Michael Keevak is a professor at the National Taiwan University who, after his first book, Sexual Shakespeare (reviewed in the Jan. 27, 2002, edition of the Taipei Times), has published books on China and Taiwan-related topics. His new one, Becoming Yellow, is his best to date. It’s an investigation into how East Asians, in particular Chinese and Japanese, came to be perceived as having, to a greater or lesser degree, yellow skin.
It’s an interesting question because, if you think about it for only a moment, it’s clear there’s not the slightest degree of truth in the description.
And that was how Westerners viewed East Asians back in the 18th century, when contact between Europe and Asia first became extensive. The Chinese in particular were then considered simply as white. Of course no people are really white, in the same way that no people are really black, but the term was being applied to Europeans, and the inhabitants of China were considered as of a comparable coloring. So what changed?
The answer is that the West became seized by a compulsion to categorize the inhabitants of the globe into broadly conceived racial groups, and white became reserved for the Europeans who were at that time engaged in a comprehensive exercise in colonization. The people they colonized, therefore, couldn’t be the same as the Europeans were; they had to be different. Whites were destined, so the Europeans managed to convince themselves, to rule the world, and so the people they were destined to rule over had to be something else. Black for Africans and brown for Indians fitted easily enough into this system, but East Asians posed a more difficult problem. When someone came up with the bizarre color yellow, combined with the idea of a widely-dispersed Mongolian race, the twin concepts were welcomed with open arms.
Keevak is always anxious to maintain that there was nothing neutral about this process. Yellow had some negative implications in the West — to be yellow could mean you were cowardly, and yellow journalism meant sensational, unethical journalism. But that was all right as far as the Europeans were concerned, because there always has to be some supposed justification for acts of domination and war, and the perceived yellowness of East Asians fit the bill.
And then, at the end of the 19th century, a neat little alliteration allowed for the emergence of the phrase “the yellow peril,” meaning the threat that the Chinese and Japanese would migrate to the US in such vast numbers that Anglo-Saxon civilization would be overwhelmed. Chinese workers in California following on the Gold Rush, and staying to work on railroad construction at lower rates of pay than the locals, only added fuel to the fire, resulting in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that wasn’t repealed until 1943.
What kind of book, then, is Becoming Yellow? It’s a tightly-focused look at a narrowly-defined topic, with the period of inquiry from the 17th to the 19th centuries, and representations of yellowness in novels and films specifically excluded. Scare-quotes abound — in one chapter alone I counted 107 instances of single words or two-word phrases placed in quotation marks. Why is this? In some cases they indicate a very short quotation, but it’s obviously most frequently because Keevak wants to distance himself from the racist expressions he so often encounters. It’s a distinguishing characteristic nonetheless, and could be seen to suggest that the author wants to hold at arms’ length whole swathes of past thought and reasoning that don’t accord with modern sensibilities.