Yellow Peril

That Kaiser Wilhelm II was mad as a box of frogs – and not in a good way – was starkly apparent when he stood up on 27th July 1900 and yelled and waved his arms for a good hour, exhorting his soldiers to acts of barbarism in what became known as the Hunnerede, or Hun speech. His troops at the time were sharpening their bayonets in preparation for a long trip over to China to quell the Boxer Rebellion. More on that later. The Kaiser, all spittle and agitation, was souped up beyond even that of a Liberal Democrat at a by-election:

“When you come before the enemy, you must defeat him, pardon will not be given, prisoners will not be taken! Whoever falls into your hands will fall to your sword! Just as a thousand years ago the Huns, under their King Attila, made a name for themselves with their ferocity, which tradition still recalls; so may the name of Germany become known in China in such a way that no Chinaman will ever dare look a German in the eye, even with a squint”

The Foreign Office, concerned that the speech had a bit too much static to it, published a redacted version, cutting out the bits encouraging racist barbarism. When the Kaiser found out, he walloped the palace cat with a polished hunting boot, and published the speech in its original form. He then telegrammed Field Marshal Alfred von Wadersee – the expedition leader – with explicit instructions to stick it to the Chinese by all means necessary, because the Chinese were “BY NATURE COWARDLY, LIKE A DOG, BUT ALSO DECEITFUL”. It is not clear whether the capital letters were because it was a telegram, or because the Kaiser was shouting when he dictated it to the impotent lackey who took down his communications.

The Boxer Rebellion then, was an anti-colonial uprising in China around 1900. It was led by the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists, a Xenophobic martial-arts organization, who dressed in black, looked suitably nasty and blamed a lot of the problems in China on the West. The Boxers, as they became known, sought to save China by killing every Westerner they could get their calloused hands on. This they did, in addition to slotting a number of Chinese Christians. It spoke of a gritty period in Beijing’s past. News of the Boxer atrocities made it to the West and lit a fuse, stirring age old feelings that were steeped in what was known in the West as the ideology of Yellow Peril.

Yellow peril is a racist colour-metaphor that is fundamental to the xenophobic theory of colonialism. The fear of Yellow Peril was not China specific. Indeed it was not country specific. It was, more broadly, a fear of the people of the East. A vague, existential fear of a vast, faceless hoard of yellow people, all of whom hated the West. The imagery of Yellow Peril is, as you might imagine, full of primitive apes, guns, swords and crazy eyes. They were all madmen, who possessed special powers; so ran the propaganda.

It has been suggested that this racist ideology had its roots in the cultural misrepresentations that originated in the Graeco-Persian wars fought some 500 years BC. The academic Gina Marchetti also identified the fear of Asians as one that was rooted in the sleepless nights associated with Genghis Khan and his raucous Mongolian invasions of Europe in the 13th century. The French orientalist and historian, Ernest Renan, author of the popular tome Life at Jesus, had long warned Europeans of the dangers of the East. Only Renan meant Russia. Still East, but not yellow. The West though, has long perceived Russia as more Asiatic than European.

The Boxer Revolution was eventually quashed by the Eight Nation Alliance, an alliance made up of the unlikely bedfellows – given what was to follow just a decade or so later – of Japan, Russia, Britain, France, Italy, the US, Austro-Hungary and the Kaiser’s revved-up Germans. The Alliance went to sort out the Boxers under the banner of “humanitarian intervention”. As it turned out Beijing was sacked before the Germans had even arrived. That didn’t stop them from carrying out the Kaiser’s orders and they went on the rampage. The German Social Democrat Politician, August Bebel, later described the actions as “a campaign of revenge as barbaric as has never been seen in the last centuries, and not often at all in history”. Given history is stuffed to the seams with some grisly encounters, it clearly wasn’t humankind’s greatest hour.

Yet Yellow Peril was even legalized in the US in 1875 with the Page Act, a legislative order that prohibited the entry of immigrants considered “undesirable”. Which begs the question, who is undesirable? The Irish? What with their drinking and taste for a scrap? No, not the Irish. At least not according to the law of the time. The law described an “undesirable” as any individual from Asia who was coming to America to work. This included prostitutes. The law was named after Horace F. Page a hardnosed Republican Congressman from California. The Page Act was followed up in 1882 by Chinese Exclusion Act which as it suggests, was a bit more country specific.

The political endorsement of such a racist doctrine led to the regular lynching of Chinese people. So regular in fact that it coined the expression “Having a Chinaman’s chance in hell”. Meaning, in case it wasn’t obvious, no chance at all. In 1871 a seething mob of about five hundred white men ran amok in Los Angeles intent on smashing up the Chinese residents. Twenty immigrants were beaten, tortured and then hung on Calle de los Negros, or “Nigger alley”. It remains the largest mass lynching in American history.

The massacre was triggered by the shooting of a local rancher who had taken a wrong turn on the way to the post office and ended up in the cross fire of two warring Chinese gangs. The fight between the gangs was a result of a long running feud over the abduction of a Chinese woman called Yut Ho. It’s unclear whether she was, but you might suspect so.

And there once again run the fine margins of human history.

Fast forward a couple of hundred years and we have Donald Trump and his hair, poking fingers at rallies talking about American jobs that are still being stolen by the Chinese. Only this time the jobs are all in China. The reason they are in China is, perhaps, because America’s great corporations decided to move them there. The question the Red Necked rust belt then must ask is, to whose benefit has it been? Them, the Red Necks, the Chinese labourer working 18 hours a day with no wee breaks, or corporate America. Something, at least, to think about over a Bud-lite or two.

So that’s a bit about Yellow Peril.

Another distinctly depressing passage of human history.


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