Tag Archives: Opium Wars

What Was The Yellow Peril?

The term “Yellow Peril” is often attributed to the German Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1895 although this is disputed by arguments that the Hungarian General Turr used the expression earlier that year in reference to Japan: “The ‘yellow peril’ is more threatening than ever. Japan has made in a few years as much progress as other nations have made in centuries.”  The Kaiser, though, was certainly virulently ill-disposed towards East Asians and in fact commissioned a painting which was intended to encourage Europeans to cooperate against the Eastern menace. The painting, which was made into a widely used poster, showed a distant Buddha-like figure sitting in an approaching firestorm while an Ayran messenger warns the womenfolk of various European countries of their impending doom.

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Even as early as 1803 however, none other than Napoleon is said to have pointed to China on a map and remarked “Here lies a sleeping giant (or lion or dragon, depending on the source), let him sleep, for when he wakes up, he will shock the world“.  In Britain, according to Dr. Jeffrey Richards in a recent lecture at a China In Britain seminar, “the colonial mind-set was governed by a paradoxical mix of supreme confidence and fear.  Confidence in the rightness of British presence in far-off places and at the same time fear that British rule would be violently overthrown.”  Dr. Richards goes on to remark that there was ample justification for this fear. British rule in Africa had only been established after several revolts and the Indian mutiny in 1857, as well as the one in Jamaica around the same time, had traumatised British society, leaving “indelible fingerprints on the British psyche

With regards China, the two Opium Wars in 1839 and 1856 (which you’ll be hard-pressed to find on any British school history syllabus today), so named because they were literally fought over the British Empire’s determination to sell opium to the Chinese populace, may well have left something of a guilty conscience. The two conflicts in fact are barely deserving of the name as the decadent and crumbling Qing Dynasty’s unprepared and ill-equipped army proved embarrassingly ill-matched with state-of-the-art British gunboats, the result being ignominious defeat for the Chinese on both occasions, the ceding of Hong Kong to British rule (whence it remained until 1997) being but the most obvious of a whole series of humiliating penalties exacted by the victors.

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The wars were controversial in Britain at the time and at least one general election was fought over the issue, yet the prevailing  thinking seems to have been that China was an obstinate, backward and untrustworthy nation that needed to be kept in line and therefore receptive to the virtues of free trade and the Christian religion. None other than opium trader William Jardine (often “credited” as one of the architects of the first Opium War) opined that the Chinese  “are a people characterised by a marvellous degree of imbecility, avarice, conceit, and obstinacy…It has been the policy of this extraordinary people to shroud themselves and all belonging to them in mystery impenetrable….(to) exhibit a spirit of exclusiveness on a grand scale”.  Second Opium War British consul, Harry Parkes, extrapolated this down to the far simpler “I have taken their measure and know precisely how and where to plant the blow when blows are needed…The only way to gain respect in China is to command”. Even the renowned humanist Charles Dickens seemed to regard the Chinese with a fair measure of contempt, remarking on “the extraordinary littleness of the Chinese…Consider the materials employed at the great Teacup Works of Kiang-tiht-Chin(or Tight-Chin)…the laboriously carved ivory balls of the flowery empire, ball within ball and circle within circle, which have made no advance and been of no earthly use for thousands of years…”

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It is often argued that China (unlike Africa and India) was never colonised by Britain. Yet none other than Sun Yat Sen (founder of the Chinese republic) maintained that “China has suffered at the hands of the Great Powers for decades…has become a colony of the Great Powers…(actually worse), a hyper-colony …not the slaves of one country but of all…” In fact, Western powers occupied China to such a degree that in 1897 the Boxer Rebellion, led by the Righteous Harmony Society, actively sought to expel foreign imperialists and Christian missionaries until it was eventually defeated by the Eight Nation Alliance of Western powers in 1901, spelling the final end of the Qing Dynasty in the process.

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This, along with the outpouring of Chinese workers (seen as cheaper and harder working) across the globe causing enormous panic amongst white workers, led to the Chinese, in the late nineteenth and first part of the twentieth century,  being easily the most vilified racial group in the Western world, a fact almost completely forgotten today. According to the great Chinese writer, Lao She (who lived in London between 1924 and 1929) “Foreigners picture Chinese as short, pig-tailed and pancake-faced, with hardly any nose, and eyes that are only two-inch cracks; their puckered lips are always crowned with a thin fluttering moustache, and they writhe when they walk with their little stubby Pekinese dog legs. Moreover, foreigners entertain a host of notions which go beyond mere appearances and which succeed in evoking even more chilling terror. The treachery endemic to Chinamen takes on a number of different sinister forms: in tucking venomous snakes up their sleeves, hiding arsenic in the cavity of their ears’, breathing smoke, or having the power to smite people dead with a twinkle of the eye.” 

