Jack London, Asian Wars and the “Yellow Peril”

News Abroad

Daniel A. Métraux is Professor of Asian Studies at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia. He recently served as president of the Southeast Chapter of the Association for Asian Studies and as editor of the Southeast Review of Asian Studies. He has written many books and articles on Japanese and Asian affairs including The Soka Gakkai Revolution (1994) and Burma’s Modern Tragedy (2004). His most recent book, The Asian Writings of Jack London: Essays, Letters, Newspaper Dispatches, and Short Fiction by Jack London was published by Edwin Mellen Press in 2009. He wrote this article for The Asia-Pacific Journal.

Novelist Jack London (1876-1916), by far the most popular American writer a century ago, is these days remembered for his novels and short stories on the Yukon.  The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and To Build a Fire have retained much of their early popularity, but his visits to Japan, Korea and Manchuria, his brilliant coverage of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), his short stories based in Japan and China, his essays predicting the rise of the Pacific Rim, and his call for mutual respect and better contact between Americans and Japanese are long forgotten.  London deserves to be remembered, however, as a writer on Asia and the Pacific who directly confronted Western racism against Asians, denounced such concepts as “The Yellow Peril” and showed great sympathy for Japanese and Chinese in his literature.

Today the term “The Yellow Peril” — but not necessarily the fears and fantasies associated with it — has long since passed out of fashion, but it was a widely used expression in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  The supposed nightmare of  Oriental hordes swarming from the East and engulfing the “civilized” societies of the West was a popular theme in the literature and journalism of the time.  The term “Yellow Peril” supposedly derives from a remark made by German Kaiser Wilhelm II following Japan’s defeat of China in 1895 in the first Sino-Japanese War.  The expression initially referred to Japan’s sudden rise as a military and industrial power in the late nineteenth century.  Soon, however, it took on a broader more sinister meaning embracing all Asia.  “The Yellow Peril” highlighted diverse fears including the supposed threat of military invasion from Asia, competition to the white labor force from Asian workers, the moral degeneracy of Asian people, and the specter of genetic mixing of Anglo-Saxons with Asians. (1)

There were many writers and journalists who in the very early 1900s gave very unflattering views of Asians or who touted Anglo-Saxon superiority over the “yellow and brown” people of Asia.  The Hearst newspapers stridently warned of the “yellow peril,” as did noted British novelist M.P. Shiel in his short story serial, The Yellow Danger.  One also finds similar views in Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden” and in some of his stories and novels.

Jack London has often been associated with the term “yellow peril.”  John R. Eperjesi, a London scholar, writes that “More than any other writer, London fixed the idea of a yellow peril in the minds of the turn-of-the-century Americans…” (2) Many biographers quote London, just after his return from covering the first months of the Russo-Japanese War for the Hearst newspapers in 1904, as telling a coterie of fellow socialists of this profound dislike for the “yellow man.”  Biographer Richard O’Connor quotes Robert Dunn, a fellow journalist with London during the Russo-Japanese war, as saying that Jack’s dislike of the Japanese “outdid mine. Though a professed Socialist, he really believed in the Kaiser’s ‘yellow peril.’” (3)

However, a close examination of London’s writing indicates that he was anything but an advocate of the racist “yellow peril” writing that was so common during the early years of the twentieth century.  When one reads his Russo-Japanese dispatches from Korea and Manchuria one finds very balanced and objective reporting, concern for the welfare of both the average Japanese soldier and Russian soldier as well as the Korean peasant, and respect for the ordinary Chinese he met.  As perhaps the most widely read and famous of the journalists covering the Russo-Japanese War, London emerges as one of the few “internationalist” writers of his day who realized that the heyday of white “superiority” and Western expansionism and imperialism was coming to an end, but his positive views of Asians can be traced back a decade earlier in his first published stories.

London saw that Asia was in the process of waking up and that countries like Japan and China would emerge as major economic powers with the capacity to compete effectively with the West as the twentieth century progressed.  He urged that Westerners make concerted efforts to meet with Japanese and Chinese so as to understand each other better as equals. (4)

Particularly notable are London’s writings on Asia, especially his coverage of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, his essays “The Yellow Peril” and “If Japan Awakens China,” and his short story, “The Unparalleled Invasion.”  It is widely known that Americans had racist attitudes towards Japan and China and their citizens.  Reading London shows that there were also alternative points of view.

