We are going to do a little exploration into the racist propaganda that is the Yellow Peril and examples thereof. In the upcoming Gothic Western Steampunk Cabaret there is an aspect of the racism of yellow peril era thinking that is subtly important, as is the stereotype of The Dragon Lady, which a certain aspect of Han-Mi’s stage persona personifies (much to her great annoyance). It would be remiss of me not to do my homework and thus today’s post will explore how Yellow Peril’s racial propaganda came to be.
Yellow Peril refers to various paranoid and derogatory racial stereotypes the west has portrayed Asians in from the position that the peoples of East Asia are a danger to the Western World. It does not refer to a specific country but to Asians in general, although the Chinese and later the Japanese have been the most popular targets. Still, yellow peril thought rarely bothers to make a distinction between various Asian cultures.
The definitive origins of yellow peril thinking lay in the late 19th century although it must be noted, many scholars trace the deeper cultural roots all the way back to Genghis Khan and the Mongolian invasions of Europe. This is the first moment when racial terror arose of “an alien Asian culture, sexual anxieties, and the belief that the West will be overpowered and enveloped by the irresistible, dark, occult forces of the East” (Gina Marchetti)
Still, the practical modern aspects begins during the wave of Chinese immigration in the late 1800s, when huge numbers of non white, non European, downright perplexing Asians appeared on the West coast, working for far less pay than their European counterparts and often keeping to themselves with their strange language, food and culture. This provoked an enormous racist backlash which simmered and built as the 20th century neared.
The Los Angeles Chinese massacre of 1871 was a racially motivated riot on October 24, 1871, when a mob of over 500 white men entered Chinatown to attack, rob, and murder Chinese residents of the city. 20 Chinese immigrants were systematically killed by the mob.
On 2 September 1885 there occurred the Rock Springs massacre in Wyoming, where white miners who saw the Chinese miners as rivals set about on a violent pogrom which led to 28 deaths (all Chinese), 15 wounded, the expulsion of rest of the Chinese community, and property damage worth $150,000.
On 11 September 1885, there was an anti-Chinese pogrom in Coal Creek. Also on 11 September there was an anti-Chinese attack in Squak Valley that left 3 Chinese workers dead. On 24 October 1885, the Chinatown of Seattle was party burned down and 3 November 1885 the Tacoma pogrom saw the entire Chinese community expelled. In February 1886, there occurred the Seattle pogrom that led to 200 Chinese being expelled due to an attack organized by the local Knights of Labor chapter. In 1887, between 10-34 Chinese were killed at the Chinese Massacre Cove in Oregon.
So common was the practice of lynching Chinese in the West that phrase “Having a Chinaman’s chance” arose, meaning of course no chance at all.
However, it wasn’t until 1895 that the phrase Yellow Peril first appeared, courtesy of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. Basically, in 1895 China and Japan signed a treaty, Japan having successfully invaded Taiwan, looking to expand their military power towards South China and Southeast Asia. As part of the treaty they also demanded the Liaodong Peninsula become theirs. This was a problem for Western powers who controlled Port Arthur located on the peninsula and to whom this port was quite financially important. Russia, France, and Germany stepped in, threatened war and Japan backed off its claim.
Still, Japan’s victory over China’s Qing dynasty signified the end of the dynasty and a great weakness of China, which Russia, France, and Germany were salivating to exploit, imperialism being all the rage at the end of the 1800s. Within months after Japan re-ceded the Liaodong peninsula, Russia started construction on the peninsula and a railway to Harbin from Port Arthur. Germany, France, and Great Britain soon took advantage of the economic and political opportunities in the weak Chinese Empire, each taking control of significant local regions.
To justify this imperialism, the Kaiser resorted to racialism and decried the non-existent dangers that the “yellow race” posed to the white peoples of Western Europe. The cultural representations communicated by the phrase became common currency in the Western worldview for over the century afterwards and effects are still poignant and present to this day.
However, the Kaiser’s racism mongering might not have swelled into such an enormous trope if it wasn’t for what happened next: The Boxer Rebellion.
So, as the three prominent western powers of the end of the 1800s moved in to slice up China, you can imagine there were a number of Chinese who weren’t especially thrilled about this. In fact there were some who you could say were really, really, REALLY pissed off. The martial arts Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists, known as the Boxers in the West was a fiercely xenophobic movement that blamed all of China’s problems on the West, and set out to save China by killing all of the Westerners present in China together with all of the Chinese Christians, who had been subverted by the hideous western religion. In the summer of 1900, the Chinese government allowed the Boxers into Beijing, where they were allowed to kill all Westerners and Chinese Christians.
And they did.
Thousands died, mostly Chinese Christians but also several hundred westerners. The west didn’t particularly notice the Chinese Christian deaths, but they went apeshit over the westerners’ deaths “The news that the Boxers had committed atrocities against Westerners had stirred deep racial hatreds and led to the war being perceived as a race war. The violence and atrocities had been used for decades afterwards by Yellow Peril proponents to create a stereotype that all of the Chinese were a people with an intense, innate murderous hatred of all Westerners.”
Before this, much of what the Kaiser said was perceived skeptically outside of Germany, but now his rants and racist ramblings suddenly carried weight and his sentiments were disseminated across the west and the idea of the Yellow Peril was cemented, in both the public psyche as well as, of course, popular culture.
Tomorrow we shall look at some prominent popular culture incarnations of Yellow Peril.