Beyond the Yellow Peril: Thoughts on Russian-Chinese Encounter

Maliavin, Vladimir malyavin, Владимир Малявин, Малявин

V.V. Maliavin

Tamkang University Taiwan


Beyond the Yellow Peril: Thoughts on Russian-Chinese Encounter


At present the relation of Russian society and its intellectual circles towards China is highly ambivalent. On the one hand, one can observe in Russia a strong interest to the culture of her great Eastern neighbor. On the other hand, there is a growing discontent and even fear caused by the influx of Chinese immigrants into Russia and China’s emergence as a global political and economical power. This sort of social mood is far from being new. It has been known for more than a century in the West under the name Yellow Peril (peril jaun in French, Geldgefahr in German). I’d like to start my presentation with a short analysis of this Yellow Peril myth.

It is, no doubt, a kind of modern myth in the sense that it is closely connected with the social conditions in the West itself. It is precisely this fact that gives the semblance of credibility to the talks about Yellow Peril. These talks originally contained a strong element of legend and gloomy fantasy. It was in the years of the so called Silver Age in the Russian intellectual history, in the atmosphere of the apocalyptic expectations triggered by Vladimir Solovyov’s later writings and greatly strengthened by the mischievous Russian-Japanese war that the myth of the Yellow Peril won the day in Russia. Solovyov and his adepts wrote verses and pamphlets predicting the invasion of the Yellow race that will destroy Russia and, perhaps, the whole Western civilization. In those times the Yellow Peril was vaguely associated with different peoples, mostly the Chinese but also with the Japanese and Mongolians 1.

The Yellow Peril fantasy has always had mystical overtones about it. Suffice is to recall that during the First World War even quite serious writers like Vyacheslav Ivanov insisted that The German High Command was being manipulated by some “secret order of Oriental magicians” who wanted to destroy Russia 2. Mystical guesses notwithstanding, it is evident that Yellow Invasion was feared by Russian intellectuals for the utterly “materialistic”, non-religious, profane, “non-spiritual” (bezdukhovny) nature of the Eastern civilization. Starting from A. Herzen (who was influenced in fact by J.S. Mill’s invectives against China) and to D. Merezhkovsky’s seminal article  “The coming petty-man” Chinese civilization was depicted by the leaders of Russian intelligentsia as a hotbed of down-to-earth, purely rational and positivistic thinking that threatens to destroy the last strongholds of the Western spirituality preserved in Christianity.

It is little wonder that the Far Eastern nations were sanctioned by Russian religious thinkers for their “positivism” and “petty-bourgeois” habits for such life attitude under the name meschanstvo was the main target of intelligentsia’s social criticism. What is much more surprising is the inability of the intelligentsia’s gurus to see that they were attacking in fact something that was quite familiar to the West and even constituted the core of the modern Western civilization. What Herzen, Solovyov, Merezhkovsky, Bely, Ivanov were attacking in the Eastern world was in fact the very essence of modernization with its technological progress and creation of mass society which threatens to destroy the humanistic values. Merezhkovsky was the first to declare that the Yellow invasion will be the victory of the commited, bona fide “yellow-faced positivists” over the Western positivists who are still reluctant to part with their spiritual heritage of Christianity. Yet the course of events is already fixed:

      “While nowadays Chinese are willing to imitate Europeans, the time will come when Europeans will be looking like imitating Chinese” 1.

Apparently, the Yellow Peril myth reflects some inner contradictions of modernization process and this fact account for its popularity and perseverance in history. One should point out first of all the contradiction between the liberating and enslaving powers of modern technology as an embodiment of the human will to the domination over the world. This will is capable to liberate man from everything except itself and, consequently, the results of its working. Therefore, the man of the Modern Age is split into the Superman who subdues the nature to power of his will and the Underman – a timid member of consumer society, a slave to his desires who leads an animal-like existence. It is precisely technology and its political counterpart, representative democracy, that stand out as the common denominator of these incompatible positions.

