The Artistic History of American Anti-Asian Racism

A new book traces the source of the stereotypical, harmful image of "the Orient."
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The frontise piece from "Some Reasons for Chinese Exclusion" (Washington D.C.: American Federation of Labor, 1902). Fales Library and Special Collections, NYU (Public domain)

More than a century before Coca Cola’s controversial Super Bowl commercial celebrating America as a nation of nations, the melting pot overflowed with people of all races and ethnicities—each subject to its share of mass media abuse. Immigration made America what it is, but not without considerable racist barbing and comic hazing by cartoonists, illustrators, and artists. Blacks, Indians, Irish, Jews, and Asians were the main targets. The last was not just savagely portrayed in media as rat-tailed demons but legally restricted for decades from entering the United States. An insightful new anthology of writing on racist stereotyping, Yellow Peril! An Archive of Anti-Asian Fears edited by John Kuo Wei Tchen and Dylan Yeats (Verso), describes how demonizing Asian peoples in word and picture was acceptable in America for so long.

With China’s reemergence today, the term “Yellow Peril” is still faintly whispered. Yet the first use of the pejorative “as a modern political tool,” Tchen, an NYU professor and the author of New York Before Chinatown, told me, was Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm. Responding to his cousin the Russian Czar’s defeat to Japan in 1905, Wilhelm commissioned an artist draw a “threatening Buddha in a lotus position riding a dragon thundercloud off in the distance.” This was not an effective piece of propaganda by contemporary standards, Tchen says, “but it did get at some basic dynamics: the threatening, evil man marked by certain exaggerated and racialized physical characteristics. It gets the juices going for men to become protectors.”

Caricature, the meat of stereotype, works best when loosely rooted in distortions of truth; exaggerated appearance, for instance, serves to reinforce negative impressions while building misconceptions. American caricaturists misrepresented different racial and ethnic physiognomic characteristics for the most sensational outcomes. Since Asians had distinctive features and dress, they were easy targets for artists. I asked Tchen, was there one person or event responsible for creating the typical, harmful image?

 “Historians tend to look at processes and convergences not single bullet-type conspiracies,” he says. “From my research, the transplantation of Anglo-Saxon Protestantism into a potent Anglo-American Protestantism is key. This was the underlying, interlocking political culture which formulated a particular notion of the property-owning, white, male, superior, rational male benevolently (and by right) presiding over an expanding north America—with Canada in their sights, south into Mexico and the inferior Spanish colonies, and westward into the Pacific with the luxuries of ‘the Orient’ always beckoning.” When part of that “manifest destiny” ideal was threatened, “the fallback position was to promote what historian Alexander Saxton called a ‘white republic’ with a racially exclusive form of wage labor and industrialization excluding those deemed too ‘lazy’ or too ‘hard working.’”

A detail from the cover of "Thistleton’s Jolly Giant, The Critic," vol. 2, no. 19 (Feburary 21, 1874). Courtesy of the Wong Ching Foo Collection.

Images of hate are linked, Tchen continues, to “desire for and admiration of. They have what we need. But then when they compete too hard for ‘what is ours,’ that tips the balance of acceptance.” In the history of the U.S., it doesn't take much for dangerous “minorities” to become “model minorities” and vice versa, he says. “It’s all a question of whether they get incorporated into the society or not. Fu Manchu and Ming the Merciless: No. Charlie Chan and the ‘hard-working’ ‘foreign’ service worker who know their place: Yes.”

World War II unleashed a torrent of anti-Japanese vitriol. Anti-Asian notions were not only injected into politics, they were present in American entertainment,  and were the reason for the success of certain books, magazines, and films. “The publishers of cheap pulps magazines were businessmen who could only make money from selling volume,” Tchen explains. “Whatever prevailing images sold, they’d exploit. They weren’t necessarily personally racist … they simply wanted to keep their publications afloat by whatever means necessary.”

That includes images of barbaric hordes of heathen Chinaman wanting to rape white women, which filled the English-language print culture. “These are the conditions within which Henry Sarsfield Ward was inspired to write the first Fu Manchu stories and to further enchant the East London docks of Limehouse as his fictional base of power,” Tchen says. “Ward became Sax Rohmer and soon the great Boris Karloff became the evil doctor.” Those of a certain age will remember Flash Gordon of Earth fought Emperor Ming of Mongo, an Asian stereotype from outer space.

Tchen has been researching and collecting for decades, and after 9/11 the scope of that research has expanded to include Islamophobia. Yellow Peril! is a reader’s digest of historical documents from how Europe became Westernized, to how European notions of the “yellow” race extended farther and farther East as colonists expanded into Asia, and says Tchen, “how the still potent but largely unconscious visual language of ‘oriental’ hordes and un-bridgeable difference infuses our sense of futurist dystopia. The amazing Blade Runner (1982) is but one evocative example.”

Tchen also looks at whether these images were messages of hate or came out of another emotional rationale. “Ignorance plus distrust plus saber rattling are a deadly combination,” he says. “Oriental exotic difference, as practiced in the political culture and commercial media, necessarily tap a range of gut feelings and reflexes. ... ‘They eat rats don’t they?’ Or worse. ‘Don't they eat dogs?’ These are the Ick! and Yuk! factors that go with Yikes! It’s not all hate, but the line in the sand is drawn between we civilized, normal, hence superior people versus ‘them.’”

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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