Yellow Peril in Knox’s Ten Commandments

It all starts with a detective named Erika Furudo from Umineko: When They Cry. To begin with, Umineko, first released in 2007, is a Japanese murder mystery written by Ryukishi07. Dedicated to inspiring readers’ imagination as well as celebrating literary traditions, Umineko alludes to many monumental developments in detective fiction, merging them into its uniquely fantastical setting. 

That doesn’t mean that Umineko follows reality all the time. A perfect example is the character Erika Furudo. The existence of this ill-tempered Chinese girl, who first appears in the fifth chapter, is itself a violation of Knox’s Ten Commandment of Detective Fiction. What is wrong, then? Is that because she breaches our expectations for a firm but fair detective? The answer is: her Chinese identity is against the fifth rule in Knox’s Ten Commandments, “No Chinaman must figure in the story.”

WHAT? I asked the same question when I first heard it. Now, first and foremost, what are Knox’s Ten Commandments? Essentially, they are a set of principles for detective stories that—in its writer, Ronald Knox’s opinion—would allow readers to solve a mystery before the author reveals the answer. These codified rules thus defined an ideal detective fiction in Knox’s times, namely “the Golden Age of Detective Fiction” in the 1920s and 30s. The reason why Knox doesn’t want Chinese people (or “Chinaman”) was simple: readers would immediately know that it was nobody but those foreigners who did the crime, and there would be no fun in inferring at all. 

At first glance, Knox’s response to the yellow peril (a fear of Asian people) prevalent in his times seemed reasonable. From a closer examination, however, it was but another xenophobic expression justified with “high literary standards” of an arrogant air. From the 19th century, there was a growing racial prejudice against Chinese people due to political expansions and their portrayals in literature, cinema, and public media. To ban this cliche once and for all, Knox dismissed any Chinese character in his vision of a perfect detective story. That, ironically, points to the crux of bigotry. When they were not recognized by the media, Chinese people were underrepresented. However, once they entered the public view, they appeared as diabolical criminals with an evil grimace on their faces.

My intent is not to deny Knox’s contributions to detective fiction. Still, I should point out that not all detective stories are based on his Ten Commandments, making his rules outdated in the face of current mystery stories. In this circumstance, Erica Furudo is produced. She is a villain, but a well-developed one that is not a product of yellow peril. As one of the most important characters in Umineko, she brings life to the last four chapters, adding a stupendous finishing touch to the storyline. Our wayward detective Erika Furudo, along with her creator, challenges Knox’s Ten Commandments with a meaningful innovation. Ryukishi07’s attitude is an important lesson to us today—he tells us how to combat the prejudices in history without denying them. Seeing the old disciplines from a modern perspective, we can still find solutions that are out of structure with a creative, positive heart.

Selma Wu ’21

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