Yellow Perils:
China Narratives in the Contemporary World

Edited by Franck Billé and Sören Urbansky

Reviewed by Anne Witchard
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright August, 2019)

Franck Billé and Sören Urbansky, eds., Yellow Perils: China Narratives in the Contemporary World Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2018. Viii + 276. ISBN: 978-0-8248-7579-4 (hardcover).

In the last decade the emergence of China as a global superpower has provoked an array of responses that have prompted comparisons with the early-twentieth century rhetoric of a Yellow Peril. Yellow Perils: China Narratives in the Contemporary World is a timely collection, coming as it does when the might of Beijing indeed poses a significant threat, to Muslims in Xinjiang Province for example, and (at the time of writing) to democracy activists in Hong Kong. It is all too easy to resort to inflammatory responses and indeed hostile and/or prejudicial treatment that fails to distinguish between the actions of China’s current Party State regime and ethnic Chinese in the PRC and across the globe.

Despite the time elapsed from research to print and the astonishing rapidity of change in the current political scene, Yellow Perils’s relevancy may perhaps be greater than might have been predicted by its editors. It is unfortunately all too easy to find statements that reflect Sinophobic predispositions informing some decision-making under the Trump administration. In April 2019, Kiron Skinner, director of policy planning at the State Department said at a security forum in Washington, D.C.: “This is a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology and the United States hasn’t had that before.” Of course, as any high school student might remind her, the notorious Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) repealed only in 1943, was formulated upon exactly this racialized and divisive narrative.

Contemporary Sinophobic discourse comes pre-packaged. Franck Billé’s introductory chapter provides a wide-ranging account of the history, development, and deployment of the panoply of stereotypes that have informed the notion of a Yellow Peril. Subject to vitriolic depictions and violence by labor organizations in mid-nineteenth-century America, then to the bombastic warmongering of Kaiser Wilhelm II at the fin de siècle, and to their twentieth century embodiment in the enduring persona of caricatures such as Dr. Fu Manchu, Chinese people, at home and abroad, have endured an extensive assault, both discursive and actual, that remains entrenched in Western political and popular culture. The aim of this book, and one that distinguishes it from other accounts of this phenomenon (there were four studies in 2014 alone, Frayling; Mayer; Tchen/Yeats; Witchard), is to take a number of specific contemporary instances of Yellow Peril anxieties at work and subject each to close analysis of the particularities and peculiarities of its immediate locational and contextual circumstance.[1]

Most importantly, this approach avoids the homogenization of a complex and mutable discourse (hence its resilience). Despite its well-established cultural underpinnings, it is too simplistic, as this collection demonstrates, to treat Yellow Perilism as a transhistorical and transcultural phenomenon. Its more recent contemporary iterations are motivated by heterogenous anxieties in multiple arenas and areas: the book’s broad range includes Australia (chapter 3), Italy (chapter 4), South Africa (chapter 5), Nigeria (chapter 6), Mongolia (chapter 7), and Hong Kong (chapter 8).

The analyses begin, however, with a global iteration of Yellow Peril menace. Christos Lynteris in chapter 2 considers the historic association of the diasporic Chinese and Chinatowns with contagious disease epidemics from the nineteenth century (e.g. leprosy, cholera, smallpox) to more recent times (e.g. the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, SARS). At the same time, Lynteris insists on the discontinuity between late-nineteenth century fears related to “China as a land of ‘degeneration’ and ‘decay’” and contemporary fears arising from perceptions of “China as a land of ‘emergence’” (38). Ancient horrors like bubonic plague have been superseded by diseases that are novel—viral mutations precursing apocalyptic pandemics. Lynteris distinguishes between what we might call “the classical period of Yellow Peril discourse” that was informed by “an epidemic imaginary” linked to “the political and biosocial condition’ of the moribund and decrepit Qing empire (53) and a “new Sinophobia” related to the emergence of postsocialist China, expansive and deregulated yet riven still with autocratic secrecy. While recognizing the continuities of Sinophobic discourses over the centuries, Lynteris warns us against treating contemporary attitudes as mere relics of a bygone era. In doing, so we run the risk of flattening out “political ontologies of fear and accusation that target . . . spaces, bodies and cultures” (53).

