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Becoming Yellow

Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking

Michael Keevak
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    Becoming Yellow
    Book Description:

    In their earliest encounters with Asia, Europeans almost uniformly characterized the people of China and Japan as white. This was a means of describing their wealth and sophistication, their willingness to trade with the West, and their presumed capacity to become Christianized. But by the end of the seventeenth century the category of whiteness was reserved for Europeans only. When and how did Asians become "yellow" in the Western imagination? Looking at the history of racial thinking,Becoming Yellowexplores the notion of yellowness and shows that this label originated not in early travel texts or objective descriptions, but in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scientific discourses on race.

    From the walls of an ancient Egyptian tomb, which depicted people of varying skin tones including yellow, to the phrase "yellow peril" at the beginning of the twentieth century in Europe and America, Michael Keevak follows the development of perceptions about race and human difference. He indicates that the conceptual relationship between East Asians and yellow skin did not begin in Chinese culture or Western readings of East Asian cultural symbols, but in anthropological and medical records that described variations in skin color. Eighteenth-century taxonomers such as Carl Linnaeus, as well as Victorian scientists and early anthropologists, assigned colors to all racial groups, and once East Asians were lumped with members of the Mongolian race, they began to be considered yellow.

    Demonstrating how a racial distinction took root in Europe and traveled internationally,Becoming Yellowweaves together multiple narratives to tell the complex history of a problematic term.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3860-8
    Subjects: Sociology, History of Science & Technology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. Introduction No Longer White: The Nineteenth-Century Invention of Yellowness
    (pp. 1-22)

    I first came to this project because I was interested in learning how East Asians became yellow in the Western imagination. Yet I quickly discovered that in nearly all the earliest accounts of the region, beginning with the narratives of Marco Polo and the missionary friars of the thirteenth century, if the skin color of the inhabitants was mentioned at all it was specifically referred to as white. Where does the idea of yellow come from? Where did it originate?

    Many readers will be aware that a similar set of questions has been asked with respect to “red” Native Americans,...

  6. Chapter 1 Before They Were Yellow: East Asians in Early Travel and Missionary Reports
    (pp. 23-42)

    When premodern European authors attempted to describe the residents of other lands there was often little agreement about precisely what color they were, partly because before the end of the eighteenth century there was no systematic desire to classify people according to what we now call race. Western thinking had long differentiated between the peoples of the known world in a variety of ways, including often vague notions about skin tone. But markers such as religion, language, clothing, and social customs were seen as far more important and meaningful than the relative lightness or darkness of the inhabitants, which, in...

  7. Chapter 2 Taxonomies of Yellow: Linnaeus, Blumenbach, and the Making of a “Mongolian” Race in the Eighteenth Century
    (pp. 43-69)

    In the last chapter we have begun to see how Western descriptions of East Asian people fitfully moved from calling them white to calling them yellow, although it was ultimately unclear why yellow should have been chosen from among so many other possibilities, including tawny,moreno,olivastro,basané,gefärbt,fuscus, andbruin. I have suggested that we are not going to find a satisfactory answer to that question by looking at travel texts or other forms of “eyewitness” description, simply because the adoption of any color term was symptomatic of a larger development within racialized thinking itself. To call East...

  8. Chapter 3 Nineteenth-Century Anthropology and the Measurement of “Mongolian” Skin Color
    (pp. 70-100)

    We concluded the last chapter by arguing that Blumenbach’s 1795 resolution to call East Asians “yellow or olive” was the product of a long descriptive and taxonomic tradition, and that deciding upongilvusto characterize the people of the region was a kind of reorienting (pardon the pun) of a constellation of color terms that had formerly been applied to very vague notions about the people of Asia as a whole. Blumenbach had attempted to correct earlier sources not only by settling upon yellow as opposed to some other color, but also by zeroing in onEastAsia as its...

    (pp. None)
  10. Chapter 4 East Asian Bodies in Nineteenth-Century Medicine: The Mongolian Eye, the Mongolian Spot, and “Mongolism”
    (pp. 101-123)

    In the last chapter we took up the idea of a yellow race in the field of nineteenth-century anthropology. This chapter will serve as a companion piece of sorts because it examines the fate of Blumenbach’s Mongolian race in nineteenth-century Western medical discourse, even though medicine, unlike anthropology, did not typically make any claims about yellow skin apart from its manifestations in such diseases as jaundice or yellow fever. Western medicine did, however, attempt to strengthen the racialization of the region by employing the adjective “Mongolian” in a number of conditions that were supposedly linked to—or endemic of—the...

  11. Chapter 5 Yellow Peril: The Threat of a “Mongolian” Far East, 1895–1920
    (pp. 124-144)

    In previous chapters I have repeatedly insisted on the difficulty of determining any sort of moment at which East Asians had suddenly “become” yellow. During their initial encounters with the West they were almost uniformly described as white, and while they slowly darkened in European eyes there was never really a consensus about exactly what color they were. A defining moment occurred at the end of the eighteenth century when they were lumped together into a new racial category called the “Mongolian,” commonly identified as the “yellow race.” But even then a number of color terms continued to be used....

  12. Notes
    (pp. 145-174)
  13. Works Cited
    (pp. 175-210)
  14. Index
    (pp. 211-219)