Anti-Asian Dystopias

A notice related to the internment of Japanese-Americans. Source: National Archives. 

Dystopia and the mainstreaming of Anti-Asian bigotry in America

This article was originally published on Substack. I am re-posting it here as a special edition due to the dramatic increase in "immigrant invasion" rhetoric related to the 2024 presidential campaign.

The end of the Civil War, and the “peculiar institution” that precipitated it, ushered in a fresh generation of White racial anxieties, evolved but not disconnected from those that preceded it. In the wake of the Civil War, dystopian writers found new audiences by framing racial fears in the potential for another apocalyptic, nation-breaking conflict. But the range of complexions for the enemy within shifted, as the trembling gaze of White America turned from the South to the Far East.

A wave of Chinese emigration began in the mid-1800s, driven by economic conditions at home and surging demand for cheap labor to fill the vacuum created by the abolition of slavery first in the British Empire and then in the United States. Chinese immigrants traveled to the United States to make new lives for themselves, first filling a need for workers that had resulted from the California Gold Rush, then filling low-paid agricultural and factory jobs, perhaps most significantly providing the back-breaking toil required to build a transcontinental railroad.

Like many immigrants before and since, Chinese people soon became the target of opportunistic fear and hatred, in Europe, Australia and especially the United States, where White racial fragility was heavily filtered through Civil War trauma.

“The African now enjoys the privileges of an American citizen, but it was only after a revolution of unparalleled magnitude that he reached such a condition,” wrote one H.J. West, in an edited volume of news stories and essays “ripped from the headlines” under the weighty title Chinese invasion : they are coming, 900,000 more : the twenty-three years' invasion of the Chinese in California, and the establishment of a heathen Chinese despotism in San Francisco. “No enlightened Patriot would wish to see the day or the perfection of a system that would involve the nation in another rebellion, sweeping across the continent like a tornado.”

Invasion rhetoric and comparisons to the catastrophe of the Civil War quickly came to dominate the immigration debate, in race-baiting books and newspaper articles all over the United States, as well as in Britain and Australia. An 1877 brief under the heading “The Chinese Invasion” in the Kansas Herald warned “There is no end to the supply of Chinamen, and if our laws permit them to come, they will come by millions and entirely change the character of our country and our institutions.”

The newspapers contained hundreds, perhaps thousands, of similar examples. Criticizing Republican opponents of an immigration crackdown in a front-page editorial in the San Francisco Examiner, journalist Frank M. Pixley wrote, “It is to them a conflict over an idea. To us, it is the invasion of a horde of people, which, if unrestricted, will destroy San Francisco. … This is not used as a metaphor.”

Nor did the literary defenders of White supremacy take it as metaphor, unleashing a remarkable, decades-long run of racist dystopian novels with titles such as Under the Flag of the Cross (1908), and A Short and Truthful History of the Taking of California and Oregon by the Chinese in the Year 1899 (1882). Many of these blistering tracts portrayed Chinese immigrants as a fifth column that would inevitably be weaponized to destroy American culture and values, while others depicted a global race war unmoored from the immigration issue. The surging popularity of the dystopian fiction format, now fully mature as a literary genre, fueled the fires of anti-immigration movements.

Atwell Whitney’s sole claim to fame is authorship of what appears to be the first full-length novel of the “yellow peril” genre. Almond-Eyed: The Great Agitator or A Story of the Day, follows the format of the frontier romance, but reverses the privilege. Instead of portraying a “heroic” White invasion of native American territory, the 1878 novel placed White America on defense against rapacious Chinese immigrants. The book’s title was an ethnic slur commonly used to describe Asians in 19th century media.

The story goes: In the American hamlet of Yarbtown, the immigrants are welcomed by avaricious business leaders seeking cheap labor and naïve Christians seeking opportunities to evangelize. The protagonist lovers, Job and Bessie, are among the few to recognize the threat. Yarbtown is soon overwhelmed by Chinese-run vice dens, including gambling and opium, which corrupt morals of the White citizenry, and eventually result in a deadly outbreak of smallpox.