These historic configurations of threatening otherness are demonstrated only too clearly in David Walker’s chapter, which charts the history of “white Australia” in relation to the dreaded “Rise of Asia.” The current incarceration of so-called “illegals” in off-shore detention centers in Papua New Guinea and Naura plays directly into Australia’s foundational fear of “coloured conquest” (76). Although refugee numbers are small, the disproportionate governmental response mobilizes arguments from a century ago. In a British settler society that is geographically part of Asia, it was feared, in the language of the day, that “as ‘white’ had dispossessed ‘black’, so too would ‘yellow’ replace ‘white’” (61). The idea of Australia was predicated on racial homogeneity, and Yellow Peril narratives—from pseudo-scientific accounts such as Charles H. Pearson’s National Life and Character: A Forecast (1893) to a proliferation of invasion fiction like The Coloured Conquest (1903)—were instrumental in the construction of Australia’s New World identity as a white nation imperiled by looming incursion from its “yellow” neighbors. These invasion anxieties remain powerful, although they are no longer reflected in the country’s current relationship with China. Walker describes responses to the rise of Chinese power that, though encouraging a flourishing new genre of Yellow Peril-inflected narratives in the US  (e.g., Clive Cussler’s Flood Tide [1997], Stephen J. Canell’s Riding the Snake [1998], Tom Clancy’s The Bear and the Dragon [2000]), has not been echoed in Australia, where a concomitant economic boom has prompted a remarkable shift in attitudes toward China from “old adversary to new trading partner” (77). Accordingly, antipathy toward non-white migrants has shifted from Asians to Muslims and is directed toward those asylum seekers “arriving in Northern Australia via Indonesia from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka” (76).

In chapter 4, Xiaojian Zhao focusses on an example of what was initially a very successful instance of Chinese economic migration in Prato, Italy. In the late 1980s, the historic capital of Italy’s textile capital was in decline. Chinese migrants from the Wenzhou district of Zhejiang province were welcomed as “a blessing” for the skills they brought, reviving the artisanal production of luxury goods for fashion houses such as Versace, Gucci, and Armani (87). Zhao shows how the migrants’ success was to prove their downfall. Quickly establishing their own businesses, Chinese entrepreneurship “transformed Prato from a relatively small provincial town into a major European exporter of fast fashion” (94). Hostility toward the Chinese correlated with their move from factory workers to independent manufacturers. Negative media reports articulated anti-Chinese sentiment, describing “‘yellow mafia’ . . . members of a morally inferior alien group” and “linked crime to the Chinese race” (95). Racializing and criminalizing the community, “the media worked to drum up fear of a Chinese invasion, paving the way for the rise of anti-immigration political forces in the region” (95). Regulation prohibiting Chinese manufacturers from using the prestigious “Made in Italy” label generated international debate while the accession of a right-wing mayor on an anti-Chinese campaign resulted in further prohibitive legislation reminiscent of the anti-Chinese movement in California one hundred years earlier. Zhao concludes, similarly to Lynteris in chapter 2, that the rise of anti-Chinese sentiment in Prato (reflected in similar instances in other parts of Italy) demonstrates “a widespread anti-Chinese narrative in the context of a rising China.” Whereas the Qing government of the late-nineteenth century did little to support its people overseas, contemporary migrants have strong and supportive trade links with home. Concern about such international networks and the predominance of Chinese economic clout is particularly acute regarding their presence in African countries.

The next two chapters deal with South Africa and Nigeria, respectively. In chapter 5, Romain Dittgen and Ross Anthony draw comparisons between hostile responses to indentured Chinese labor in South African mines at the turn of the twentieth century—when it was feared that white settler families would find themselves driven out by inhumanly hardworking “Chinamen”—and the ways in which echoes of this “seemingly distant past” are being heard today (111). The common thread linking Yellow Peril anxieties, then and now, is the playing out of international capitalism, the new reality being the combined economic and political influence of twenty-first century China. The authors are careful to differentiate among regional, ethnic, and class differences in both the host and the migrant populations in contemporary South Africa and demonstrate how the complexities of these inform varied responses to “the Chinese” presence (the quotation marks indicating the perceived homogeneity of the stereotyped image). Overall, they show “the poor (and predominantly black) working class are mostly concerned about economic competition and job losses, the middle and upper classes (primarily white and including fewer members of other racial groups) are worried about forms of political collusion and high-level cronyism” (111). Contemporary “‘horde’ anxieties” result in a notion of a monolithic Chinese presence and its nefarious collusion with government, so that “from the local small shop owner to members of the highest echelons of state . . . ‘the Chinese’ get regarded as ‘a single, coordinated actor from top to bottom’” (126).

