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Context is crucial to the meaning of some words, and yellow is a good example.

Obviously it’s a color, bringing to mind breezy daffodils, cuddly chicks, and bright sunshine. Unfortunately it’s also a term used to describe a cowardly person, or a scoundrel. Why I wonder? The “yellow terror” was used to describe the spread of Yellow Fever in the United States in the late 1800’s. In its toxic stage, the disease, now rare in the USA, causes jaundice, thus the yellow connotation.

I think I’ve discovered what has recently been called “false news”. In fact in an earlier age it may have been described as “yellow journalism“, characterized as “dishonest in editorial comment and the presentation of news, especially in sacrificing truth for sensationalism”.

The “Yellow Peril” is a term in history best forgotten because of its exaggeration in the media (e.g. newspapers because of the time period) of the danger from the Chinese and Japanese. The term was first used following Japan’s military defeat of China in 1895 and then was applied to Japan. Some ascribe the first use of the epithet to German Kaiser Wilhelm II, in 1895 against Japan, but it was also used by a Hungarian General (quoted in a US newspaper): “The ‘yellow peril’ is more threatening than ever. Japan has made in a few years as much progress as other nations have made in centuries.”

The use of “yellow peril” in the US was directed at the Chinese, though, as they came from their home country to the west coast to work on the railroads. While originally encouraged to emigrate, they ended up being treated poorly.

It is ironic that the US-instigated influx of Chinese to work building railroads soon bred a distrust of Asians. To enhance relations with the Chinese with better trade in mind, Secretary of State William Seward (of Seward’s Folly fame) designated a special envoy, Anson Burlingame, to work with the isolationist Chinese to increase an openness between the US and China, with a view to achieving a “favored-nation status”.

The Burlingame Treaty also encouraged Chinese (cheap labor) to come to the United States.  While the treaty was supposed give privileges, immunities and protection to Chinese in the United States against discrimination, exploitation, and violence, it didn’t work out quite that way. These immigrants were generally treated badly, not trusted, and did suffer from discrimination. Furthermore, they could not hope for US citizenship because that was denied under the Naturalization Act of 1790, which limited naturalized citizenship to “white persons.” So much for a closer relationship.

On both sides of the Atlantic fears of the “yellow peril” continued into the 20th century and was bolstered by various  in books and films. “Prominent among these were portrayals of sinister Orientals an English writer’s creation, the insidious and diabolical genius Dr. Fu Manchu.” The refocus on Europe’s internal crises, as opposed to any invasion from the east, and the outbreak of WWI soon negated fear of the “yellow peril” until the bombing of Pearl Harbor when the fear was fully justified.

Seward and Burlingame’s ideas about a closer relationship hit bottom when the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) was enacted placing a 10 year ban on immigration of laborers. This was extended for another ten years in 1892, and in 1902 was made “permanent”, that is, until in 1943 Chinese were again allowed in under a strict quota system. It wasn’t until 1965 and 1990 immigration laws were again changed allowing for a greater influx of people from Asian countries (partly due to the Communist menace), and other countries. Naturalization was also allowed, and the persecution many were facing in countries abroad became a reason for allowing their emigration.

While yellow has much brighter connotations, the more sinister definition shows we have struggled with immigration in the past, with and with far less reason for strict laws that we have now.

Who knew — I didn’t until I stumbled upon this information. Thank you internet.

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