While Job and Bessie manage to eke out a happy ending for themselves, Yarbtown is not so lucky, sinking into irretrievable degradation and despair thanks to the inaction of Whites who thought that the Chinese could be profitably integrated into American life. “The stream of heathen men and women still comes pouring in, filling the places which should be occupied by the Caucasian race,” Whitney concludes. “… Good people, what shall be done?”

Almond-Eyed came and went with little fanfare, but it was the vanguard of what would be a wildly popular genre of anti-Asian dystopia—a corpus comprised of at least 23 works of fiction, including books and short stories—published in the 50 years between 1878 and 1918, with still more arriving later in the 20th century. The language and themes of these early works would reverberate through the dystopian genre for well over 100 years, haunting us still today.

One of the best-known pioneers of the format was Last Days of the Republic (1880), by Pierton W. Dooner, describing a near-future disaster that the author defended as mathematical certainty. Like some of its antebellum predecessors, the book is barely a novel, presenting a dry summary of anticipated future political developments that naturally lead to disaster. Partisan divisions in post-Civil War America obstruct efforts to restrict Chinese immigration, and profiteers urge looser laws in order to build a cheaper work force. By the time the Chinese Empire formally invades, naturalized Chinese immigrants have already seized many levers of political power simply by winning elections. Black people are strangely erased from the narrative; according to the author they had “disappeared” from the post-Civil War social landscape, perhaps (it is suggested) having returned to Africa.

Awakening to its danger too late, the White population attempts insurrection “in favor of State Sovereignty and White supremacy,” led by Southern stalwarts such as the KKK, but the American forces are massacred by “a race alien alike to every sentiment and association of American life.” Christianity is outlawed, and the United States becomes a province of the Chinese empire. Like many dystopian novels, The Last Days of the Republic ends on a cautionary note to present-day leaders, bemoaning the partisan divisions and politics of personal gain that prevented decisive action on the Chinese threat, and warning of an almost inevitable outcome.

The very name of the United States of America was thus blotted from the record of nations and peoples, as unworthy the poor boon of existence. Where once the proud domain of forty States, besides millions of miles of unorganized territory, cultivated the arts of peace and gave to the world its brightest gems of literature, art and scientific discovery, the Temple of Liberty had crumbled; and above its ruins was reared the colossal fabric of barbaric splendor known as the Western Empire of his August Majesty the Emperor of China and Ruler of all lands.

The book’s hateful message was popular, and the dystopian genre began to swell in close synchronization with surging anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States. Soon, this wave of fear and hate prompted the government to propose and pass an escalating series of legal obstacles to Chinese immigration and the naturalization of Chinese immigrants who had already entered the country. The legal arguments in these cases often directly echoed the language of dystopian fiction.

In 1882, two years after The Last Days of the Republic hit book stands, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed by the Congress and signed by the president, severely restricting immigration from China for 10 years.

“The Chinese are peculiar in every respect.” said John Sherman, a senator from Ohio, during the floor debate, echoing the language of slavery as well as phrases found in Atwell and Dooner. A 10-year extension in 1892 extended restrictions on immigration and citizenship to any “Chinaman” or “person of Chinese descent.” In 1902, the law was made permanent. It would not be fully repealed until the 1960s.

As literary scholar Edlie Wong chronicles in Racial Reconstruction, an important book on race and citizenship, the fictional framing of a Chinese invasion informed legal battles over the Exclusion Act, invoking the conceit of a “war” in order to defend and justify the Act and its successors.

These popular fictional works warned of apocalyptic consequences if Chinese immigration was not stopped, and lawyers for the government adopted their framing to turn back challenges by Chinese immigrants targeted by summary deportation and denial of the “right of return,” which deprived legal Chinese immigrants of the right to visit their homeland and then come back to America.

Contemporary court rulings, still occasionally cited in modern times, characterized immigration in words that could have been lifted from the florid dystopian fiction of the day—“foreign aggression and encroachment” in the form of “vast hordes… crowding in upon us.” Much of this language echoed and some may even have been appropriated directly from The Last Days of the Republic, which repeatedly cited the risk of Chinese “hordes” and China’s “plan of encroachment.”

