At the height of dime novel and pulp magazine popularity, alarmist writers concocted — to great fanfare — racist images of Asian super villains and military takeovers.
Sadly, in history two things are common: war and hatred. When it comes to racism or anything with “-phobia” tacked on to the end of it, pinning down a start date is next to impossible.
In the case of the “Yellow Peril” — the Western fear that East Asian societies would consume and ultimately annihilate Western culture via mass migration or military supremacy — one of the prime suspects seems to be the German Kaiser Wilhelm II. In a 1908 Century Magazine interview, the Kaiser flatly stated an unshakable faith in the superiority of white, Protestant Europeans:
The future belongs to the white race, never fear. It belongs to the Anglo-Teuton, the man who came from Northern Europe, where you, to whom America belongs, came from — the home of the German. It does not belong — the future — to the yellow or to the black or the olive-colored.
Years before, in 1895, Wilhelm had supposedly coined the term “Yellow Peril” in order to warn his nominal allies in Europe about the burgeoning powers in the East — but this fear was already ancient by the time of the Kaiser. Even after their improbable victory at Marathon, the ancient Greeks feared the Persians until another invader, Alexander III of Macedon, dismantled the latter’s empire. Later, after Roman Christianity managed to reign in the Barbarians, the recently converted Franks and other Germanic tribes had to fend off the Umayyad Caliphate and the new religion of Islam. The East-West war only began to slowly recede after the Ottomans failed to capture Vienna twice.
Until the 19th century, the frightening East for Europeans always meant the Muslim Near East. The last time that Europe had faced a threat emanating from further than Istanbul was when the Mongol cavalry was rampaging across the globe. But, with the coming of the Industrial Revolution, European colonialism and the incredibly fast modernization of Japan that occurred during the Meiji Restoration, “East” began more and more to mean the Far East.
Fiction was quick to pick up on this shift, and before and after the turn of the 20th century, writers were crafting exotic, mostly Chinese villains in stories that were meant to sensationalize readers. In Great Britain, author M. P. Shiel (who was himself part-black and part-Irish) wrote a murder novel set in China entitled The Yellow Danger. Published in 1898, Shiel’s book came out one year after Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which also can be read as a cautionary tale about an Eastern tyrant invading and attempting to exhaust a Western society.
But when it comes to British Yellow Peril fiction, none was a greater practitioner than Arthur Henry Ward, alias Sax Rohmer. Born to a working-class Irish Catholic family in Birmingham, Rohmer was a prolific author who is only remembered today for his creation, Dr. Fu-Manchu. First appearing in the 1913 novel The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu, Fu-Manchu is Rohmer’s insidious Chinese criminal mastermind who tortures the tough British colonial police commissioner Nyland Smith and others from Burma to London with his Thuggee bandits and knowledge of arcane poisons. In his debut, Rohmer explicitly links his villain with Kaiser Wilhelm II’s image of the Far East as a direct threat to Western civilization:
Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan … one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present. … Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.
Written in an era when fictional arch villains were becoming trendy in print and on screen, and when anti-Asian prejudice was widespread, Romher’s Dr. Fu-Manchu novels are still the not-so-gold standard of pulp Yellow Peril.
Outside of Great Britain, Yellow Peril narratives had currency anywhere that Asian immigration was causing anxiety. Stories were written in South Africa, New Zealand and France, where the former army officer Emile Driant added to his series of “imaginary war” novels by penning The Yellow Invasion. The books deals with a combined Chinese and Japanese army that, after being emboldened by Japan’s thrashing of Russia in the Russo-Japanese War, decides to take over the Occident.
In the United States, Yellow Peril narratives ran concurrent with actual legislation designed to limit Asian immigration. No law is more infamous than the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which explicitly forbid the immigration of all Chinese workers and came after years of anti-Asian and reciprocal violence, mostly centered in California. Never one to miss out on a good pearl-clutching, William Randolph Hearst and the various rags he owned churned out Yellow Peril yellow journalism throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, while American writers like G. G. Rupert busied themselves with potboilers about destined “Occident vs. Orient” cataclysms.
For the most part, American Yellow Peril stories and novels tended to be unimpressive Dr. Fu-Manchu rip-offs. In the pre-comics world of pulp vigilantes, Asian villains were de rigeur for any self-respecting crime fighter. The Spider had The Red Mandarin, while The Shadow had the dreaded Shiwan Khan.
Although they were a staple of the interwar era pulps, Yellow Peril tales weren’t the exclusive property of hacks or men who made their money by selling penny-a-word stories. Avowed American masters such as Dashiell Hammett and Jack London composed their own racist yarns as well. In 1925, Hammett’s first detective creation, the fat, cynical and nameless Continental Op, stumbles upon an inscrutable Chinese gang lord in the short story “Dead Yellow Women.” As for London, he gave the world “The Unparalleled Invasion” in 1910. Written not long after his novel The Iron Heel, which also describes an apocalyptic war, “The Unparalleled Invasion” not only prophesies an uncontrolled increase in Chinese birth rates, but a European and North American campaign of biological warfare that initially depopulates China for Western colonization, but then devastates Western populations as well. Like his fellow socialist and purveyor of war-before-change literature H. G. Wells, London’s short story ends with the fictional Convention of Copenhagen, which prohibits the further use or manufacture of “the laboratory methods of warfare.”
The Yellow Peril genre kept steady throughout World War II, when the U.S. government was holding Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans in internment camps. After V-J Day, the East and West continued their protracted conflict in the Korean War, the Malayan Emergency, the Indonesian War for Independence and both Indochina Wars.
Since the 1980s, though, the Western conception of East Asia has transitioned away from enemy territory to a mostly friendly assembly. (The East-West divide has once again been re-calibrated to the older model of fearing the Muslim Near East.) Even with concerns about China’s territorial demands, a new Yellow Peril boom is not likely in the making. More than just political correctness, the death of pulps and banishment of pseudo-sciences to the nether realms of the Internet have ensured that whatever might replace Yellow Peril will receive lesser visibility and cultural impact.
Benjamin Welton is a freelance writer based in Burlington, Vermont. He prefers “Ben” or “Benzo,” and his writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Crime Magazine, The Crime Factory, Seven Days and Ravenous Monster. He used to teach English at the University of Vermont, but now just drinks beer and runs his own blog called The Trebuchet.
KEEP READING: More on History