On Yellow Peril Thrillers

by Jess Nevins


The Yellow Peril figure has, without question, been a negative one in Western culture. As recent events involving American spy planes have shown, anti-Asian & anti-Chinese bias continues to remain close to the surface of the American psyche, over 80 years after the introduction of the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu. One of the most interesting examples of this bias is the Yellow Peril/Fu Manchu figure, which has appeared in several forms over the decades. What most people do not realize, however, is that the Yellow Peril figure significantly predates Arthur "Sax Rohmer" Ward's writings; Fu Manchu, while the most archetypal of the Yellow Perils, stands as the high point for the stereotype, neither at the beginning nor at the end of the stereotype's history.

The Yellow Peril or Sinister Oriental stereotype begins in the late 19th century. Before the advent of the Yellow Peril Americans stereotyped Chinese men & women in several ways: as physical, racial, & social pollutants (from the mid-nineteenth century), as drug-using sexual deviants (from the 1860s & 1870s), as coolies (from the 1870s & 1880s), & as a threat to overrun white American & European countries (from the 1880s). There were positive portrayals of Chinese men & women, but they were presented as simple, sentimental peasants.

The first true Yellow Peril figure — that is, an intelligent, evil mastermind intent on destroying the West — did not appear until 1892. The dime novel Nugget Library, home to the character Tom Edison, Jr., published a story entitled "Tom Edison Jr.'s Electric Sea Spider, or, The Wizard of the Submarine World." The story featured Kiang Ho, a Mongolian or Chinese (the story refers to him as both) warlord & pirate who controls a port in China & prowls the seas, using a fleet of ships & a super-submarine to capture & sink all Western shipping. Kiang Ho is also Harvard-educated & more literate & articulate than one would expect. He is eventually defeated & killed by Tom Edison, Jr., but for most of the story poses a significant threat. "Tom Edison Jr.'s Electric Sea Spider" was credited to "Philip Reade," but "Reade" was a house name for Street & Smith, the publishers of the Nugget Library, & so Kiang Ho's true creator might never be known.

The Yellow Peril characters following Kiang Ho displayed different aspects of what the West most feared. In 1896 Robert Chambers published a series of stories in The Maker of Moons about Yue-Laou, the undisputed ruler of an empire in the middle of China as well as a sorcerer of the blackest magics. Yue-Laou is in one respect an updated version of the evil magician character which had appeared in various forms through the 19th century, but usually as an Italian or an Egyptian. But Yue-Laou is also the first Yellow Peril sorcerer, a character type that would appear again, as in Allen Upward's The Yellow Hand in 1904 & Robert E. Howard's "Skull Face" serial in Weird Tales in 1929.

The next significant Yellow Peril character was a military leader, reflecting the Western fear of the supposed "limitless hordes" of Chinese overrunning white countries. In 1898 M.P. Shiel wrote The Yellow Danger, which featured the character Dr. Yen How. Shiel, best remembered today for his languid, drug-taking Decadent detective Prince Zaleski, was from Montserrat, in the Caribbean, & was half-white, but tried to hide his ethnic background and, perhaps as overcompensation, took on several of the bigotries common to the era, especially against Jews & Asians. Dr. Yen How is one example of Shiel's bigotry. He is a half-Japanese, half-Chinese warlord who connives his way to power in China, unites China & Japan, manipulates the European Great Powers into warring with each other, & then unleashes the armies of Japan & China on the West. Naturally, Dr. Yen How is eventually defeated, but through the course of the novel he is presented as a very worthy opponent for the doughty White hero.

Between Yen How & Fu Manchu the only significant Yellow Peril character was Quong Lung, who appears in Dr. C.W. Doyle's The Shadow of Quong Lung (1900). Quong Lung is a merciless crime lord & the evil ruler of San Francisco's Chinatown. He is also a Yale graduate & a "barrister of London's Inner Temple." But Quong Lung has no higher aims than to rule the underworld of San Francisco, & so is not in the same league as Yen How or Fu Manchu or even Yue-Laou.

Neither Kiang Ho nor Yen How started the craze of Yellow Peril characters, however. It was Arthur Sarsfield Ward, via Fu Manchu himself, who did that, & Kiang Ho & Yen How must be seen as forerunners of the enthusiasm for the Yellow Peril stereotype rather than influences on its use. It is true that Fu Manchu did not spring from nowhere. Interest in China & the Chinese, much of it racially biased, developed in America & the United Kingdom in the 19th century, & during the Edwardian years there was an enthusiasm among British readers for tales set in London's Limehouse district, as seen in Thomas Burke's stories, especially his excellent "Quong Lee" stories & poems. But Fu Manchu was immediately popular & spawned numerous imitators, characters who did not exist before The Insidious Doctor came along.

