The Chinese Experience in 19th Century America

19th Century American Ideas About Other Peoples

Chinese Exclusion: The Process

Exclusion: Chinese Perspectives



The “Yellow Peril”

By the last quarter of the 19th century, fears that the number of Chinese would overwhelm America were rampant. “The Mandarins in Washington” and the “Chinese Governor of California” are illustrations that appeared in a popular novel by P.W. Dooner titled The Last Days of the Republic. This novel, and others like it, contributed to the myth of a “Yellow Peril.” Dooner’s novel describes how Chinese immigrants, purporting to be harmless, hardworking laborers, are actually part of a plot by the Chinese government to gradually take over the United States.

Students may have difficulty finding anything negative about the depiction of the Chinese in these illustrations. In the 19th century, it was common to describe the Chinese as presenting a calm and agreeable manner to the outside world but who were in reality a calculating people who hid evil ulterior motives aimed at destroying Christian white society. The following excerpt from Dooner’s novel may help students better understand how 19th century whites might view such illustrations. (This quotation is also included with the illustrations so that the teacher could make a transparency or copies for students.)

”He was eminently stupid in great things, and so quick and keen in small; so devoted to toil, and so averse to sentiment; so obedient, so cunning, so ignorant, so willing, so unassuming, and so servile, that the Southern land-owners once more imagined themselves the masters of a race of slaves, - but this time of willing slaves, - and a prospect of permanence to the institution. They had not learned to interpret the restless, anxious, observing glances; the interminable endeavor; the avarice, and the bland, significant courtesy, so common to the whole Mongolian race.” (p. 131).

To further the discussion, have the students consider the following questions.
  • How has the illustrator used symbols and caricatures to convey stereotypical images and messages?

  • What adjectives would you use to describe the Chinese portrayed in the illustrations?

  • How do you think white Americans reacted to these illustrations?

The Extension exercise (Population of the Chinese in the United States 1860-1940) in the following lesson provides statistics for the Chinese population and the total population in the United States that can be used in a discussion concerning the reality of fears expressed in the Yellow Peril novels.

Another example of “Yellow Peril” literature that could be used with upper level high school students is a short story (about 12 pages) by Jack London titled The Unparalleled Invasion. The premise of this story, written around 1908 as a science fiction piece, is that China has been quietly gaining strength and power and the population of China has increased so much that the Chinese are literally spilling out of their country taking over the world. The Americans and English resort to biological warfare to wipe out the Chinese population and save the world.


Previous Next



Home | Unit Overview | 19th Century American Ideas | Chinese Exclusion: The Process | Exclusion: Chinese Perspectives
Resources | Credits