These draconian steps were not sufficient to quell the rage stoked by racist fear-mongers. Chinese immigrants were targeted by White citizens with riots, vigilante violence and massacres all over the country. In 1871, hundreds of people mobbed and lynched 20 or more Chinese immigrants in Los Angeles. In 1885, White miners rioted and killed at least 28 immigrant co-workers in Rock Springs, Wyoming. In 1885, a White mob drove all people of Chinese descent out of Tacoma, destroying their homes, with the riot praised as a triumph in the next day’s newspapers. There were many more attacks.

Soaring xenophobia ensured an audience for more xenophobic fiction, a vicious circle. The biggest name to jump on the bandwagon was Jack London, best known as the adventure writer who penned The Call of the Wild (1903). In 1910, London published a short story titled The Unparalleled Invasion, foretelling the rise of an imperial China, which spread its racial menace through prolific procreation, a racial trope still attached to immigrants today. As London wrote:

The real danger lay in the fecundity of [China’s] loins, and it was in 1970 that the first cry of alarm was raised. For some time all territories adjacent to China had been grumbling at Chinese immigration; but now it suddenly came home to the world that China's population was 500,000,000. She had increased by a hundred millions since her awakening. … [T]here were more Chinese in existence than White-skinned people.

In the story’s conclusion, an American scientist invents a potent biological weapon, which is employed to genocidal effect by the U.S. and its European allies. The population of China is decimated by an engineered plague, and most of the few survivors are butchered by an invasion force, leaving the empty country to be resettled “according to the democratic American programme.”

While most of these works did not endure past the early 20th century, one memorable exception will be familiar to modern audiences—the tale of an American WWI veteran, Anthony “Buck” Rogers, who is accidentally exposed to a gas that puts him in suspended animation for 500 years. On waking, Rogers finds that the United States has been conquered by the Chinese, its civilization erased, with only a small contingent of resistance fighters maintaining a guerilla war from rural camps in areas reclaimed by wilderness.

Buck Rogers stories were more post-apocalyptic than dystopian, since they were not especially political. Asians—described variously as Mongols, Chinese and Han Chinese—are simply convenient villains, depicted in grotesque racial caricatures that were common in early 20th century media (such as the 1943 Batman serial, which featured a stereotypical Japanese villain portrayed by a White actor and narration that praised the internment of Japanese Americans).

Buck Rogers first appeared in a 1928 novella, Armageddon 2419 A.D., but the character’s popularity exploded, with a swift sequel, The Airlords of Han, then continued for decades, thanks to a movie serial, newspaper comic strips, comic books and multiple television series.

Although the early newspaper strips featured Asian villains depicted in racial caricature, the story was largely sanitized of its “yellow peril” origins when it made the leap to the big screen. In a 1939 movie serial, Rogers fought a global criminal cartel led by a brutal dictator named Killer Kane, who had been created for the comic strip. Later iterations of the story traveled even further from its racist roots, putting Rogers into generic conflicts with assorted terrestrial and extraterrestrial threats. However, at least one author took advantage of the expired copyright of the original books to self-publish two obscure sequels in the 2000s, reviving the “Chinese Han” as racial villains who were descendants of non-human extraterrestrials.

While American literature of the Eastern threat focused heavily on China, a parallel body of work contemplated a Japanese invasion of the United States and beyond.

Some of these were proper dystopias—such as The Decline and Fall of the British Empire (1905), a future history framed as a textbook for Japanese schoolchildren in the year 2005. But many early texts like John Henry Palmer’s The Invasion of New York, or How Hawaii Was Annexed (1897), Homer Lea’s The Valor of Ignorance (1909) and Hector Bywater’s The Great Pacific War of 1931 (1925) skewed toward the “future war” genre in the style of Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking—more concerned with tactics and naval engagements than racial diatribes, although the latter were by no means absent.

