffered from sufficient racial self-loathing that he, a man born in Montserrat and at least partially of non-white ancestry, projected himself into the figure of John Hardy, the perfect lad from Hampshire. But it is clear from The Yellow Danger that there is an element of hero worship. Hardy is Fortune’s darling. Everything goes John Hardy’s way, at least initially. Every move he makes turns out splendidly and every action he takes rebounds to England’s salvation and his own glory. John Hardy is celebrated by all of Britain. Hardy is the epitome, in Shiel’s world, of the British übermensch.
One of the underlying themes of the novel is that Yen How is the Asian equivalent of an übermensch, and Hardy is his British counterpart. The Yellow Danger firmly believes in the Great Man school of history, with Hardy and Yen How as the greatest of Great Men. So the clash between Asians and Europeans–America is an afterthought in The Yellow Danger, sending troops only to the final battle–and between Hardy and Yen How is not just military but also moral and spiritual, with differing races of humans fighting for supremacy. This is another aspect of the racism of The Yellow Danger, the aforementioned moral virtue of the race war: if the white race does not defeat the yellow race, evil will triumph.
Yen How, who Shiel may have partially based on the Chinese politician Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), is a “hard, omniscient, cosmopolitan little man, tough as oak, dry as chips.”9 His one real failing is his overwhelming desire for Ada Seward, which drives him to a most un-Yen How-like statement toward her and then compels him to have John Hardy tortured when a quick execution would be wiser. Other than that, he is a superman, a military prodigy and a ruthless antagonist to all white men. In personality he appears as a mix of conversational amiability and vengeful schemer. He hates all things white, and is conscious of the nuances of white racism. There is a telling exchange with John Hardy in which Hardy says that the English and the Chinese have always been good friends. Yen How asks Hardy if he will give Yen How a cousin for his wife. Hardy is offended by the suggestion. Yen How's response: “Ah, you say no, you see. Englishman and Chinaman are not such very good friends, then.”10 In terms of the continuum of Yellow Peril characters, he is the first Yellow Peril military leader whose threat is global, not local.
Shiel’s early association with Decadence and Decadent writers marked him deeply enough that he “never quite shook off its legacy.”11
Thornton characterizes the Decadents as torn between two poles of attraction: on the one hand, the pull of the world, its pleasures and necessities; and on the other hand, a desire for something ideal, unworldly, eternal ("'Decadence'" 26). Shiel, however, found his ideal, his defense against the ephemerality of human life, in the amoral logic of what he perceived as science. Indeed, it is not surprising that Shiel would turn his hand to science fiction and other fantastic genres after establishing himself as a Decadent, since Decadence and sf are both reactions to ascendant modernity. They share an inclination toward brooding upon apocalypse, a longing for escape from the familiar world, an elevation of invention over nature, a fascination with the exotic or otherworldly, and a rather clinical view of human life. Nevertheless, Shiel stands out among science-fiction writers as a Decadent, and among Decadents as a science-fiction writer....
Yet Shiel's embrace of the cold truths of science coexisted with a rather fervent pseudo-scientific view of racial degeneration. In his novels he repeatedly envisions a renewal of society not only through the application of scientific logic but also through the actions of an Overman besting a racial Other--usually "Orientals" or Jews. This hope for the future, while far different from the enormous pessimism of French Decadence, was not altogether out of character for an English writer associating himself with the movement.12
Shiel held, as so many of the other writers of the era did, views in tune with the general feeling of Fin-de-Siècle Unease.
Unsettled by threats to the Empire and gripped by a dread of degeneration, English readers and critics found tales of adventure both comforting and manly. They upheld them as a healthy influence; Kathleen Spencer describes the widespread conviction that "since naturalism was identified in the minds of English readers with Zola, James and Howells, it became for some readers and critics a patriotic duty to resist 'foreign influences' and to call for a healthy English fiction" (202). It was not difficult, then, for Shiel's work to bridge the milieu of literary Decadence and popular thrillers; these seemingly disparate fields were equally tied to concerns over degeneration. Moreover, despite the Decadents' contempt for the masses, the perceived gap between popular and literary texts was not yet so firmly established. Nicholas Daly points out that, at a time when Henry James was a close friend of Robert Louis Stevenson and Joseph Conrad's work was serialized in mainstream periodicals, "what we see now as a chasm between two distinct literary cultures, the great divide, was scarcely more than a crack in 1899" (4). When Decadence ceased to be fashionable, or even acceptable, Shiel's mix shifted only slightly, and a generalized fear of degeneration and decline became suspicion focused on racial Others who threatened to drag English civilization down.13
Shiel ended up being embarrassed by The Yellow Danger despite its bestselling status, viewing it as hackwork. He was not embarrassed by its racism—he would return to Yellow Peril fiction in 1913 with The Dragon—but by the quality of the prose. He should have been embarrassed by the former far more than the latter, as the prose of The Yellow Danger is acceptably mediocre while the racism of the novel is truly despicable.
Print: M.P. Shiel, The Yellow Danger. London: Grant Richards, 1898.
1 M.P. Shiel, The Yellow Danger (London: Grant Richards, 1898), 7.
2 Shiel, The Yellow Danger, 8.
3 Shiel, The Yellow Danger, 5.
4 Shiel, The Yellow Danger, 12.
5 Shiel, The Yellow Danger, 13.
6 Shiel, The Yellow Danger, 286.
7 Shiel, The Yellow Danger, 2.
8 Shiel, The Yellow Danger, 109.
9 Shiel, The Yellow Danger, 5.
10 Shiel, The Yellow Danger, 122.
11 Brian Stableford, The Dedalus Book of Decadence (Moral Ruins) (Sawtry, UK: Dedalus, 1990), 61.
12 William L. Svitavsky, “From Decadence to Racial Antagonism: M.P. Shiel at the Turn of the Century,” Science Fiction Studies 31, no. 1 (Mar. 2004): 3.
13 Svitavsky, “From Decadence to Racial Antagonism,” 6.