More on M. P. SHIEL and “The Yellow Danger”

   Regarding this latest discussion on Shiel, there is something to be said for both sides. Jess is clearly right that Asian villains appeared in lots of fiction before 1898 when Shiel got involved.

   But, David is also correct in suggesting that The Yellow Danger was something of a breakthrough novel in the genre. It was probably the first yellow peril novel to approach best seller status in England.

   I did a lot of research on the yellow peril topic 30 or so years ago for my essay in M. P. Shiel in Diverse Hands (1983), “Some Contemporary Themes in Shiel’s Early Novels: Part I, The Dragon’s Tale: M. P. Shiel on the Emergence of Modern China.”

   I read as much as I could find of the pre-1898 YP [Yellow Peril] fiction looking for influences on Shiel and a little of the later stuff looking for examples of Shiel’s possible influences on others.

   I concluded that he probably hadn’t read much if any of the prior YP stuff. I can’t speak to the Dime Novels which Jess knows, but the early US stuff originated on the West coast, was largely propaganda against Chinese immigration and may never have been distributed widely in America, let alone England. (For instance, the Woltor title Jess cites was an 82 page pamphlet issued by a California publisher.)

   The primary influences on Shiel were contemporary events. The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 proved that a “colored” country could master modern weapons and raised the specter of Japan taking over or otherwise leading the untapped masses and resources of China into the modern world.

   At the end of the war Russia, Germany and France intervened to force Japan to accept a higher indemnity from China instead of Manchuria and other territories won with blood.

   In November 1897 two German missionaries were murdered in China, which provided Germany the pretext to demand control over the port of Kiao-Chau and the neighboring province. France and Russia responded with territorial demands of their own, leading to concerns about the pending break up of China. (Russia actually seized the very territory she had helped to force Japan to give up in 1895.)

   England feared the loss of its paramount position in the China trade, as well as the possibility that the concerted actions of Germany, France and Russia might indicate an active alliance among the three against England. There were debates in parliament about the crisis and speculation in the press that war might break out.

   Then Peter Keary hired Shiel to write a new serial capitalizing on public interest in the crisis. When the first installment of “The Empress of the Earth” was published in Pearson’s Short Stories on 5 February 1898, his original readers knew the background and recognized the cross-references to recent history and contemporary events.

   The first third of the serial literally was incorporating the previous week’s headline events as they occurred, including well-known politicians and other public figures as characters. The public loved it.

   And when the Boxer Rebellion broke out in 1899 it seemed to confirm Shiel’s vision of a hostile China declaring war on the West, and triggered a re-serialization of the serial and reissues of the book versions both in England and America.

    [There are three major versions of the text. Since it was so popular Pearson instructed Shiel to string the serial out to 150K words, about twice the original contract length. Shiel cut it back by a third for the Grant Richards edition, but had to rewrite the final chapter and make some further revisions to the order of the US publisher. From comments to Richards, Shiel seems to have preferred the Richards text.

    [Morse photo-offset the serial with lots of art in Volume I of his series, which is still available. Both the UK & US book versions have been reprinted in expensive series, but are available on Google as pdf downloads.]

   And Dr. Yen How, the Sino-Japanese mastermind, was not based on some prior figure from YP literature, or a shadowy criminal from Limehouse (as Rohmer would later claim about Fu Manchu.)

   He was almost certainly inspired by the Chinese revolutionary Dr. Sun Yat-Sen (1866-1925,) as I demonstrated in my old essay. (Follow the link.)

   Sun had first gained notoriety in 1896 when he was kidnapped and briefly held in the Chinese Embassy in London until screaming headlines roused public pressure on the British government to demand his release. Sun commented: “The reporters drew me into the hotel more forcibly than Tung drew me into the legation building, and they coveted news from me more anxiously than the Manchu government wanted my head.”

   Most modern readers who stumble across the book have no idea about any of this, assume Shiel was writing on a clean slate and simply made all that stuff up. Shiel himself considered the novel hackwork and seemed embarrassed about its success. It was the only work published in his lifetime which approached best seller status.

   The relative success of Danger as compared to his better work must have galled him. Faced with a steady decline of his income from writing from 1900-1911, he tried to recapture the success of Danger when Sun Yat-Sen came back into the headlines during the Chinese Revolution, culminating in Sun becoming the first president of the new Chinese Republic.

   Though it was a better book in most respects, The Dragon (1913, serialized in The Red as “To Arms!”) failed to interest the public and was a complete commercial disaster. Shiel fell into a pit of personal problems and didn’t write another novel for a decade.

   Shiel inscribed a copy of The Dragon:

    “The fact that God has a predilection for pigtails and microbes (to judge from their number) had always struck me, and there seemed to me such a ‘picture’ in their overflowing with a stare into the west, like the Gadarean pigtails, ‘snout up, tail cocked’; that I was led into writing my second book on one subject — which, I think is not like my way. But ‘the readers’ seemed to prefer the first worst to the second better — pigs as regards tales!– 1924, M. P. Shiel” (Quoted by Morse in Works Updated, Vol II, p 185.)

   Finally, though Jess didn’t mention it, David’s review/essay also has some odd errors about the text of the book itself and other points. John Hardy did not die of consumption. He was killed in a duel. I speculate why in my essay, but I assume few of you are still reading at this point. I could go on, but enough is enough. I’ll stop for now, but there are depths to the book, and Shiel, beyond those suggested in the review.


John D. Squires
JDS Books/The Vainglory Press