So the modern humankind has the reason to admire and despise itself at the same time. We can observe the outcome of this condition in the elitism of Nietzche or Dostoyevsky’s Legend of the Grand Inquisitor with its characteristic mixture of human pride and misery. No less instructive is the nature of the modern advertising which appeals, in apparent contradiction, both to human vanity (“be like stars!”) and human equality in everyday life (“be like everybody!”). This contradiction is especially akin to the intelligentsia or what the latter’s leaders used to call a “critically thinking personality” for such a person is bound to stay away from society (which he regards as the swamp of the petty-bourgeois life) and simultaneously seek public recognition.

The Yellow Peril myth fits nicely into this profoundly ambiguous image of modern man split into the Superman and the Underman but treats these two aspects of hu,an condition in a negative way. The everyday life is downgraded to the petty commotion of anthill while the superhuman qualities of existence are clothed in sinister mystery (like in Ivanov’s and many others’ fantasies about Eastern magicians). The social position of Russian intellectuals was in many ways no less contradictory: while striving, as a “self-conscious part of society” (to quote Ivanov-Razumnik’s famous definition of intelligentsia) and a champion of reason, for a public recognition, a role of statesman and the leader of the nation, they were doomed to remain fundamentally marginal personalities. Being incapable to break the vicious circle of their social stand, they projected the inherent contradiction of their social existence in some “depths of Asia”, treating the “yellow-faced positivists” as both the petty-bourgeois mob and a kind of a “super Grand Inquisitors” possessing superb skills of political manipulation . They could of course  call, as Merezhkovsky did, for some vague and mysterious “Christian revolution”. Revolution did come but, as we know, it was neither Christian nor spiritual. Yellow Peril came from within Russia (Merezhkovsky and Ivanov issued precisely this kind of warning).And the revolution was, after all, an attempt to solve the fundamental contradiction of the modernized (i.e. de-humanized) man through the collective will of the revolutionary party.


Let us now turn to the foundations of China’s cultural identity. The basic category here is the notion of change and its logical outcome – the inner continuity of change (because the change must change itself and thus arrive at the unchangeable). This approach led Chinese thinkers to postulate as the ground of their thinking the very limit of the existential Self where purified transformations of temporal (and thus essentially corporeal) Self merge with the pure dynamism of the primal act of consciousness. Chinese thought avoids the pitfalls of the metaphysics of the will that lead to the modern condition of the divided Self and yet it preserves the possibility of the Self-identity acquired in the act of “releasing oneself into the openness of the world”. This kind of a “self-forgetting Self” is embedded in the tradition – a living but ever-absent continuity that cannot be known nor even grasped in intuition.

The basic categories of Chinese tradition are represented by the terms p’in and ge which are usually translated as “categories” or “types” of things but in fact point to those qualities of experience that traverse various planes of being and constitute their non-transcendent unity. These terms were systematically used since early medieval times and gradually became the main elements in Chinese classification systems. Suffice is to recall the sets of fixed chords in Chinese music, the sequences of normative gestures in  ritual practice as well as in Chinese boxing or theatre, catalogues of esthetic objects in various spheres of life or lists of artistic forms and their elements in painting, calligraphy, architecture etc. What the notion of p’in  signifies is not substances, forms, ideas or even facts but various intersections, potentially even infinitely complex clusters of events, hierarchies of forces, contingencies of shadows and echoes, forms of becoming which exist “between presence and absence”, in proximity of every place. Serving predominantly the purpose of learning and self-cultivation they are used as the expedient mnemonic signs, like those words, in Chuang-tzu’s memorable phrase, that should be forgotten once their meaning is grasped.

The peculiar feature of traditional Chinese ontology is a double-layered structure of being, what Chinese Taoists called  “double concealment” (chung xuan) or the “fold” (zhe die). For Taoists being has no spatial or temporal extension but endlessly folds back into itself.  All change here has the character of ever deepening transformation, an implosion, a reversal within one continuous movement. The real meaning of getting to “the double bottom” of being is to release oneself into the openness of the absolute Other, to turn one’s inside out, to reach the stillness of Aeon that abides with-out measured time. This alterity is not anthropomorphic but, because it delimits the human world and represents the very possibility of human existence, is rather anthropo-genetic.

