Yellow Peril

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"YELLOW PERIL" was a racial epithet directed against persons of Asian descent that was fashionable in Europe and America in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Its historical roots can be traced to the persistent theme in Western culture that the barbarian hordes of Asia, a yellow race, were always on the point of invading and destroying Christendom, Europe, and Western civilization itself. This interpretation of history contributed to racism in the United States.

The spirit of this racial slur pervaded major aspects of American diplomacy, congressional legislation, federal-state relations, economic development, transportation, agriculture, public opinion, trade unionism, and education for more than eight decades. The Burlingame Treaty with China in 1868 encouraged the Chinese coolie (a source of cheap labor) to enter the United States to help build the Pacific railroads; however, these immigrants were denied U.S. citizenship under the Naturalization Act of 1790, which limited naturalized citizenship to white persons. Fifty-six years later, with the Immigration Act of 1924, Congress excluded nearly all Asians from the United States. Those restrictions were not eased until 1952 when Congress created quotas for Asian immigration and made people of all races eligible for naturalization.

In the interim, murder, personal and social humiliation, and physical brutality became the lot of the Asian residents, particularly Chinese workers in California and the mining camps of the mountain states. In the late nineteenth century, Chinese residents were targets of sporadic labor violence, which included boycotts and the destruction of Chinese businesses. In 1906, the San Francisco School Board ordered the segregation of all Japanese, Chinese, and Korean children in a separate Oriental school, an order that was rescinded a few months later. And state legislatures and Congress passed laws and entered diplomatic treaties and agreements dealing with China and Japan that were designed to halt the yellow peril. These acts focused on immigration restriction and exclusion, naturalization prohibition, limitations on citizenship, prevention of free transit, and denial of rights to land ownership. The specifics of the yellow peril mania are evident in the Chinese Exclusion Acts, passed between 1880 and 1904, and in treaties and enactments with Japan, especially the treaties of 1894, 1911, and 1913 and provisions of the Immigration Act of 1907. The yellow peril fear peaked with the Immigration Act of 1924.

Thereafter, in its most gross form the yellow peril declined, although it emerged during the early days of World War II, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the confinement of Japanese Americans in camps. Nevertheless, with changes and modifications evident in new legislation, such as the McCarren-Walter Act of 1952, and administrative actions based on the exigencies of cold war foreign policies, the yellow peril was absorbed by other social forces and concerns of racism in the United States.


Daniels, Roger. Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States Since 1850. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988.

Higham, John. Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism 1860–1925. 2d ed. New York: Atheneum, 1978 (orig. pub. 1963).

Hing, Bill Ong. Making and Remaking Asian America Through Immigration Policy, 1850–1990. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1993.

Salyer, Lucy E. Laws Harsh as Tigers: Chinese Immigrants and the Shaping of Modern Immigration Law. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Takaki, Ronald T. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. New York: Penguin Books, 1990.

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See alsoAsian Americans ; Chinese Americans ; Chinese Exclusion Act ; Japanese Americans ; Japan, Relations with ; Race Relations .