Moving from this broad analysis of historical attitudes to the Chinese presence in South Africa, Yu Qiu in chapter 6 presents an anthropological study of one Chinese-owned company in Lagos, revealing how the country’s colonial experience reverberates in present day Nigerians’ interactions with their new Chinese bosses. She is interested in the extent of African agency in the power dynamics of this “neo-colonial’ relationship. Perceived as “white” rather than “yellow,” the Chinese in Nigeria inherit a system of colonially constructed segregation within which Nigerian workers continue to expect a “master-subaltern relationship,” one which the Chinese do not necessarily understand or accept. Yu Qiu reveals the complexities and misunderstandings of this legacy of social dependency and paternalism on both sides.

The later chapters of the book look at the ways in which Yellow Peril discourses have been appropriated and articulated within Asia in regions that struggle with China’s dominance. Mongolia—a landlocked country wedged between two giant neighbors—has, since gaining independence from imperial Qing rule in 1911, retained its precarious autonomy by alliance with Russia (from 1921 containment within the Soviet protectorate). Although Mongolia shared little in terms of language or traditions with China, up until that point it had “been firmly located within the Chinese cultural sphere” (173). By the time of the break up of the Soviet Union in 1989, few Mongols were able to speak Chinese or had ever visited China, in fact, as Billé explains, to “be a ‘real Mongol’ (jinhene Mongol) is to be not-Chinese” (173, emphasis in original). Today Russia remains, unproblematically, a far more potent cultural force. Billé argues that expressions of Mongolian Sinophobic attitudes are less a response to China’s recent geopolitical or territorial aspirations than they are the product of a cultural and racial hierarchy mediated over the course of the twentieth century by Russian ambivalence toward China, and indeed toward Russia’s own self-identification as belonging to a “progressive West” rather than a “backward Asia” (181-2). Even Russia’s recent “turn to the East” has not unseated established cultural imaginaries of a backward and stagnant China. This self-positioning of both Russia, and by extension Mongolia, with respect to Asia means that Sinophobic responses differ from Euro-American ones. Although Mongolians share the stereotyped view of the Chinese as cunning, calculating, and inscrutable, of holding political and economic designs over other parts of the world, they differ in that their impulse is to emphasise their difference and create distance from Chineseness. The Fu Manchu figure for example, is “feared for his physical similarities with Mongols,” for his expertise at “blending in, at ‘passing’ . . . both irrevocably alien and intimate doppelganger” (180).