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Indeed not even celebrated British authors were free of Sinophobia (fear and loathing of everything Chinese). Rudyard Kipling (so long rationalised as merely “of his time”) declared that “I could quite understand…why the lower caste Anglo-Saxon hates the Celestial. I hated the Chinaman before; I hated him doubly as I choked for breath in his seething streets. I hate Chinamen.”  Kipling went on to maintain that “It is justifiable to kill him (the “Chinaman”)”.  Even a Girls Own Annual of the period warned that the “the readiness of the Chinese to settle in the midst of other nations, and the evils which may follow in its train…constitutes the Yellow Peril”.  In America this morbid fear of all things Eastern led to the Chinese Exclusion Act (which still stands today though all of its constituent sections have long been repealed) and in Australia there were organised campaigns to oust Chinese workers from the goldfields leading to various White Australia policies which directly favoured immigration from Caucasian settlers as opposed to Chinese.

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Along with policies and campaigns, the Chinese were vilified in the British press, the tabloids being full of lurid tales of opium dens and white girls being drugged and seduced by sinister Chinaman. The Strand Magazine (to name but one) reported on a visit to an opium den by describing the occupants as having “parchment coloured features…small and cunning eyes…twisting and turning so horribly” and that even the staircase in the opium den was  “the most villainously treacherous…which it has ever been my lot to ascend”.

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Nowhere more profoundly was this Yellow Peril manifested than in literature.  M.P. Shiel (actually of West Indian descent) began the trend with the invasion novel The Yellow Danger in 1898 which features a half Chinese  half Japanese villain, Dr. Yen How, who forms an “Oriental army” with China and Japan which sweeps through all of Europe. The book ends with the Chinese/Japanese army being wiped out by germ warfare.  In the book Shiel describes the principle points of the Chinese character as “an immeasurable greed, absolute contempt for the world outside China and a fiendish love of cruelty”.  So acceptable was this sort of portrayal at the time that The Academy Supplement ended their review of The Yellow Danger by describing it as “an exciting and persuasive romance, well worth packing up with one’s holiday outfit.”

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This was followed in 1905 by French writer Capitaine Danrit’s The Yellow Invasion which centres around a world-spanning Sino-Japanese secret society named the Devouring Dragon attempting to destroy Western civilization. Then in 1913 Sax Rohmer himself entered the fray with the most enduring Yellow Peril icon of them all: Dr. Fu Manchu. One year later Jack London’s The Unparalleled Invasion portrayed a China with an ever-increasing population taking over and colonising its neighbours, with the intention of eventually taking over the entire Earth.  In 1916 J. Alan Dunn’s novel, The Peril of the Pacific, described an attempted invasion of the western United States by Japan. The very first Buck Rogers novella Armageddon 2419 A.D. depicted a future America which had been occupied and colonized by cruel invaders from China. Robert A. Heinlein‘s Sixth Column depicts American resistance to an invasion by a blatantly racist and genocidally cruel “PanAsian” empire whilst many of H.P.Lovecraft’s stories revealed a constant fear of Asiatic culture engulfing the world.

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Naturally much of this made it to the stage (during the 1920’s Chinese students in London complained to Parliament about no less than five plays which they believed portrayed the Chinese in derogatory fashion) and screen with Fu Manchu himself being the subject of numerous films and TV serials though the characters were nearly always portrayed by Caucasian actors, highlighting the extreme reluctance of Western producers to show East Asian actors (particularly men)  in strong dominant roles, a reluctance that many would argue still persists to this day, as do some of the more dubious aspects of late 19th/early 20th Century portrayal of East Asians.

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Perhaps the final word on the subject should go to Sax Rohmer himself who remarked that at the beginning of the twentieth century “Conditions for launching a Chinese villain on the market were ideal”.  A recent (2010) episode of the popular British TV series Spooks featured a plotline involving the Chinese Secret Service (in essence the Chinese government) planting a bomb in central London. China’s rise as a super –power has filled many in the  West with dread. Perhaps 100 years on from Fu Manchu conditions for “launching a Chinese villain on the market” are still ideal?

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Next, we’ll be examining that most pernicious legacy of colonialism and the Yellow Peril, the practice of “yellowface”. Do stay tuned and book your tickets to see The Fu Manchu Complex http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/detail/the-fu-manchu-complex

Who Was Sax Rohmer?

Image Rohmer was born Arthur Henry Wardin Birmingham in 1883, the son of Irish-Catholic parents. The family moved to South London when he was 2 or 3.  His mother was an alcoholic who died when he was 18. She claimed descent from a 17th Century Irish general Patrick Sarsfield. The young Rohmer began referring to himself as Arthur SARSFIELD Ward. An only child, he read voraciously and by all accounts sought refuge in a fantasy world.  Very much a “re-inventor” of himself he was able to tell compelling tales by being able to convince himself of the truth of the story he was telling.