London had a deeper understanding of the profound changes occurring throughout the industrial world in the early twentieth century than most writers of the period.  His fiction and essays explored changing aspects of modern warfare, industrialization, revolution and the beginning of the rise of Asia.  London also shrewdly predicted elements of  the coming of total war, genocide, and even terrorism, making much of his writing as relevant today as when it was first composed.  As Jonah Raskin observed, “In a short, volatile life of four decades, Jack London (1876-1916) explored and mapped the territory of war and revolution in fiction and non-fiction alike.  More accurately than any other writer of his day, he also predicted the shape of political power – from dictatorship to terrorism – that would emerge in the twentieth century, and his work is as timely today as when it was first written.” (5)

London’s Prediction of the Economic Rise of East Asia

London during and after his time in Korea and Manchuria developed a thesis envisaging the rise first of Japan and then of China as major twentieth century economic and industrial powers.  London suggested that Japan would not be satisfied with its seizure of Korea in the Russo-Japanese War, that it would in due course take over Manchuria and would then seize control of China with the goal of using the Chinese with their huge pool of labor and their valuable resources for its own benefit. Chinese workers and farmers, however, when awakened by Japan, he anticipated, would overthrow their conservative leaders, oust the Japanese and rise as a major industrial power.  China’s rise would so distress the Western powers that they would eventually attack China to eliminate its economic competitor.

The past few decades have witnessed the rise of East Asia.  First Japan and later South Korea and China have experienced tremendous growth in wealth and power.  East Asia’s surge has challenged the status quo of American and European dominance and could pave the way for a subsequent military challenge that would overturn the current balance of power in Asia and the Pacific.

Writing a century ago, London had warned that the West was living in a bubble — that its incredible power and wealth and its tenacious hold on Asia in due course would burst and the center of power would shift to Asia.  The transition would be peaceful because Asia’s rise would be primarily economic, but in the long run, he held, war between East and West would be inevitable.

But while London, long before Samuel Huntington, predicted a major clash of civilizations, it would be the West, the veritable “White Peril,” that would attack Asia.  London surmised that Westerners, living in ignorant bliss, had no understanding of Asian cultures and were far too confident of their superiority to realize that their days of world power were severely numbered.  In dispatches from Korea and Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War and in several postwar essays, London analyzed the potential of the three major cultures he encountered and predicted changes in the pattern of world dominance.  For London and other writers of his time, Japan’s defeat of Russia was a turning point in the representations of Asia because it directly challenged long-held beliefs in the innate superiority of the white race. (6)

London clearly distinguished the Chinese and Japanese, at times referring to the Chinese as the “Yellow Peril” and the Japanese as the “Brown Peril.”  Even though it was Japan that was ascendant in 1904-1905 while China appeared moribund, London believed that in the long run Japan lacked both the size and the spirit to lead an Asian renaissance.  Japan would rise first as a military and then as an economic power, but each time it would falter because of a lack of “staying power” to persevere in the long run.  Japan would launch a crusade crying “Asia for the Asiatics,” but their contribution would serve as a catalyst that would awaken the Chinese.

Japan’s strength at the turn of the twentieth century rested on its ability to use Western technology and to achieve national unity, but London believed there were severe limits as to how far Japan could go in realizing its clarion call.  The first factor inhibiting Japan is that “No great race adventure can go far nor endure long which has no deeper foundation than material success, no higher prompting than conquest for conquest’s sake and mere race glorification.  To go far and to endure, it must have behind it an ethical impulse, a sincerely conceived righteousness.” (7)

The second inhibiting factor, he held, was Japan’s small population.  A century ago there were forty-five million Japanese.  That was enough to hurl back Russian forces, but London believed that it was not enough to create a massive Asian empire, still less to militarily or economically threaten the Western world.  Seizing “poor, empty Korea for a breeding colony and Manchuria for a granary” would greatly enhance Japan’s population and strength, but even that would not be enough.  “The menace to the Western world lies not in the little brown man, but in the four hundred millions of yellow men should the little brown man undertake their management.” (8)

London believed, in short, that the future belonged to China.  But London’s 1904 essay “The Yellow Peril” left his readers hanging.  Japan had demonstrated its capacity to defeat a major world power, Russia, but was not strong enough to achieve its dream of an “Asia for the Asiatic,” that is, an Asia in Japan’s embrace.  Before Japan lay Manchuria with all of its resources and beyond that was China proper with its four hundred million hard working citizens.  China’s vast potential as a world power was restricted by leaders who cling to power by embracing a conservatism that hewed tenaciously to the past and refused to let their country modernize.  London did not tell his readers who would prevail as the great power in Asia, but his 1906 short story, “The Unparalleled Invasion,” pointed to China.

China, with its vast resources and huge, skilled, hardworking population would be the factory workshop that would provide Japan with the wealth and power she desired.  The Chinese could then either accept the Japanese as their new master or develop their own industrial and military might.  A resurgent China, he noted, would directly challenge the economic might of the West.

“The Unparalleled Invasion” is a futuristic horror story involving a major world war, massive killing, and the annihilation of Chinese civilization.  Although critics have read different messages into the story, the irony is that the West is the paranoid aggressor and China the innocent victim.  London’s story is a stern warning of what can happen if racial hatred is allowed to flourish.  London was writing at a time when the modern concept of germ warfare was being considered by various nations.  Here he sounds an alarm over the hazards of biological warfare.  The story is also an indictment of the behavior of imperialistic powers per se.