What makes it possible for consciousness to disavow itself? The answer is easy to find: the way being is, the being of being. It is the fleeting pause, an infinitely small interval in the continuous succession of anterior and posterior moments, a non-localizable  projection of Heavenly depth on the horizontal plane of Earth, an ever absent awakening amidst endless dreams. The esthetic ideal or, one can even say, deeply-rooted esthetic habits of the Chinese provide amazingly convincing evidence to this symbolic pre-space pregnant with the infinite variety of forms – suffice it to recall the art of miniature gardens and the idea of structure-generating lacunae in Chinese literature, painting and landscape design, a motif of “Heaven in the gourd” in Chinese folklore, wonders of Chinese craftsmanship like concentric balls carved in a single piece of ivory etc. The crack and the fold are the means to connect  the inside and the outside, the virtual and the actual in a monad of being  This connection is fulfilled through a spiral movement that precedes but also delineates spatial/temporal distinctions 1.

In Chinese thought the discovery of Being’s crack corresponds to emerging of intentionality (yi) out of primordial  Non-being, or, one might say,  a (W)holeness of being, the latter being equated to the “original Heart-Mind” (ben xin). This is what Chuang-tzu’s story of the Great Clod is about:  the Wind comes out of the resting-resistant Clod like intentionality is issuing forth from the original unity of life. So intentionality here means the passage from indefinite Mind to the definite one, from No-Limit to the Great Limit. Contrary to the Western notion of intentionality it has no objective contents. It is a pure creativity marking the limits of things or moments of transformation, the “in-between” spaces. Oscillating between pulsating continuum and continuum of pulsation it represents a pure affectivity, an eternal re-action, a course of self-cause and thus an inexhaustible efficiency. What is the prototype of this movement of deferring/returning which leaves no visible trace and yet brings about qualitative change? I think we should look for it  in the kinesthetic unity of the living body which makes possible all partial movements. It is the virtual act of intentionality, a symbolic matrix of transformations which anticipates the world.

The social outcome of this existential attitude is the famous Chinese principle of “naturalness” which implies some self-regulating, albeit indefinite,  and essentially social reality. Chinese thinkers mentioned a certain “primordial ancestor” (zung) – a name for the original subjectivity which constitutes the matrix of human sociality. Its real social correlate is a sort of meta-individual personality traversing different planes of historical time, something like  a genealogy of family or school (these two terms are poorly distinguished in China) but also various human skills, material paraphernalia of culture and even social institutions. The meta-individual Self, being a locus of Chinese Virture (te), asserts an hierarchical order of human praxis: it is simultaneously father and son, teacher and disciple.

This pattern of sociality has a striking similarity with the modern notion of everyday life marked by apparent inconsistencies: on the one hand, the everyday life is a realm of ordinary, endlessly repetitive actions and, consequently, boredom; on the other hand, it is endowed with certain mystery and esthetic sentiment precisely because it escapes reflection and represents “the desire of totality in postmodern times” 7. It is phantasmagorical in its very naturalness.

It is well known that Chinese tradition has equated the reality of human existence with the everyday. How could it be different with the civilization that praised above all the naturalness, the pure immanence of life? According to a classical saying from the commentary to the “The Book of Changes” , The Great Way is something “that the people use every day but do not know it”. (ri yung er bu zhi). In Chapter 80 of the “Tao Te Ching” we come across an apology for the everyday life, quite rare in ancient literature: people of ancient times, it is said there, just “took pleasure in their meals and enjoyed their clothes”. One more popular sentence, this time coming from the Chan tradition says no less plainly: “The ordinary mind is the Way”.