In 1912 he adopted the name “Sax Rohmer” which he apparently claimed was taken from the Saxon “blade” (Sax)  and “roamer”. This is the name he was known by for the rest of his life. After failing the civil service examinations and working briefly as a clerk in a bank and a gas company, he became a junior reporter on newspapers, workingas a freelance whilst submitting short stories to the various newspapers he worked on as well as lyrics and comedy sketches for music-halls.  He was later to say that his earliest interests “were centered in Ancient Egypt…I accumulated a large library on Egyptology and occult literature” and his first published short story, in 1903, was indeed called The Mysterious Mummy.

In 1909 he married Rose Elizabeth Knox, whose father had been a well-known comedian in his youth, and who, at the time, was performing in a juggling act with her brother Bill.  She was also believed to be psychic.

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In 1911 he was sent to Chinatown to research a mysterious drugs and gambling boss called Mr. King. Although he found nothing, Rohmer claims to have seen a tall Chinese man “attended” by a beautiful Arab girl that gave him the idea for Fu Manchu and his beautiful Eurasian slave girl Karamaneh. Another story goes that Rohmer and his wife consulted an ouija board as to how he could best make a living. The answer that came back was ‘C-H-I-N-A-M-A-N’.

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Professor Jeffrey Richards at a recent China In Britain event at the University Of Westminster event maintained “There is something dreamlike in Rohmer’s writing. Dreams and hallucinations feature regularly in his narratives” and  Rohmer claimed to have “dreamed” some of his plots. He even invented a character, Maurice Claw, who solved mysteries in his dreams. “His writing was intensely visual, almost cinematic”.

Rohmer claimed membership to a faction of the qabbalisticHermetic Order of the Golden Dawnwhose  other members included Aleister Crowley and William Butler Yeats. Rohmer’s supernatural stories include Brood of the Witch Queen (1918), in which an Egyptian mummy is revived to practice ancient sorcery in the modern world, and Grey Face (1924), in which a supposed reincarnation of Cagliostro causes much havoc. Rohmer also claimed ties to the Rosicrucians though the validity of these claims have been questioned and it’s believed Rohmer may have exaggerated these connections in order to boost his literary reputation as an occult writer.

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The first three Fu Manchu novels were written as newspaper/magazine serials appearing in Britain and America in 1913, 1917 and 1918. These first three novels all revolve around a plotline of the evil Doctor seeking to silence all voices in the West that are warning of the imminent danger of the rising power of China as well as featuring several attempts by Fu Manchu and his minions on the lives of the book’s two heroes, Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie, by use of mysterious poisons and exotic methods with such names as the Zayat Kiss, The Coughing Horror, The Snapping Fingers, The Green Mist and The Flower Of Silence, always with a stark racial opposition between East and West. Nayland Smith, the book’s hero, claims (in a quote worthy of the EDL) to be acting in the interests of the “entire white race, under threat from “Oriental villainy”. Critic Jack Adrian describes Rohmer’s “racism” as “careless and casual, a mere symptom of his times”

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The books proved immensely popular by playing to the prevailing attitude towards the Chinese in Britain and America at the time.  The UK Chinese community (at the time miniscule) suffered from lurid stereotyping in the tabloid press that they were taking over English jobs (an omnipresent fear it seems) and seducing and drugging white women.  “The opium den became a popular image of Oriental depravity…having already featured in Charles Dickens’ The Mystery Of Edwin Drood in 1870, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Grey in 1891 as well as the Sherlock Homes story, The Man With The Twisted Lip in 1892” (Professor Jeffrey Richards).  Although almost entirely mythical, the combination of opium, gambling and sex was heady tabloid fodder.  But one example in many is the Daily Express headline in 1920 of “Yellow Peril In London: vast syndicate of vice with its criminal master, women and child victims”.

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For periods during the 1920s and 1930s, Rohmer was one of the most widely read and highly paid magazine writers in the English language. He also wrote for the stage and created tunes to several of his songs by humming them to a transcriber. Success brought Rohmer financial security for a period but his business instincts were poor and he gambled much of his wealth at Monte Carlo. He travelled with his wife in the Near East, Jamaica and Egypt, and built a country house called Little Gatton in the Surrey countryside. In 1955 he was said to have sold the film, television and radio rights for his books for more than four million dollars.

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The next set of Fu Manchu books came in a series of six beginning in 1931. He wrote three more after the Second World War, the final one in 1959 just before his death from (one of literary history’s great ironies) Asian ‘flu. According to one biographer Rohmer proudly proclaimed of his Fu Manchu series that “I made my name on Fu Manchu because I know nothing about the Chinese”.

The Fu Manchu Complex by Daniel York opens on October 1st! http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/detail/the-fu-manchu-complex Preview tickets just £7