The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

"The Yellow Napoleon" (1900)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

“The Yellow Napoleon” (original: “Le Napoléon Jaune (Hypothèse Historique)”) was written by Jules Clarétie and first appeared in Les Annales Politiques et Littéraires no. 903 (Oct. 14, 1900). Clarétie (1840-1913) was a historian and novelist.

The nameless narrator of “The Yellow Napoleon” writes a brief history of the Asian conquest of the West. In the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion, when the humiliating Boxer Protocol has made clear to all Chinese how powerless they are against both the West and Japan, the son of a Mandarin killed in the “Port Arthur Massacre” swears to avenge his father and “to return to the Celestial Empire the power and respect which China should never have lost.”1 The boy had often heard his father talk about how Napoleon had forced the countries of Europe to submit to his will, so on the night that the Boxer Protocol was signed the boy asked a French missionary to send him a history of Napoleon. When the boy finished the book he said, “I will be the Yellow Napoleon."2 As the European countries squabbled and let border rivalries lead to wars which were as fatal as civil wars, the boy looked for the reasons why the Chinese had been so easily defeated by the Europeans. The boy went to Europe and learned everything he could at L’Ecole Polytechnique. As a wealthy and ambitious adult he returns to China and replaces the outmoded and discredited military tactics of the Chinese army with modern European military tactics. A huge and quickly-spreading revolt in China gives the man the opportunity to prove himself and to show what the new, disciplined Chinese army can do. In a series of glorious victories the Yellow Napoleon mercilessly crushes the rebel forces. The Yellow Napoleon uses his victories to overthrow the reigning dynasty and by 1920 he is Emperor of China.

The Yellow Napoleon turns his attentions to the rest of Asia. He crushes Japan, annexes Tonkin, Annam, Siam and Java, and then instigates a gigantic revolt in India which places it in his power. Then the massed armies of the Empire, which now includes every country in Asia, invade Russia, while the Empire’s ships sweep the seas clean of European vessels. After completing the conquest of Europe the Yellow Napoleon makes his new capital in the Tuileries. But the Yellow Napoleon is still concerned. He knows that a man could yet emerge from Africa as he did from Asia. This did not greatly worry him: “Timbuktu is not Moscow and my Old Yellow Guard does not fear the snow or sun!”3 But as he is returning from offering praise and thanks to the god of armies the Yellow Napoleon is informed that African armies have invaded France and that the Mahdi is at Marseilles. And then the Asian and African armies clash. The author concludes the story by saying “this is only a dream, and a bad dream. A gruesome vision of the twentieth century. The Yellow Napoleon will never be born.”4 

“The Yellow Napoleon” is a standard example of the Yellow Peril story which appeared in French magazines in the first decade of the twentieth century. The classic example of this kind of story is La Guerre Infernale, a thirty issue dime novel series published in 1908, written by Pierre Giffard and illustrated by Albert Robida (see: “Voracious Albion”). In La Guerre Infernale an army of Japanese and Chinese troops wages war on the West and briefly occupies Europe and the west coast of the United States before an alliance of Great British, France, Russia, Germany, and the United States defeats the Asian invaders. Stories like “La Guerre Infernale” combined the Future War genre with the fears of Asian overpopulation which were common in Western Europe in these years. Until the appearance of Sax Rohmer’s Doctor Fu Manchu in 1912, Western European literature did not commonly feature an individual Asian mastermind as the antagonist in heroic genre fiction. Far more common were fears, voiced as predictions in contemporary America, that the Asian countries would overrun Western Europe through a combination of military actions and massive population growth (see: The Yellow Peril). This was what Kaiser Wilhelm II was referring to when he popularized the phrase “the yellow peril” in 1895.5 

“The Yellow Napoleon” suffers from the same problem as Frank Stockton’s The Great War Syndicate. It is a summary of history rather than a character study. “The Yellow Napoleon” does have a main character, which The Great War Syndicate lacked, but he is a one-dimensional cipher. But “The Yellow Napoleon” has the virtue of brevity; it is told in a few pages, while Stockton took almost two hundred pages to finish his novel. While “The Yellow Napoleon” is a racist story, it is at least over quickly.

Recommended Edition

Print: Le Boudoir des Gorgones no. 9 (June, 2004).

1 Jules Clarétie, “La Napoléon Jaune,” Les Annales Politiques et Littéraries no. 903 (Oct. 14, 1900); 243.

2 Clarétie, “La Napoléon Jaune,” 243.

3 Clarétie, “La Napoléon Jaune,” 244.

4 Clarétie, “La Napoléon Jaune,” 244.

5 Christopher Frayling, The Yellow Peril: Dr. Fu Manchu and the Rise of Chinaphobia (London: Thames & Hudson, 2014), 283.