The Yellow Terror

The Yellow Terror
"Uncle Sam kicks out the Chinaman," referring both to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act (1886)

The caption from the 1899 racist cartoon below reads: "The Yellow Terror in all his Glory." How did things get to this point? What with the "Yellow Terror," the "Yellow Danger," the "Yellow Peril," yellow journalism, yellow fever, yellow quarantine flags... Such sentiments no longer were driven only by fear of Chinese immigration into the United States; they reflected anxieties about America's new imperialist policies in Asia.

Yellow Terror

Only a few years earlier, American hostility toward China and Chinese immigrants had been more restrained. This is the Yellow Kid - America's first great comic strip character - who first appeared in 1895.


Is he really Chinese? Some would say he is not meant to be. But, to argue, as many do, that there was no connection between this character and paternalistic American sentiments toward the Chinese (and Japanese and Filipinos) is to ignore the historical and cultural context in which The Yellow Kid was read (and loved). America's great experiment with imperialism was just around the corner in 1898. The cuteness wouldn't last long.

By 1900, the color yellow had assumed the very worst of connotations with "The Yellow Terror" and "The Yellow Peril." The term "yellow journalism" appeared at the same time, albeit in the context of anti-Spanish imperialism, whatever its specific origins. They joined existing anxieties about "yellow fever" and cholera and yellow quarantine flags and fears about Chinese immigration. In England and France, yellow had associations with decadence and aestheticism, which led to the expression "The Yellow Nineties."


It was - and is - equally possible to ignore all this of course. But, here - above - is The Yellow Kid in a Chinese-themed context. In another Yellow Kid comic, a character asks of him: "Is it a little Li Hoong Choong, or a kid wid the cholera, having the quartereen flag on him?" America was now playing on a global stage; the anxieties came with it.

Below is a more overtly political cartoon from 1900, caricaturing Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. Bryan is being mocked because of his objections to imperialism as naive and foolish. It almost could be today with Iraq and Iran. On the left is a Chinese Boxer with a bloody sword; on the right a Filipino with a bow and arrow and a spear. Bryan's stance was not popular; he lost the elections...