A History of Yellow Peril: Understanding the Roots of Anti-Chinese Sentiment

Sinophobia is a fear or prejudice of expressed towards China and its people. Similar to other varieties of racism, such as Islamophobia, Sinophobia embodies a series of beliefs and discourses that place emphasis on the apparent cultural inferiority and backwardness of “Chinese culture” to the western dynamic, which are used to argue that the “ways” of China pose an existential threat to the norms and values of a given society, or what was historically referred to as a “Yellow Peril”. The prejudice relies upon a series of cliches and representations regarding Chinese people and their way of life and in turn positions itself from a position of assumed western supremacy, of which owing to the legacy of colonialism treats China as “problem must be solved”.

What is China? The answer is not a simple one, but for many people it is. It is a vast country, one with many differences and variations inside it concerning the way people live, view the world and even speak. It is not easy to define a nation of 1.4 billion. Yet every human being of course perceives the world in terms of standout images, ideas and concepts carried by their society, which accumulative into a wider comprehension or “imagination” into how we believe things are. The subject of China is not surprisingly rife with such impressions, because it is something distant, huge and also something by which through experience few people understand very well.

When the western man thinks of China, he doesn’t give much insight into how everyday people may live but of course gravitates towards these given ideas, he may refer to the Great Wall of China, to Terracotta soldiers, calligraphy and other strong concepts. At the same time of course, he is likely to refer to negative imagery too: He may believe that it is excessively polluted, that it makes cheap and shoddy goods, or cruder cultural stereotypes (particularly in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic) that emphasis culinary habits which are perceived as backwards and barbaric, generalized to fit the population as a whole.

These generalizations however carry more significance than meets the eye, they are not just a matter of pure impression, but are actively transformed into an aspect of geopolitics rooted in how Western civilization perceives itself in relation to China. In a phenomenon described as “Orientalism” by Edward Said- the west has through the legacy of Imperialism and domination consolidated itself on a series of beliefs that it itself represents a universal and objective standard for “Normality” and “civilization” and in the process subsequently projects conceptions of “difference”, “exoticness” and “inferiority” onto their impression “non-western” nations, which they subsequently argue that they have a mission to “civilize” and “change” to accommodate to their vision of the world.

As a result, whilst racism, prejudice and misunderstandings are found everywhere, western generalizations of the non-west are exceptional because they are the beneficiary of geopolitical inequality and social power which masquerades the assumption of civilizational superiority as an unassailable and divine truth. The west has to power to define, subjugate and characterize the East to its own designs and interests, no matter how prejudiced, misinformed and even outright misleading their claims may be. In turn, such a mindset also means that the western public tend to follow suit and believe such mistruths, their vested belief in “enlightenment” subsequently misrendering their prejudices as a truth. What is perceived to be “Knowledge” is in fact not equal.

Herein lies the foundations of modern era Sinophobia. Beginning with the 19th century whereby European empires sought to subjugate China, from a position of western superiority, Sinophobic discourse iconifies China as a backwards, inferior and uncivilized country on which is the obligation is placed to confirm itself to an occidental vision, of which if it is not willing to do so it must be brought down accordingly. Fear is repeatedly expressed over its size and geopolitical significance, thus producing a mindset that if not conquered itself, China will thus through its massive size and population conquer and thus impose its “backwardness” on the west.

In doing so, China is characterized not as a nation or people capable of its own voice or legitimate perspective, but in the light of a “moral problem to be solved” by the superior hands and minds of an altruistic west who must “show it the way” and thus “save it from itself”. The discourse examines China as if it were a specimen in the zoo, to be studied, observed and tamed, than an entity in its own right. Relentless obsession with the country’s ruling Communist Party provides an acceptable facade for this mindset, morphing Sinophobic ideas and the apprehension of China with Cold War cliches and imagery which further propel the belief that China’s acceptance must hinge on the terms which the west has set for it.

