October 03, 2016

Susan Glosser’s “When the “Yellow Peril” Became Just Like Us” Exhibit on Display at Watzek Library

History Professor researches, writes and curates exhibit.

When the “Yellow Peril” Became Just Like Us: How WWII Changed American Perceptions of China


Official Exhibit Opening scheduled for Thursday, October 13 at 3:00pm in the Watzek Atrium. Free and open to the Public. 


In the American mind, the image of China has generally oscillated between two caricatures. One is of an alien, exotic and ultimately unknowable land, filled with equally inscrutable and strange people. This is a relatively benign China, from which Americans were used to buying tea, porcelain, and silks, and whose quaint and backwards ways could be safely parodied for light entertainment. The other image is of an immediate threat to the United States, an eternal font of the “Yellow Peril,” teeming with untold numbers of Chinese eager to displace American laborers, impose an oppressive and anti-American ideology, and finally overtake the nation in greatness and power. This is the China that inspired the Chinese Exclusion Acts in the 19th century, Mao’s China of the 1950s and 1960s, and, arguably, is the conception of China that many Americans hold today.

This exhibit highlights the broad path of American thought about China from the 1800s to the 1950s, as well a group of Americans who sought to convince Americans that China resembled neither of the above two extremes, but was in fact a noble nation worthy of respect and, perhaps more importantly, aid. In 1937, the forces of the Japanese Empire invaded China, and the resulting war brought devastation, misery, and death to tens of millions of Chinese. With the United States’ entry into World War II after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, prominent American sinophiles including Pearl S. Buck, author of The Good Earth, and Henry Luce, media tycoon and publisher of both Life and Time magazines, seized the opportunity to galvanize American interest in aiding China. They spearheaded the merger of eight large China relief organizations to form United China Relief, or UCR, in order to better coordinate American charity dollars.

A crucial part of the campaign was to change American perceptions of China. The message broadcasted by UCR across its campaigns was that China was in many ways a proto-United States. Its people were vibrant and virtuous. They were enamored of freedom and aspired to democracy. Like the American colonists in 1776, the Chinese were fighting for their independence against an imperial oppressor. Above all, UCR sought to prove to Americans that the Chinese people were ordinary and familiar, not mysterious. In this exhibit, visitors will find countless examples of the kinds of goods, from postcards and stamps to matchbooks and cookbooks, that UCR and others used to “market” China to the public–all of them exceedingly pedestrian, all of them ubiquitous in the daily lives of Americans in the 1940s. Visitors will learn how UCR used commercial culture to market a non-commercial message, presaging the increasing influence of commercialism and advertising in American life for the remainder of the 20th century.


This project has been supported by Lewis & Clark College’s Presidential Strategic Initiative for faculty research, a Lewis & Clark Faculty Research Grant, the Mellon Faculty Development Fund, the Mellon Arts and Humanities Research Program, and Lewis & Clark’s Special Collections. The research, writing, and curating were done by Susan Glosser, Associate Professor of History, Kevin Dadik (History ’14), Sten Eccles-Irwin (Pamplin Fellow, History ’16), Drew Matlovsky (History ’18), Heather Schadt (History ’17), and Zachariah Selley, Associate Head of Special Collections in cooperation with Watzek Library Special Collections and Archives.