‘YELLOW yellow dirty fellow’ kids in kindergarten are taught this to convey rhyme and colour. But it is possible it is transmitting subconsciously much more. The colour yellow is associated by the West with the Mongols, under which category they put the Japanese and the Chinese. The West when it first came into contact with the East, especially China and Japan, described them as white or pale. But over the centuries, the descriptions changed, in keeping with the changing politico-social, religious and economic equations between the two.
In a well-researched book Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking, Michael Keevak a linguist, traces the origin of the racial colouring of the people of the East and its social consequences. The colour of the skin of the people changed according to their ‘ability’ to convert to Christianity. “White, like all colour terms, was evaluative rather than descriptive. Perhaps East Asian pigmentation was seen to differ from that of the African or Indians or Malaysians, but this was not why they were called “White.” Before long it was also a function of their perceived capacity to become truly “civilised,” which is to say converted to European Christianity. It is partly for this reason that the Japanese started out much whiter than their Chinese neighbours, since by the end of the sixteenth century, hundreds of thousands of people had already been converted.”
Colour of the natives dominated the descriptions by the western travellers and missionaries. They sought to “distance everyone else from the whiteness (which is to say beauty, culture, intelligence, and level of civilisation) that was reserved for the Europeans only.” By the middle of nineteenth century the number of Chinese working in Europe had swelled. They were doing the jobs of the whites, better and for lesser pay. The Japanese winning against Russia spawned fears of a Japanese takeover of the world.
When the term Mongolian was invented, it caught on. Mongolian eye, Mongolian spots. Doctors working in the East talked about the children being born with spots on their body. The Down syndrome, for long was described as the Mongolian disease. It was not until the end of 1950s that the nature of the syndrome was linked to chromosomal abnormalities. Pleas to change the name from Mongolian to Down syndrome were published in journals. The government of Mongolia lodged a similar protect with the World Health organisation. The response was not encouraging. Someone helpfully noted that “Down Syndrome children do, after all, look Mongolian.”
The paranoid West also predicted a “yellow peril” when the world would be taken over by the Far East Asians. “With the intervention of “the yellow peril” in 1895, the notion that East Asians were yellow and perilous had become ubiquitous, not only because this phrase appeared in every imaginable category of both scholarly and popular writing, but also because for the first time it was able to cross European linguistic boundaries” says Keevak. What has in a way fuelled these is the association of Satan with the colour yellow in Dante’s poem Inferno and later by John Milton in Paradise Lost.
Interestingly, this colour categorisation was not just accepted but welcomed by the Chinese, because for them, yellow had been the colour of power, regal and royalty. It was the official colour of the emperor and muddy Yellow River is considered the cradle of their civilisation. “Yellow between the brows” was deigned as sign of happiness. The Japanese on the other hand loathed being clubbed with the “inferior” yellow people of China. They would rather be identified with the ‘superior white.’
Remarking that “In sum, both China and Japan lightened and darkened depending on thoroughly Western prejudices and Western preconceptions…” Keevak notes that these colour based or racial remarks were made not by fringe or reactionary groups or persons but by the authorities then on subjects such as anthropology, medicine, taxonomy, anatomy and physicians, whose words and works were accepted as truth by the academic circles and the public. It is not the colour description but the values or the connotation attached to these colours that are conjecturing stereotypes and complexes.
Becoming Yellow is a brilliant academic work that brings out the deep-rooted racial feelings nurtured by the West for all those who “are not like them.” They have associated non-Whites with inferiority and the centuries old well ingrained biases refuse to go. Keevak is a professor in the Department of Foreign Languages at National Taiwan University.
(Princeton University Press, 4, Oxford Street, Woodstock, Oxfordshire, Ox20 1TW)