“As to the social questions touched upon with a light hand,” Palmer wrote in his introduction, “abler pens than mine may follow up on these momentous subjects.” His “light touch” included an outbreak of cannibalism in an anarchic post-conflict Hawaii.

While these books were somewhat less prominent than their Chinese-focused counterparts in the United States, they had a huge impact in Japan, where audiences were quickly enamored of the narratives in a very different way than the authors intended. Lea’s The Valor of Ignorance, which sold only 18,000 copies in the U.S., was translated into Japanese and flew off the shelves as quickly as it could be produced, selling 100,000 copies in just the first month and continuing like a powerhouse through two dozen printings.

Valor’s wild success soon led Japanese authors to follow suit with their own future war tales. One of the best-known examples was Nichibei Miraisen (The Future War between Japan and America) by Miyazaki Ichiu, a story serialized in the best-selling Japanese equivalent to Boy’s Life magazine, starting in 1922. Ichiu credited Lea for inspiring the story. Promotions for the nationalistic story, which featured an American invasion of Japan, trumpeted “Those who love the homeland must buy this!! The great struggle of hot-blooded youth!” The generation raised on these stories would go on to serve as soldiers in World War II (source).

Some authors, such as Yano Ryukei in Ukishiro monogatari (The Floating Battleship) (1890), showed Japan deploying superior technology to save the day in the face of American hostility. Others, such as retired general Sato Kojiro in his book Nichi-bei senso yume monogatari (Fantasy of Japanese-American War) (1921), imagined an imperialist expansion across the Pacific, culminating with Japanese paratroopers descending on New York City from airships.

Perhaps the most dramatic development to come from the Japanese genre came in 1933, when the novella Nichibei-sen Miraik (Account of the Future US-Japan War) was published as a supplement to Hinode magazine, which circulated among Japanese diaspora living in Hawaii. Written by retired naval commander Fukunaga Kyosuke, the story featured two introductions, one by a member of Japan’s war council and another by a vice admiral. The story was fairly standard future-war fare, with lots of naval engagements and dystopian standard-issue airships. But the story also featured the Japanese inciting racial unrest in the United States, exploiting tensions caused by American racism to create an African-American fifth-column.

While fairly tame compared to the White supremacist apocalypses published in droves throughout the 20th century, the novella created a massive outcry when Japanese-Americans reported it to the authorities, fearing it would reflect badly on them.

Customs officials seized the magazine, claiming it encouraged treason, and the story soon inspired sensational headlines nationwide, such as “Jap Magazine With Story Jap-American War Seized Honolulu,” “Magazine Story Tells of Japs Taking Hawaii” and “Seize Magazines in Hawaii; “‘Future War Between America and Japan’ Title of Pictured Pamphlets; U.S. Navy Strength is Described in Detail.” The controversy raged for months until the Japanese government took the unusual step of “advising” the author to cease further distribution of the book, in an effort to cool the furor.

But it was too late. The story circulated among intelligence agencies, eventually making its way to the desk of the Army Chief of Staff, even as the U.S. government began making lists of Japanese-Americans considered to be subversives. Racial paranoia and fears of a Japanese-American fifth column ran rampant.

Less then 10 years after the publication of Account of the Future US-Japan War, one of the darkest episodes in America’s 20th century history took place—the internment of 125,000 Japanese Americans. It’s too much to say that Account of the Future caused the racial politics that led to internment, but dueling visions of a clash of civilizations helped fuel and frame extremist politics in both the United States and Japan.

One reason I became fascinated with the dystopian genre was its two-edged nature. While works like 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale serve as pro-social warnings, many other dystopian works are anti-social to the extreme, often linked to some of humanity’s worst impulses.

Racist dystopias are by far the most common form of dystopia in my bibliography, and while that may be partly attributable to selection bias, I think it’s also a reflection of how dystopian narratives buttress extremist arguments. Racist dystopias reflect and frame real world problems, steering them toward violence in ways that may not always be obvious, and in ways that don’t always make it into the history books.