Yellow Peril

I’ve been re-reading some Jack London stories of late, and being struck by the Chinese in them. There are actually a lot of Chinese, as the areas he tended to write about were all on the Pacific Rim. Usually his Chinese are inscrutable but intelligent and hard-working. There was one story in particular I remembered, and as I looked around on the web I found that it was called “THE UNPARALLELED INVASION.” According to Clarice Staz this is a story of the “invasion of the U.S. by China and combat by bacteriological warfare.”, but this is not quite accurate as a plot summary. Quite the contrary.
London begins by explaining why Western imperialism has failed to transform China.

What they had failed to take into account was this: THAT BETWEEN THEM AND CHINA WAS NO COMMON PSYCHOLOGICAL SPEECH. Their thought- processes were radically dissimilar. There was no intimate vocabulary. The Western mind penetrated the Chinese mind but a short distance when it found itself in a fathomless maze. The Chinese mind penetrated the Western mind an equally short distance when it fetched up against a blank, incomprehensible wall. It was all a matter of language. There was no way to communicate Western ideas to the Chinese mind. China remained asleep.

So how could China awaken? This is a question that would have interested lots of Chinese nationalists, but I think they would not have liked London’s answer.

And so Japan took upon herself the management of China. In the years immediately following the war with Russia, her agents swarmed over the Chinese Empire. A thousand miles beyond the last mission station toiled her engineers and spies, clad as coolies, under the guise of itinerant merchants or proselytizing Buddhist priests, noting down the horse-power of every waterfall, the likely sites for factories, the heights of mountains and passes, the strategic advantages and weaknesses, the wealth of the farming valleys, the number of bullocks in a district or the number of labourers that could be collected by forced levies. Never was there such a census, and it could have been taken by no other people than the dogged, patient, patriotic Japanese.

So Kita Ikki was right, and Japan led China forward. Naturally the Chinese were ungrateful, and in 1922 the Japanese were driven out. China continued to grow, and as a good Social Darwinist London attributes this to their special racial characteristics. This is a theme that comes up in a lot of his writing.

China’s swift and remarkable rise was due, perhaps more than to anything else, to the superlative quality of her labour. The Chinese was the perfect type of industry. He had always been that. For sheer ability to work no worker in the world could compare with him. Work was the breath of his nostrils. It was to him what wandering and fighting in far lands and spiritual adventure had been to other peoples. Liberty, to him, epitomized itself in access to the means of toil. To till the soil and labour interminably was all he asked of life and the powers that be. And the awakening of China had given its vast population not merely free and unlimited access to the means of toil, but access to the highest and most scientific machine-means of toil.

The Chinese are not an imperialist race. They don’t invade other nations, they just out-breed them, and it is a long time before the other nations of the world realize that they will be buried in a tidal wave of yellow immigration. Modern technology has removed the check of famine and the Chinese were spreading everywhere. In 1970 the French made efforts to keep them from taking Indochina and failed. A French army a quarter million strong marched into China and was swallowed up in two days. The solution is the Great Truce among the white races and biological warfare.

But on May 1, 1976, had the reader been in the imperial city of Peking, with its then population of eleven millions, he would have witnessed a curious sight. He would have seen the streets filled with the chattering yellow populace, every queued head tilted back, every slant eye turned skyward. And high up in the blue he would have beheld a tiny dot of black, which, because of its orderly evolutions, he would have identified as an airship. From this airship, as it curved its flight back and forth over the city, fell missiles – strange, harmless missiles, tubes of fragile glass that shattered into thousands of fragments on the streets and house- tops. But there was nothing deadly about these tubes of glass. Nothing happened. There were no explosions. It is true, three Chinese were killed by the tubes dropping on their heads from so enormous a height; but what were three Chinese against an excess birth rate of twenty millions? One tube struck perpendicularly in a fish-pond in a garden and was not broken. It was dragged ashore by the master of the house. He did not dare to open it, but, accompanied by his friends, and surrounded by an ever-increasing crowd, he carried the mysterious tube to the magistrate of the district. The latter was a brave man. With all eyes upon him, he shattered the tube with a blow from his brass-bowled pipe. Nothing happened. Of those who were very near, one or two thought they saw some mosquitoes fly out. That was all. The crowd set up a great laugh and dispersed.

This is the oddest part of the story for me. He just can’t let go of the image of the Chinese as technological primitives. It is interesting that in the rest of the story he presents the Chinese as being modern in an industrial sense but not in a scientific one. He mentions building factories and foundries and railways, training troops and publishing newspapers and digging mines (especially “the gas wells of Wow-Wee”) but there is no mention of labs or universities. Apparently the Chinese are still not very innovative.
Under pressure the Chinese revert to type. They are utterly incapable of dealing with modern, scientific warfare.

All organization vanished. The government crumbled away. Decrees and proclamations were useless when the men who made them and signed them one moment were dead the next. Nor could the maddened millions, spurred on to flight by death, pause to heed anything. They fled from the cities to infect the country, and wherever they fled they carried the plagues with them. The hot summer was on – Jacobus Laningdale had selected the time shrewdly – and the plague festered everywhere. Much is conjectured of what occurred, and much has been learned from the stories of the few survivors. The wretched creatures stormed across the Empire in many-millioned flight. The vast armies China had collected on her frontiers melted away. The farms were ravaged for food, and no more crops were planted, while the crops already in were left unattended and never came to harvest. The most remarkable thing, perhaps, was the flights. Many millions engaged in them, charging to the bounds of the Empire to be met and turned back by the gigantic armies of the West. The slaughter of the mad hosts on the boundaries was stupendous. Time and again the guarding line was drawn back twenty or thirty miles to escape the contagion of the multitudinous dead.

For me this is the classic image of the Yellow Peril, whites killing masses of mindless Asians, not wanting to even touch them for fear of infection. If they ever make a movie of this George Romero will have to direct.
Of course all’s well that ends well.

Not until the following February, in the coldest weather, were the first expeditions made. These expeditions were small, composed of scientists and bodies of troops; but they entered China from every side. In spite of the most elaborate precautions against infection, numbers of soldiers and a few of the physicians were stricken. But the exploration went bravely on. They found China devastated, a howling wilderness through which wandered bands of wild dogs and desperate bandits who had survived. All survivors were put to death wherever found. And then began the great task, the sanitation of China. Five years and hundreds of millions of treasure were consumed, and then the world moved in – not in zones, as was the idea of Baron Albrecht, but heterogeneously, according to the democratic American programme. It was a vast and happy intermingling of nationalities that settled down in China in 1982 and the years that followed – a tremendous and successful experiment in cross-fertilization. We know to-day the splendid mechanical, intellectual, and art output that followed.

In the 1987 Convention of Copenhagen the powers agreed that they would never again use biological warfare.


  1. Chilling.

    The “modern in an industrial sense but not in a scientific one” theme seems to make some sense if you project linearly from his time, where there was technological importation but very little science, as such.

    Linear projection is the bane of all predictions….

  2. How do you think Jack London wanted people to react to this story?

    Though not as overtly satirical, it reminds me of Swift’s “Modest Proposal.” Surely there was mordant irony in the phrase “the great task, the sanitation of China.” Was this tale meant to horrify and to indict?

    He lived two more years after publishing it. I wonder if there is anything in his correspondence about it…

  3. We can read it as a satire, but I’m pretty sure he did not. He was real big on all racialist stuff going on at the time. That said, I am not a Londoner, so there may be something out there that cuts against this

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