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The meaning and origin of the expression: The Yellow Peril

The Yellow Peril

What's the meaning of the phrase 'The Yellow Peril'?

The supposed danger of Oriental hordes overwhelming the West.

What's the origin of the phrase 'The Yellow Peril'?

The phrase 'The Yellow Peril' is no longer used in anger, so to speak. The threat of Oriental hordes swarming west and engulfing 'civilised' societies was a widely held fear in the late 19th/early 20th centuries.

A pre-cursor to the yellow peril was the yellow terror. This was initially used to denote the deadly Yellow Fever - also sometime known as American Plague. An outbreak of the disease was reported in October 1878 by the Iowa newspaper The Dubuque Herald Iowa:

The Yellow Terror - The list of new cases does not diminish.

General YehJust a few years later, in October 1894, the Wisconsin Daily Gazette used the term to describe a Chinese general, whom it likened to both Wellington and Napoleon. They helpfully provided a sketch of the 'inscrutable' commander:

He Is the Wellington of the Flowery Kingdom - His Field Tactics, However, Resemble Those of the Corsican Conqueror of Europe, and Ought To Be Successful.

The yellow was clearly an allusion to skin colour, although not to the cowardice suggested by the American term yellow bellied, which was coined later.

The fear in the West of the mysterious, and many believed unknowable, Orientals was as real at the turn of the 20th century as the fear of Muslims at the start of the 21st, and just as misguided.

The term Yellow Peril was coined following Japan's military defeat of China in 1895 and was generally applied to Japan. It has been reported as being coined by the German Kaiser Wilhelm II, in September 1895. If the Kaiser did coin the phrase then the date is incorrect as the term was used earlier that year by the Hungarian General Turr, in an assessment of Bismark. This was reported in several US newspaper at the time, including the Ohio paper The Sandusky Register, June 1895:

"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."

Yellow perilIt is true that the Kaiser was virulently anti-Japanese/Chinese and he commissioned a painting which was intended to encourage Europeans to cooperate to beat back the Eastern menace. The painting, which was made into a widely used poster, shows a distant Buddha-like figure (not unlike General Yeh) sitting in an approaching fire-storm while an Ayran messenger warns the womenfolk of various countries of their impending doom.

The fear of invasion continued into the 20th century and was bolstered by various portrayals of sinister Orientals in books and films. Prominent amongst these was the English writer Sax Rohmer's creation, the insidious and diabolical genius Dr. Fu Manchu. By the outbreak of WWI, the lack of any actual invasion and the fact that the Kaiser and his ilk had by then better things to think about, talk of the Yellow Peril began to fade.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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