All definitions mentioned above point to the impossibility of knowing objectively the essence of the Way as well as the everyday existence. Indeed, Michel de Certeau, the author of an influential book on the cultural significance of everyday life compared the practices of the everyday existence with some sort of tactics that confirms the hidden continuity of life itself. The practice of everyday life, in his words, is “an ageless art which has not only persisted through the institutions of successful political orders but goes back much farther than our histories and forms strange alliances preceding the frontiers of humanity. These practices present in fact a curious analogy to the simulations, tricks and disguises that certain fishes or plants execute with extraordinary virtuosity… They maintain formal continuities and the permanence of a memory without language, from the depths of the oceans to the streets of our great cities” 8.

What is eternally present cannot but be absent in every point of space. The essence of “natural existence” is precisely this omnipresent elusiveness. This means that the nature of everyday life is the overlapping of widely divergent, even diametrically opposed perspectives. On the one hand, everyday life is the realm of specific, exotic, marginal, a totality of variability. On the other hand, this perpetual change contains absolute, eternal stillness, a sort of “political neuter” embodied by the wise ruler capable, to quote once again Wang Fu-zhi, of  “holding fast to the center of vortex and responding to things without end”.

The “human naturalness” or natural humanity for that matter possesses, therefore, a kind of inner, symbolic depth. Or rather it can be structured in the form of double spiral (vortex) whose focus represents the absolute stillness allowing for the endless transformations of life. The opposing dimensions of this vortex are mutually non-transparent and, therefore, cannot be politicized and drawn in some sort of conflict. They cannot serve as the basis for a self-identical social form, i.e. social order or institution. Everyday life as social totality represents a persuasiveness of “Other”, a merging of presence and absence, of  life and death. Indeed, a maintenance of harmonic relations between the people and the ghosts is declared in the “Tao Te Ching” to be the highest goal of the sagely rule, not to mention the paramount significance of the cult of ancestors in Confucianism.

The urban life in China is a good illustration to the nature of everyday life described above. Moreover, it represents an obvious analogy to the formation of the Self in Chinese thought. What we perceive physically is the bustling street life and the density of buildings, a real hub-bub of everyday life overshadowed by a transcendent symbolism of the Empire. The latter’s presence is embodied in the overall planning of the city and the symbolic names of official places. This is the “Heavenly” dimension of traditional social order. Its modern counterpart in today’s big cities of the Far East are the skyscrapers containing the Headquarters of powerful corporations the  network of highways which makes possible to move around the city. The bird’s eye view of the city achievable from the highways is the most convincing image of that incomprehensible totality of everyday life ruled by the omnipresent Other.

This pulsating continuum of everyday existence with its seemingly contradictory yet surprisingly persisting structure has outlived the totalitarian ideologies of classical Modernity and has become by now a recognizable “face” of Chinese civilization. Moreover, it has shaped the global form of Chinese culture, i.e. the culture fused with everyday life. Its most universal and obvious expression is Chinatown. The latter, like everyday life itself, points to the inner continuity of existence that links various historical ages and even continuity between culture and nature. Chinatown is a world within a world; it exists outside of politics for the simple reason that it escapes all definitions and lacks conceptual identity. It is, in de Certeau’s words, “a reality without language”. Yet it speaks in a compelling voice of life itself.

To understand better the nature of Chinese worldview embodied in Chinatown, it would be useful to compare it with the cultural pattern of neighboring Japan. Japanese thinking is characterized by the rigid linking of values and things. The cultural artifacts in Japan are direct and fixed representations of concepts which are conceived more often than not symbolically in China: the Chinese idea of painting as “one stroke of brush” produced in Japan paintings which actually consist of one brush stroke, Japanese gardens accurately express the idea of reality as illusion, the Chinese kungfu, essentially a symbolic practice, was transformed by Japanese masters of martial art into sports etc. Different cultural codes in Japan do not merge but are strictly separated in time and space. Average Japanese may live an ordinary life of modern city-dweller but is quite eager to spend some days (and a lot of money) in a special hotel where all features of traditional Japanese way of life are meticulously reproduced. In a word, Japanese genius is the capacity of neat divisions and the very word “to understand” (wakaru) in Japanese means in fact “to divide”.