Fu Manchu, of course, was the creation of "Sax Rohmer" a.k.a. Arthur Sarsfield Ward, & first appeared in The Mystery of Fu Manchu (1913: American title, The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu), with numerous appearances following over the next few decades. Fu Manchu is in many respects the Yellow Peril archetype. Admittedly Fu Manchu was not the first Yellow Peril stereotype, nor was he even a Victorian character. But Fu Manchu was the high point for the Yellow Peril stereotype, & the versions which followed were mostly modeled, consciously or unconsciously, on him, rather than on his Yellow Peril predecessors.

A short list of Fu Manchu-styled & -modeled characters from before World War Two will indicate the breadth of influence of the character:
  • Gustave LeRouge's Dr. Cornelius Kramm, from the 18 Le Mysterieux Docteur Cornelius, beginning in 1913.
  • Li Ku Yu, M.P. Shiel's reprise of Dr. Yen How, in "To Arms!" (1913), later published as The Dragon & The Yellow Peril; Wu Fang, from the Exploits of Elaine serial in 1914.
  • Sax Rohmer's Mr. King & the Golden Scorpion (the latter an agent of Fu Manchu himself), from the "Gaston Max" stories beginning in 1915.
  • The villain in the serial Neal of the Navy, in 1915.
  • Jean de la Hire's Leonid Zattan, from the French "Nyctalope" series of novels, beginning in 1915.
  • Wu, from the 1916 comic strip "Captain Gardiner of the International Police."
  • The Silent Menace, from the 1916 serial Pearl of the Army.
  • Ali Singh, from the 1916 serial The Yellow Menace.
  • The Blue-Eyed Manchu, from Alexander Romanoff's The Blue-Eyed Manchu in 1916.
  • H. Irving Hancock's Li Shoon, from Detective Story Magazine in 1916 & 1917.
  • A.E. Apple's Mr. Chang, from 33 stories & two collections, beginning in Detective Story in 1919.
  • Chung, from a Dutch dime novel published in 1923.
  • Ssu Hsi Tze, the "Ruler of Vermin" from "The Spider" novels, in the mid-1920s.
  • Fing Su, from Edgar Wallace's The Yellow Snake in 1926.
  • Wu Fang, from the serial Ransom, in 1928.
  • Ming the Merciless, from Flash Gordon, beginning in 1929.
  • Fing-Su, from Edgar Wallace's The Yellow Snake in 1929.
  • Kong Gai & the Nameless One, from Sidney Herschell Small's "Sgt. Jimmy Wentworth" stories in Detective Fiction Weekly beginning in 1931.
  • Botak, from the 1932-1933 radio serial The Orange Lantern.
  • Wu Fang, from Norman Marsh's Dan Dunn comic strip.
  • Chang, from F. Van Wyck Mason's The Shanghai Bund Murders in 1933.
  • Carl Zaken, "The Black Doctor," & Chang Ch'ien, from T.T. Flynn's "Valentine Easton" stories in Dime Detective in 1933 & 1934.
  • Iskandar, from Jack Williamson's "Wizard's Isle" in the May 1934 issue of Weird Tales.
  • Wun Wey, in Anthony Rudd's The Stuffed Men, in 1935.
  • Wo Fan, in Bedford Rohmer's "Wo Fan" stories in New Mystery Adventures in 1935 & 1936.
  • Wu Fang, in Robert Hogan's The Mysterious Wu Fang from in 1935 & 1936.
  • Doctor Yen Sin, in Donald Keyhoe's Dr. Yen Sin in 1936.
  • Doctor Chu Lung, from Robert J. Hogan's "Skies of Yellow Death," in the October 1936 issue of G-8 & His Battle Aces..
  • Red Dragon, in Detective Comics starting with issue #1 early in 1937.
  • "Fui Onyui," in Jerry Siegel's Slam Bradley story, "The Streets of Chinatown," in Detective Comics #1 in early 1937.
  • The Griffin, from J. Allen Dunn's stories in Detective Fiction Weekly in the late 1930s.
  • Gorrah, a Chinese cyclops, in Action Comics, starting in 1939.
  • Shiwan Khan, the "Golden Master," in Walter Gibson's The Shadow, beginning in 1939.
  • Pao Tcheou, specifically identified as a cousin of Fu Manchu, from Edward Brooker's French "Le Maitre de L'Invisible" novels beginning in 1939.
  • Moto Taronago, the Yellow Vulture, from Frederick Davis' Operator #5, beginning (but never finished) in 1939.
And so on, after World War Two, with "Monsieur Ming" in Charles-Henri Dewisme's "Bob Morane" stories, from 1959 onward, & through the 1970s, with the hilarious moment in James Blish's The Day After Judgment (1971) when Satan is mistaken for Fu Manchu, & into the 1990s, where Hark, in Warren Ellis' critically-acclaimed comic Planetary, is a member of a pantheon of pulp immortals.

While Fu Manchu is not the first of the Yellow Peril characters, he was historically the most important of them, so much so that the stereotype came to be named after him.

Copyright 2001 by Jess Nevins, all rights reserved.
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