The 2020 coronavirus pandemic is a good place to start with this. The outbreak has saw a resurgence of anti-Chinese attitudes emerge around the world. Angry at the massive disruption, personal losses and economic costs brought about by the of the covid-19 virus which first emerged in the city of Wuhan, the epidemic has created an outpouring of disgruntlement against China which, floated on the criteria above, weaponizes the standpoint of superiority to advocate a politics of “Blame” and vengeance against Beijing, echoing a discourse that the “barbaric Chinese people must pay a price for harming our superior and civilized way of life in the west”. Although many will feel their anger is justified, the fundamental mode of thinking behind such claims are driven by Sinophobia and Orientalism:

First of all, some western countries have convinced themselves that a widespread disease outbreak cannot be their problem. The western mind conceives disease not as an inevitable and ever recurring ailment of human existence, but as something only experienced by “tropical”, “oriental” and “foreign” nations which do not live up to a given standard of civilization. Therefore the west believes it is to “observe” these things and “Help” as designated humanitarians, but ought not to “experience” them. Therefore, because the coronavirus “reached” these countries it is subsequently perceived not as a human struggle but a political injustice of which an inferior nation ought to be blamed and stigmatized for.

In doing so, in Britain outlets such as the Daily Mail have led the calls for indignation against China, using crude and misleading stereotypes of animal markets and sweeping generalizations of culinary practices in order to signify the generalization of Chinese people as a “backwards and savage” nation which ought to be “punished” for what it inflicted upon Britain. The government’s own failures to prepare against the epidemic owing to such complacency are ignored entirely.

Instead, China becomes a surrogate for the blame in the context of inferiority and emphasis is placed on exaggerating the scope of the disaster within the country out of opportunism to deflect from Western fault. The paper later stated a botched “study” claiming China owes Britain “£354 billion” in compensation, a figure of course so backed in western entitlement and self-righteousness that it dismisses the entire history of what London has inflicted on Beijing. Justice is interpreted as a one dimensional notion which rests exclusively to and only on behalf of the west.

Yet this rhetoric works, because the image of Chinese people as culturally and socially inferior is baked into the western ego. Popular media has long depicted China and Asian culture as a whole as suspect, dishonest, brutal and greedy. For example, one may look at the crude Chinese stereotype portrayed in the American TV sitcom Family Guy, Mr. Washee Washee. The specified link illustrates this character as stingy, cold, brutish and inherently violent, obsessed with saving money on an automated bell when the door opens.

The character is a conduit for many modern cultural stereotypes of the Chinese, especially in America, where it is mainstream thinking to portray China’s business practices as deceitful, shoddy and dishonest. The Trump administration has sought to justify its aggressive trade actions against China by repeatedly portraying Beijing as “cheating” the world rules at America’s expense. Not only is this a huge exaggeration, but it thrives upon Sinophobic ideas about unreliable business practices in Asia and misrenders the vast majority of US-China commerce into a cliche of stereotypes.

Although the Communist Party is again cited as the “true” source of blame, this is again a frontier to give it ideological acceptability which overlooks how the stereotype of the “deceitful Chinese” has in fact long pre-dated the age of the CCP from 1949 and draws upon it. The featured image in my post listed above is a racist Australian cartoon from 1886, known as the “Mongolian octopus” it embodies many crude generalizations of China in a threatening manner which strikingly enough are still relevant today, portraying Chinese culture as deceitful, disease ridden, makes “cheap goods”, “cheats at customs” and so on. It’s 134 years old, yet it could have been plucked out of a modern Trump speech.

The Simpsons also depicted these ideas in the 1994 episode “Marge in Chains“, although the specific episode is referring to Japan, not China, it nevertheless promulgates Asian centric cultural stereotypes which apply to Beijing by portraying a factory in Japan which makes cheap useless juice making machines for export to America (a common trait assumed with China trade). The work culture in the factory is portrayed also as brutal and dishonest (with the workers hiding their illnesses) which in turns leads to a “flu” being sent to Springfield, which as above sets out also reflects the belief that viruses are an “oriental” thing that do not truly have a “belonging” in the west.

We could go on and on with numerous more examples, but in essence Sinophobia certainly is rooted in a culturalist and western exceptionalist misrendering of China, of which perceives the white man’s burden as a “civilizer” and also portrays the essence of a large and booming China as an existential and uncivilized threat to the world. Whilst some will respond by pointing out this obviously does not invalidate all criticism of Communist Party rule, the notion nevertheless continues to wield powerful currency in how China is perceived, judged and thus approached from the western mind. The notion of Communism is not enough to invalidate the empirical evidence which shows that China is treated inherently unequally from the western point of view, a notion which has owing to size and scope, being exacerbated and repeatedly found legitimacy as an output of geopolitics, either in the 19th century or in the 21st.