In 1896, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany did something unprecedented for the head a major European empire: he drew a political cartoon. With his own artistic skill somewhat limited, he handed his sketch over to a professional and asked him to produce a final version. The Kaiser’s illustration contained a group of Valkyries led by a sword-wielding angel standing upon a cliff overlooking Europe. Above the group floated a cross, and on the other side of Europe stood a silhouetted Buddha enveloped by flames. A variation of this illustration replaced the Buddha with a fanged skull shaped to look East Asian.
The Valkyries symbolized the nations of France, Russia, Germany, Italy, Austria and England. The fire around the Buddha represented the burning of Europe by the Japanese and other East Asian people. The cross above stood for Christianity, and the angel warned, “nations of europe! join in the defense of your faith and your home!” The Kaiser had produced the picture in reaction to Japan’s victory over China the year before in which Japan won control of Korea and Formosa (modern Taiwan). The Kaiser worried that the East—either China or Japan or both—would rise up and take over the world if Europe did not unite and do something about it, a fear known as the “Yellow Peril.”
The European dread of a hoard from the East may go back as far as the Greeks, who for a time worried about a Persian invasion, or perhaps it arose from a lingering memory over the spectacular inroads into Europe made by the Huns and Mongols. During the Dark and Middle Ages, ignorance of the East lessened this anxiety. In those eras, Europeans had no idea what lay east beyond India, itself a vaguely defined place in which monstrous races such as centaurs, dog-headed men known as Cynocephali, Pygmies and Amazons lurked. When Europeans reached China during the early years of the Age of Exploration, that empire either turned away or chased them out because it had closed its borders to most foreigners.
Not until the 1842 did Europeans finally make inroads into that country when the British forced China to sign an unequal treaty upon the latter’s loss of the First Opium War, an agreement that resulted in the addition of Hong Kong to the British Empire and opened five Chinese ports (in addition to Canton) to all Western nations. It further granted Britain sovereignty over its own subjects in China itself, a privilege several other Western nations plus Japan also enjoyed. The Second Opium War resulted in an 1858 treaty that gave foreigners access into China’s interior beyond the treaty ports. Western missionaries seized upon this opportunity and rushed in to proselytize, sending back home some of the first modern Western eyewitness accounts of China’s people, geography, and government. China’s vastness and untapped natural resources, in addition to its massive population, made Westerners nervous because they feared if China modernized and started expanding beyond its traditional borders, it could pose a serious threat to the West.
Alarm that China might become a rival power to the West sparked the science fiction subgenre of near-future war scenarios, the first of which, “The Battle of Dorking” by Sir George Tomkyns Chesney, appeared in 1871 in the British monthly Blackwood’s Magazine. The genre developed to include another popular plot device, the fifth column. In this scenario, when China attacks, those Chinese already living in America—or a European nation with a significant Chinese minority rise up—form militias, and start massacring unsuspecting civilians.