I was listening to the New Books in East Asian Studies Podcast on Michael Kevaak's Becoming Yellow: A short history on Racial Thinking. It was interesting to hear the development of the colour 'yellow' being used to describe Asians and then how this also emerged as the 'Yellow Peril.' Kevaak discussed a picture that was created on the orders of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany in 1895. It showed St Michael with a group of armed women, including Britannia, peering from a cliff top at an approaching, menacing Buddha. The picture was reproduced in Harper's Weekly thus reaching a wide audience.
Peoples of Europe, guard your dearest goods (Source)
I thought it was a spectacular picture and also somewhat ironic knowing what we do about what was coming. The threat from the east was actually the Kaiser himself with World War One approaching the countries of Western Europe. This picture was a sign of the times of its creation with concern over a rising Asia. Japan had just conquered China in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 and was at the start of its rise. In some respects the view painted above also passed for 'strategic assessment' with commentators talking about the rise of Asia. Kevaak does not just attribute this view to racism but to a received history of the Mongolian invasion of Europe when the countries of Europe were threatened by an Asiatic people. It is easy to forget that the Mongols made it to Poland and were not actually stopped by the Western European knights. The fear of the Mongols was passed by word of mouth throughout Europe and Mongols scouts were even sighted near Vienna.
It would be easy to link this image to some of the modern statements made about China's rise but through serendipity I also recently listened to the Lowy Institute's launch of their 2011 poll and I was struck by the following statistic [using a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 means 'strongly disagree' and 10 means 'strongly agree']:
"Australians also agree that ‘Australia is right to worry about Indonesia as a military threat’ (with a mean of 6.1 also little changed from 2006 when it rated 6.2). One-third (33%) of Australians agree quite strongly, choosing a number from 8 to 10. Once again attitudes are harder amongst older Australians with those 60 years old or older more likely to hold this view than those 18 to 29 years of age (with a mean of 6.7 compared with 5.3)."
It seems that the thought of the 'Yellow Peril' is not dead.