The Japanese are expelled from China and are crushed when they try to reassert themselves there.  But, “contrary to expectation, China did not prove warlike,” so “after a time of disquietude, the idea was accepted that China was not to be feared in war, but in commerce.”  The West would come to understand that the “real danger” from China “lay in the fecundity of her loins.”  Nevertheless, as the 20th century advances, Chinese immigrants swarm into French Indochina and later into Southwest Asia and Russia, seizing territory as they expand.  Western attempts to slow or stop the Chinese expansionism all fail.  By 1975 it appears the world would be overwhelmed by this relentless Chinese expansion. 

With despair mounting, an American scientist, Jacobus Laningdale, visits the White House to propose eradicating the entire Chinese population by dropping deadly plagues from Allied airships flying over China.  Six months later in May, 1976, the airships appear over China dropping a torrent of glass tubes. (9) At first nothing happens, but within weeks China is hit by an inferno of plagues, gradually wiping out the entire population.  Allied armies surround China making it impossible for anybody to escape the massive deaths.  Even the seas are closed by 75,000 Allied naval vessels patrolling China’s coast.  “Modern war machinery held back the disorganized mass of China, while the plagues did the work.” (10)

The reader sees that vast cultural differences divide the West from China and it is these differences that cause hatred and malice on the part of the West.  The focus here is not on the dangers that China presents to the West, but, rather, the reverse.  As Jean Campbell Reesman points out, “London’s story is a strident warning against race hatred and its paranoia, and an alarm sounded against an international policy that would permit and encourage germ warfare. It is also an indictment of imperialist governments per se.” (11)

London urged the West to come to terms with the new Asia and to live with non-white peoples in a spirit of brotherhood.  He anticipated that the wars of the twentieth century will greatly surpass those of the past in terms of their killing and destruction not only of armies, but of civilian populations as well.  Indeed, his predictions concerning the great wars to come were prescient.

There was a marked refinement of London’s views towards Asians and other non-white people of the Pacific in the last seven years of his life during and after his 1907-1909 trip to the South Pacific aboard his decrepit schooner, the Snark.  London’s increasingly pan-national view of the world led to his 1915 recommendation for a “Pan-Pacific Club,” where people from both East and West could meet in a congenial setting.  The “club” would be a forum where East and West could exchange views and ideas on an equal basis.  These are hardly the thoughts of a racist; rather, they are the words of a true internationalist.  In particular, he felt it was necessary for Americans and Japanese to come together to better understand their respective cultures and increase mutual understanding.


Jack London traveled extensively during his short life.  He encountered people of many cultures and empathized with the suffering of downtrodden people not only in the United States, but also in Europe, East Asia and the South Pacific.  London was an internationalist who sought to understand the people and cultures in the lands that he traversed.  His “Pan-Pacific Club” essay was his final appeal for the West to overcome its stereotypical view of Asians as inferior peoples who needed Western domination for their own good.


(1) See William F. Wu, The Yellow Peril: Chinese-Americans in American Fiction, 1850-1940 (Hamden CT: Archon Books, 1982).

(2) John R. Eperjesi, The Imperialist Imaginary: Visions of Asia and the Pacific in American Culture (Hanover: Dartmouth University Press, 2005, 108

(3) Richard O’Connor, Jack London: A Biography (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1964), 214.

(4) London most fully developed these ideas while covering the early stages of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) in Korea and Manchuria. He was stunned to find Asians using the most up-to-date military  technology, methodology and weapons of mass slaughter with great proficiency. He published these ideas in two articles (“The Yellow Peril” in the San Francisco Examiner, 25 September 1904; and “If Japan Awakens China” in Sunset Magazine, December, 1909) and one short story, “The Unparalleled Invasion” (McClure’s Magazine, May 1910).

(5) Jonah Raskin, The Radical Jack London: Writing on War and Revolution  (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 1.

(6) John R. Eperjesi, The Imperialist Imaginary, 109.

(7) Jack London Reports, 346.

(8) Jack London Reports, 346.

(9) China was the victim of Japanese biological warfare (Unit 731) in bombing late in the China-Japan war of 1931-45.  Moreover, China (and North Korea) would charge that the United States used germ warfare in China and North Korea during the Korean War, touching off a fierce debate that continues to this day.  See Tsuneishi Keiichi, “Unit 731 and the Japanese Imperial Army’s  Biological Warfare Program, http://japanfocus.org-Tsuneishi-Keiichi/2194 .   See also Stephen Endicott, The United States and Biological Warfare: Secrets from the Early Cold War and Korea.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.  Critics have strongly challenged Endicott’s key points concerning the alleged use of germ warfare in the Korean War.

(10) Jack London, “The Unparalleled Invasion“ in Dale L Walker, Ed., Curious Fragments (Port Jefferson NY: Kenkat Press, 1976), 119.

(11) Jeanne Campbell Reesman, Jack London: A Study of the Short Fiction (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1999), 91.

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Gregory Canellis - 2/15/2010

Thank you for a rock solid article. I ran to dig out my copy of _The Portable Jack London_, Earle Labor ed.(Penguin: 1994)to see if it included the London essays you mentioned. Of course, it does not. You have offered some food for thought, and another approach to Jack London. Thanks.