Hong Kong might have seemed an unlikely candidate for the kind of ethno-nationalist conflict we see within the PRC’s frontier regions, particularly Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Xinjiang. In chapter, 8 Kevin Carrico examines why and how, given that “94 percent of residents are classed as ethnically Chinese,” the articulation of a distinctive ethnicity has been mobilized as a weapon in the drive for Hong Kong’s independence from the PRC (197). He first looks at its expression in the racialized campaign of 2012 when local anger against the behavior of Mainland visitors erupted in protests against filthy and rapacious “Chinese locusts” (197). The inflammatory metaphor encompasses familiar Yellow Peril tropes. What is perplexing perhaps is that such a racialized expression of difference exists between Hong Kong people of Chinese descent and peoples of China. Similar to the Mongolian denial of “Asianness” examined in chapter 7, Hong Kong Sinophobia, Carrico demonstrates, is driven by a desire to express differences in culture and behavior along the Hong Kong-China divide. Any less extreme metaphor “would be at risk of revealing the historical production of this purportedly essential distinction” and arguably of diminishing its importance as a political tool (204). Of course, in the short interim since Carrico penned this chapter, the very real distinctions between Hong Kong and China have now reached crisis point. This politicized name-calling takes place alongside a decade of socio-cultural pressures from Beijing. As reprehensible as the locust discourse is, we should not lose sight that it emerged solely because of the growing threats toward Hong Kong’s fading autonomy; the right to democratic self-determination under the promise of “one country, two systems” has been “slipping away at an increasingly rapid pace” (204). One must both understand its origins and deplore its targeting of fellow victims of the same hegemonic political power. Carrico contrasts this visceral response to that of the contributors to the publication Hong Kong Nationalism (2014). This periodical’s arguments for the right to self determination based on Hong Kong civic nationalism are thoughtful rather than exclusionary, based not on biological identity but on shared cultural, linguistic, and political values that include Hong Kong’s half million residents of non-Chinese descent and a far cry “from the simplistic ‘locust’ chorus” (206). Carrico concludes that instances of ethnic nationalism in China have been generated by a socio-political system that is unable to meet the needs of an increasingly complex society, creating new oppositional identities in the process (214-5). In the case of Hong Kong, this has been an unexpected response to an unsustainable situation. It has arisen because of “the all-encompassing rubric” of state sponsored Chineseness “which can then in turn only be represented and addressed as a peril” (215).

Indeed, not all expressions of concern or fear with regard to the rise of China are based in paranoid Sinophobic delusions (215). The insidious intent of China’s Confucius Institutes project is a case in point, a global network of Chinese State sponsored institutions operating out of foreign schools and universities that are paid to host them. In a climate of reduced public investment, educational institutions in the West have often accepted CIs without consulting faculty, thus eroding the idea of the university as a center of free inquiry. Under direct rule of the Party, Confucius Institutes promulgate an approved “Chinese culture” curriculum. In chapter 9, Magnus Fiskesjö looks at this manifestation of the CCP’s bid for soft power, the censorship of curriculums and silencing of opposing or critical points of view, and at Chinese responses to foreign concerns regarding intellectual freedoms. Academics who know something about China understand the consequences of “indebted endorsement” and that “Chinese state funds come with dangerous strings attached” (230). Fiskesjö cites instances of Chinese interference in Portugal, Sweden, and Chicago, and he examines the thinking behind the rehabilitation of Confucian Thought, formerly condemned as reactionary, as potentially replacing Marxism as core Party ideology (222-3).

The concluding chapter by co-editor Sören Urbansky returns to an historical consideration of the term Yellow Peril and its various deployments within the Chinese world across the twentieth century. Urbansky looks at how Western Sinophobic discourses were reflected upon by Chinese intellectuals such as Lu Xun and politicians including Sun Yatsen, who worked to promote an understanding of China as a potential “yellow blessing” (253). During the Republican period, Yellow Peril descriptors within China most usually referred to a “Japanese threat” and sometimes to other conflicts with Asian neighbors. Employed as a propaganda device under Mao’s rule, the term Yellow Peril, “detached from its actual historical context” was bandied about in relation to various political and ideological adversaries in world politics such as the Soviet Union and India “by no means reflecting any utilization of Yellow peril motifs” in these countries’ (258-9).

Overall, Yellow Perils: China Narratives in the Contemporary World initiates an area of study that is of crucial importance in our increasingly polarized societies. We do indeed, as Kevin Carrico reflects, need to think beyond binary divisions, the “false analytical coherence” of Left-Right or East-West if we want to take the issue of positioning seriously in our academic work (215). Oppressive powers exist and operate across multiple binaries; despite the challenges involved, scholars must continue to strive to reflect the full complexity of identity processes as they continue to evolve in today’s world.

Anne Witchard
University of Westminster


[1] Christopher Frayling, The Yellow Peril: Dr Fu Manchu and the rise of Chinaphobia (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2014); Ruth Mayer, Serial Fu Manchu: The Chinese Supervillain and the Spread of Yellow Peril Ideology (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014); John Kuo Wei Tchen and Dylan Yeats, Yellow Peril! An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear (London: Verso, 2014). Anne Witchard, England’s Yellow Peril: Sinophobia and the Great War (London: Penguin, 2014).