Coronavirus triggers an ugly rash of racism as the old ideas of ‘Yellow Peril’ and ‘sick man of Asia’ return
- A headline referring to China as the ‘sick man of Asia’, a cartoon of the Chinese flag with stars replaced by coronaviruses, an increase in xenophobic incidents against Chinese people: the epidemic seems to have brought out people’s uglier side
Time and again, I have read stories on my social media groups about how fellow Chinese have experienced verbal and even physical abuse in Britain, simply because of their race. Some were told to go home. One student in Sheffield was harassed for wearing a face mask. A Chinese doctor’s practice had a coronavirus sign painted over it.
On February 3, The Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed by Walter Russell Mead titled “China is the Real Sick Man of Asia”, with the subtitle: “Its financial markets may be even more dangerous than its wildlife markets.”
It actually refers to the sickly state of China in the late 19th and early 20th century, bullied by Western powers and plagued by internal divisions.
For them, “sick man of Asia” is a derogatory reference, and triggers painful memories of the country’s darkest days. Back then, the term also referenced the poor physical health of Chinese people, thanks to the appalling lack of hygiene and overwhelming poverty.
Even if he did not coin the term, Wilhelm popularised the psycho-cultural perception of the so-called civilised world – that is, the Anglo-Saxon empires – in danger of being overrun by the yellow-skinned East Asians (the Chinese and Japanese).
Even before the aggressive German emperor, however, white supremacists in the US had embraced the “Asian menace” theory, demanding that the government bar immigration of “filthy yellow hordes” of Chinese.
One editorial from 1954, for example, in the influential New York Tribune newspaper, described the Chinese thus: “They are uncivilised, unclean, filthy beyond all conception, without any of the higher domestic or social relations; lustful and sensual in their dispositions; every female is a prostitute, and of the basest order.”
In a 2014 review of the book Perceptions of the East – Yellow Peril: An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear, sinologist Leung Wing-fai explains that: “The phrase yellow peril (sometimes yellow terror or yellow spectre) … blends Western anxieties about sex, racist fears of the alien other, and the Spenglerian belief that the West will become outnumbered and enslaved by the East.”
When millions of Chinese are suffering, racist headlines and comments are doubly insensitive and inappropriate. It only perpetuates the stereotype that Asians are disease-ridden. Fear and racism feed on each other, and both hinder our fight against the virus.
Lijia Zhang is a rocket-factory worker turned social commentator, and the author of a novel, Lotus