China’s cultural pattern is quite different. Chinese tradition implies precisely non-differentiation of values and things, reality and imagination. Chinatown can exist anywhere but it is not a museum, a specific social enclosure detached from the actual world, but a real everyday life though permeated with the feeling of virtual play. In a word, it is a life completely transformed into art. The Chinese word for understanding is “enlightenment” (ming) which means in fact the recognition of the inevitability of dream. For we can  be awaken to the extend that we know the persistence of dreaming. Moreover, as was mentioned above, it is precisely dreaming that accounts for continuity of great (meta-individual) Self in Chinese traditional culture. The core of Chinese tradition is the hidden and anonymous perception of ever-continuing reality related to the “awakening in dream”. Philosopher Chuang Chou may not be sure whether he is Chuang Chou or a butterfly who “hovers happily around the flowers” but he knows with the utmost inner clarity that there is a pure joy of life. And why? Just because he is free to detach himself from everything given in experience and give oneself to the boundless ocean of the Other.

In Chuang Tzu’s writings we find also a story of the virtuoso cook who was able to cut oxen without effort by detaching his mind from physical perception and “letting go spiritual desire”. This cook works playfully and happily as if he dances: his movements convey the infinitely delicate rhythm of the universal harmony. This playfulness as the merging of work and inspiration lies in the heart of Chinese civilization. Accordingly, the forms of Chinese culture are but “traces”, “shadows”, “echoes” of the boundless “harmony of life’s energies”, the silent but all-penetrating Celestial music.

Chinatown is this playful “shadow” of real (and probably never actualized) China, the “Middle State” (zhung guo). But the term “middle” here means also “inner”. Genuine China can only be contained within, i.e. beyond the horizon of visibility and yet in unspeakable intimacy. To be “in proximity of truth” (ji) is the goal of knowledge according to Chuang-Tzu. And this proximity is interchangeable with the “seeds” (ji) of things, i.e. the immanent, though symbolic, impulse of life which is the essence of naturalness and everyday life itself.

The notion of invisible yet omnipresent “seeds” of things or, to put it differently, the infinite activity present in every finite action determines the nature of traditional Chinese politics. The latter, as is well known, excludes open confrontation which formed the base of the Western concept of politics. The source of authority in China was not an abstract principle of any sort but the very process of harmonizing implying the uncreated harmony of life’s fundamental impulses, or “seeds”. The sphere of the political in Chinese thought is not data but something “pre-dated”: it lies beyond the scope of intelligible world and has a character of a type, an inner limit of existence, i.e. it is the force of change which transforms things into a unique and time- transcending quality. The type precedes things and the one who has a command over (symbolic) language of types rules over the world of things. Moreover, it is the typifying of experience that moulds identity for it cannot be reduced to any institutions, ideals or values of society.

The politics of being’s transformation into types has no fixed forms and deserves to be called, rather, a metapolitics. It is structured by the image – already familiar to us – of double spiral. It is said in the “Tao Te Ching” that the wise ruler “transcends everything by itself” (chao ran), i.e. he possesses the highest form of naturalness. It was Lao Tzu, as we remember, who said that the sage lets his subjects “enjoy their food and be pleased with their clothes”. In Chinese tradition the ruler embodies the axis of the universal vortex corresponding to the limit of both emptiness and fullness. By self-emptying, i.e. withdrawing from the world, the sage ruler makes possible the plenitude of being, represented by the inexhaustible “thusness” of existence and, one may add, the richness of life. Both poles meet beyond the scope of reflection – in the dark and yet immediately accessible area of what may be called spiritualized empiricism.

The art of metapolitics is the ability to determine the hidden focus of life, the Void that structures Being. This art requires, as it were, a holographic, pan-optical vision that we can discover in classical Chinese landscape painting. But pan-vision cannot be discerned from non-vision and this means: it makes visible only effects, pure apparition of life as testified in an old Ch’an saying: “The moonlight reaches the bottom of the pool leaving no trace in the water”.

