The ongoing coronavirus crisis has triggered off much racist behavior outside China and the qualification “Yellow Peril” raised its ugly head again. Journalist Zhang Lijia, author of Lotus, a novel, on prostitution in China, dives into the history of Western racism towards China and the Chinese for the South China Morning Post.
As China was the sick man of Asia, so Chinese were regarded as the “Yellow Peril”. At the tail end of the 19th century, German emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II reportedly came up with the term after he saw, in his dream, Buddha riding a dragon, threatening to invade Europe.
Even if he did not coin the term, Wilhelm popularised the psycho-cultural perception of the so-called civilised world – that is, the Anglo-Saxon empires – in danger of being overrun by the yellow-skinned East Asians (the Chinese and Japanese).
He then encouraged European powers to conquer and colonise China. In 1898, Germany coerced China into leasing it 553 square kilometres in its northeast, including Qingdao, for 99 years. That was another event of national humiliation.
Even before the aggressive German emperor, however, white supremacists in the US had embraced the “Asian menace” theory, demanding that the government bar immigration of “filthy yellow hordes” of Chinese.
The white labour unions lobbied to keep out Chinese, claiming that some Chinese malaises were more virulent than white ones. This led to America’s 1882 China Exclusion Act, an immigration law that prevented Chinese labour from entering the US. It was revoked in 1943 but old prejudices persist.
One editorial from 1954, for example, in the influential New York Tribune newspaper, described the Chinese thus: “They are uncivilised, unclean, filthy beyond all conception, without any of the higher domestic or social relations; lustful and sensual in their dispositions; every female is a prostitute, and of the basest order.”
In a 2014 review of the book Perceptions of the East – Yellow Peril: An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear, sinologist Leung Wing-fai explains that: “The phrase yellow peril (sometimes yellow terror or yellow spectre) … blends Western anxieties about sex, racist fears of the alien other, and the Spenglerian belief that the West will become outnumbered and enslaved by the East.”
Some experts have noticed that only certain disease outbreaks have been racialised. Those that originated from China, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and the novel coronavirus, as well as Ebola from Africa, led to a racial backlash. However, this did not happen with the swine flu pandemic that originated in North America or “mad cow disease” from Britain.
When millions of Chinese are suffering, racist headlines and comments are doubly insensitive and inappropriate. It only perpetuates the stereotype that Asians are disease-ridden. Fear and racism feed on each other, and both hinder our fight against the virus.
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