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Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu in Castle of Fu Manchu (Tower of London Studios)
Still taken from the trailer. Commodore Matthew C. Perry
Photo by Mathew B. Brady
Library of Congress
In America, the Yellow Peril had its origins in the California Gold Rush and started purely out of jealousy. Rather than find new claims, the Chinese who came as gold hunters took over abandoned mining camps considered exhausted by their previous American owners. Through perseverance the new proprietors made these supposedly played out claims start producing once more. Envious Americans invaded the successful Chinese camps to rob and in some cases kill these foreigners. As the Gold Rush died, railroad building in the West increased. In the Pacific states and territories, greedy railroad companies brought in cheap Chinese labor to undercut the prevailing wage. Americans did not take kindly to this competition. The Panic of 1857 exasperated this situation, turning animosity into outright hostility.
The Yellow Peril also extended into China proper. Americans and Western Europeans working or having interests there worried that the local people would rise up and resist the foreign presence. This fear became a reality in 1900 when a Chinese religious movement, the Yihequan (Righteous and Harmonious Fists), started to kill Christian missionaries and other foreigners in an effort to drive them out of their homeland because they had grown tired of being treated as second-class citizens in their own country, and they resented the taint of Christianity on their culture. Their use of ritual martial arts prompted Westerners to call them the Boxers and term their uprising the Boxer Rebellion. While a coalition of European powers plus America and Japan made short work of this “insurrection,” the dread of it happening on a larger scale led to the creation of the Fu Manchu character by British writer Sax Rohmer.
This Chinese criminal mastermind embodied the characteristics of what the English feared most: a Chinese who understood and used Western technology and who could successfully lead his people in conquest against the British Empire. Within a few pages of the first story, “The Mystery of Fu Manchu,” the protagonist, British agent Sir Denis Nayland Smith, tells the story’s narrator he needs to stop a plot that threatens the existence of the entire white race. For all his racial “superiority,” however, Smith never catches or kills Fu Manchu in any of the books and shorter works.
In the year of the Boxer Rebellion, China controlled an area of 4,460,000 square miles and had a population of about four million. A 1907 article that appeared in The North American Review predicted the Mongolian race (usually meant to include the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and ethnic Mongolians) would make up one-third of the world’s population in the near future, and went on to outline the terrible things that could happen to the West if left unchecked. It did not matter whether the article’s statistics had any validity. Just appearing in a magazine as prominent as The North American Review made them as good as true. (According to The World Almanac and Encyclopedia 1912, the total world population stood at 1,520,150,000. Of this, East Asians made up 630,000,000 and whites 625,000,000, meaning the former consisted of about 40 percent of the total population and the latter 41 percent, hardly the disparity the Yellow Peril alarmists would have liked people to believe.)
Japan’s stunning 1905 victory over Russia in the Russo-Japanese War only served to heighten the fears of the Yellow Peril because until this moment no modern Western power had ever suffered a defeat from an Far Eastern nation. The triumph had taken the West off guard in large part because only fifty-two years earlier, Japanese society still clung to its feudal, agrarian past. Since its borders had remained closed to most outsiders, the West knew little of it or its people until 1853 when Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the U.S. Navy arrived with his squadron of modern warships to force it to open up trade. The Japanese, technologically outmatched, reluctantly acquiesced. Perry irreversibly changed Japanese culture and government on a scale similar to Nicolaus Copernicus’ revelation that the Earth rotated around the Sun or Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Within a generation of Perry’s arrival, the Japanese emperor—with the help if not the pressure of his advisors—established a parliamentary system of government, eliminated the rigid class system, and replaced the samurai with a modern conscription army. The country began the process of industrialization and formed a modern navy.
Japan feared European powers would takeover its islands in a way similar to what they had done to China, so it decided to establish an empire of its own to serve as a buffer zone against this. To that end, it gained control of Formosa and Korea after fighting a brief war with China in 1894–1895 (the incident that had prompted the Kaiser to produce his cartoon), then went to war with Russia in 1904 to wrest from it control of the Liaotung Peninsula, an important piece of real estate because it granted easy access into the rest of Manchuria.
Jack London, having witnessed the Russo-Japanese War as a reporter, did not like what he had seen. In 1904, he published an essay about the subject titled “The Yellow Peril.” It began by praising the resilience of the Chinese and offered a hardy admiration of their capacity to continue their day to day lives despite war all around them as well as their ability and willingness to embrace new ideas brought in from the West. Americans, London decided, had nothing to fear from the Chinese because their government kept them submissive and subservient. The Japanese, on the other hand, had proved themselves both aggressive and adept war makers. London warned that if Japan ever took control of the Chinese and directed them to make war, their population of 400 million could readily overwhelm the West.
London followed this notion up in his 1910 short story “The Unparalleled Invasion.” Set in 1976, this near-future war tale tells the “history” of the world after the Japanese triumph over Russia in 1905. The Japanese do indeed try to harness the power of the Chinese as London predicted in his essay, but the attempt fails and leads to Japan’s ruin. Following this, China awakens and becomes a major industrial power. Rather than outright conquer other nations, the Chinese government sends overwhelming numbers of colonists into those places it wants. When an external Chinese militia invades, the Chinese colonists rise up to make conquest quick and easy (the fifth column theme). Alarmed, European nations try and fail to do something         
Jack London
Library of Congress
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Mark Strecker’s Historical Perspective copyright © 2019 by Mark Strecker. Website design by Mark Strecker.

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