Chinese metapolitics is invisible because it belongs to the pure actuality of existence and, therefore, can be recognized only as something “Other”. It serves not the naming of things, nor even the knowledge of the world but the pure affect which is the life of human heart itself. It is the language of man’s openness to the world which transcends the discourse. The opposite dimensions of the spiral (the profound stillness of the ruler and the incessant movement of everyday life)  are not transparent to each other and yet they are continuous. Metapolitics is neither an abstract idea nor a concept but the simple and pure actuality of just “being there”. It is essentially an enlightened practice beyond all confrontations. It nurtures the communion of ethos which precedes normative ethics.

Until now globalism has usually been conceived as an expansion of the Western civilization or, more  precisely, so called “americanism”. The latter’s strength is derived from the specific fusion of the technical efficiency and the immanent force of life which provides feelings of joy and satisfaction. What americanism lacks is the capacity to account for the presence of the Other or, simply speaking, to communicate because it asserts itself in terms of abstract self-identity of rational thinking. A sustainable global world, if it can exist, will not be flatly one-dimensional. It will contain a certain inner depth, a gap allowing for the presence of Other and, consequently, infinitely rich cultural differences. Chinese civilization possesses an extraordinary potential for the formation of such genuine globality and it is already making its contribution in the form of Chinatowns scattered all over the globe. Chinatown’s relation to the social environment as a “world within a world” 9, a non-localized rupture in experience that constitutes all living worlds is an actual embodiment of globality’s genuine structure and a major contribution to the world peace. Like the mythical dragon half-concealed in the clouds, Chinatowns are now forming a sort of  “network civilization”, a virtual and global image of China that cuts through foreign countries without creating conflicts or even being detected. Such is the working of metapolitics: the co-existence of mutually non-transparent and yet complimentary perspectives.

It is easy to see by now how Chinese wisdom of metapolitics can have important consequences in the sphere of international relations. Lao Tsu formulates his principle of the harmonic world order in the following statement – quite practical as it only should be: “If a great country gives way to a small country it will conquer the smaller country. And if a small country submits to a great country it can conquer the great country” 10. Indeed, is there another way to achieve the world peace?

The One who is the lowest will become the highest. He who loses everything will get the whole world. Such are the simple but incredible truths of China’s ancient sages whose legacy is visible in the life of Chinatown: a realm of earth-bound everyday life permeated with the Heaven’s uncreated stillness. Heaven opens to the Earth when the latter is transformed into the vast emptiness of desert. But the desert is the dwelling place for the holy people who, by making themselves humble, or “empty” take upon themselves the responsibility for the whole world and in this way gather the world around them. The humankind should efface its old, too formal and  limited identities and  reacquire the “openness of the desert” This means: to start looking beyond the visible horizons and to learn how to live without old politics of confrontation.















1   A thorough study of the Yellow Peril fear in Russia at the turn of the 20th century is still lacking. One recent publication worth mentioning is: A. Kobzev, V. Serbinenko, Iz nasledia russkogo filosofa Vl. Solovyova. – Problemi Dalnego Vostoka, 1992, # 3, p. 182-187 (in Russian).

2   Vyacheslav Ivanov, Rodnoe i Vselenskoe, Moscow: Respublica, 1992, p. 370 (in Russian).

1 Merezhkovsky, D.S.  Bolnaya Rossia (Sick Russia). Moscow, 1992, p. 18.


1  This is one of the themes of J. Deleuze’s non-unifying onthology. See: Cannings P. The Crack of Time and the Ideal Game, in: Gilles Deleuze and the Theater of Philosophy. Ed. by C.V.Boundas & D.Olkowski.  New York: Routledge, 1994. P.79.

7 See: Ben, Highmore, Everyday Life and Culture Theory, London & New York: Routledge, 2002, P. 25.

8  Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984, P. 40.

9  I cannot help citing here once again Chuang Tzu’s witty dictum: “Hide the world within a world and it won’t be lost!”

10  Tao Te Ching. Chapter 61. Tr. by Gia-Fu Fong and Jane English. New York: Vintage Books, 1972.