Fear and loathing: Boris Karloff in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)
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Sympathy for the Devil Doctor: tracing the evolution of Fu Manchu

A pantomime villain imbued with the sophistication of Moriarty, Fu Manchu captured the imagination of a public already accustomed to lurid, exaggerated tales of vice among Britain’s Chinese population.

The Yellow Peril: Dr Fu Manchu and the Rise of Chinaphobia 
Christopher Frayling
Thames & Hudson, 360pp, £24.95

Standing before an effigy of Genghis Khan, Boris Karloff, a long moustache pasted on his upper lip, addresses a crowd of frenzied Orientals. He raises his slanted eyebrows, flashes his false front teeth and gestures towards a conspicuously white woman who has been carried on to the film set. “Would you all have maidens like this for your wives?” Karloff asks the frenzied Orientals. They cheer politely. “Then conquer and breed! Kill the white man and take his women!”

Those words, of course, were not Karloff’s but Dr Fu Manchu’s and the script’s “frenzied Orientals” were his henchmen. The Mask of Fu Manchu opened in 1932 and grossed $625,000 – a considerable sum at the time – and MGM announced plans for a sequel. Appalled by the film’s denigration of their race, Chinese-American groups lodged a formal complaint and the studio, perhaps anxious about the political situation in the Pacific (where Japan had recently invaded Manchuria and a US alliance with China was likely), backed down, dropping the project altogether.

Yet the “Devil Doctor”, as Fu Manchu was known, was not to be vanquished so easily. As well as appearing in novels, comics, TV shows and movies throughout the 20th century and beyond (he was last seen in a spoof film trailer directed by Rob Zombie in 2007), he has even entered the political discourse. When Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997, a Newsweek article warned of the “Fu Manchu problem”: that is, the way in which the west and China “tend to think of each other as cartoon-like enemies”. The myth of Fu Manchu, Christopher Frayling writes in The Yellow Peril, contains within it the “distilled essence of popular orientalism”. Wherever there’s Chinaphobia, somewhere beneath the surface lurks the master criminal’s spectre.

Fu Manchu was invented in the years before the First World War by Sax Rohmer, a Birmingham-born writer of song lyrics, gutter-press journalism and novels with words like “mystery”, “sinister” and “nude” in their titles. A pantomime villain imbued with the Napoleonic sophistication of Professor Moriarty, the Devil Doctor captured the imagination of a public already accustomed to lurid, exaggerated tales of vice among Britain’s small Chinese population. “If there were 20 Chinese living in Chinatown, [the media’s] accounts would say 5,000,” complained the Chinese writer Lao She, who spent four years in London in the 1920s. “[And] every one of those 5,000 yellow devils would certainly smoke opium, smuggle arms, murder people . . .”

Frayling goes into much depth about the character’s literary and cultural antecedents, moving with no sense of hurry from De Quincey and Dickens to Rohmer’s music-hall milieu. At times he is digressive – that P G Wodehouse’s first published article was on the subject of “men who have missed their own weddings” has little bearing on Chinaphobia or Fu Manchu – yet the breadth of the material surveyed helps the 21st-century reader better navigate the neuroses of imperial-era Britain. (Its anxieties included the fear that the foreign “slaves” would come “to haunt the masters” by polluting England with their sins and, worse, that the “tireless, all-pervading and phlegmatic Chinese” would eventually steal “the principal part of the planet” from the “nervous European”.)

If Frayling is correct to identify Fu Manchu as the distillation of the west’s racist attitudes to the Chinese, that would suggest Rohmer was the pre-eminent Chinaphobe of his generation. Yet he seems not to have been so. In a semi-autobiographical short story called “Limehouse Rhapsody”, published shortly before his death, Rohmer presents a dialogue between himself and an elderly Chinese shopkeeper called Sam King. On being accused by his interlocutor of having “spoken evil of my countrymen”, he replies: “Only in a limited sense. I have portrayed some of your race, perhaps, in an unfavourable light, but never the Chinese as a whole.” To Frayling, the conversation “reads almost like a sort of apology” – but was one entirely necessary?

Near the end of the book, the graphic novelist Alan Moore, who riffed on Rohmer’s Limehouse in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999), tells Frayling: “A Chinese American wrote to me saying that . . . he thought of Fu Manchu as a positive, powerful . . . role model! Much better than a young man in spectacles studying cybernetics.” Many have quite understandably taken offence at the Devil Doctor and the paranoid, British imperialist world he inhabits – the Japanese-American Citizens League, for example, unsuccessfully lobbied for the deletion of The Mask of Fu Manchu from the MGM film catalogue in 1972 – but I think there’s a larger-than-life quality to Rohmer’s creation that makes him more a fantastical fiend than a racial portrait. (After all, do Transylvanians find much offence in Dracula?)

Rohmer’s wily foreigner is “tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan”. He has a “giant intellect” and “all the resources of science past and present”. He is “the yellow peril incarnate in one man” – and that peril is a formidable one, capable of uprooting the British empire, even western civilisation as a whole. Frayling unpacks the significance of each of these descriptions in a fascinating chapter (the Satan reference, for instance, would have evoked for contemporary readers phrenology as well as Milton and Blake) and the overall impression is one of Fu Manchu’s unreality. The Devil Doctor is said to have “all the cruel cunning of an entire eastern race” – but, steeped as he is in the conventions of genre, he seems far from representative of any actual eastern race.

Frayling apparently wrote this book as an “exorcism” of the orientalist attitudes he took to be the norm as a child, giving Chinese burns in the playground, bowling “Chinamen” on the cricket ground and reading Rohmer. His attempt here to “examine, discuss and unpack racial stereotypes” is valiant and effective; yet his evident delight in the Fu Manchu stories need not be couched in so much guilt. The Devil Doctor feeds voraciously on the prejudiced myths of his time – so excessively, in fact, that he seems to signal his own mythic status. Nonetheless, if he provides a focal point for Frayling’s wise, intellectually curious study of the west’s anxieties about the “yellow peril”, it is a testament to the author’s cunning in selecting such an unexpectedly fertile subject – a cunning worthy of Fu Manchu himself. 

Yo Zushi's new album "It Never Entered My Mind" will be released by Eidola Records on 19 January 2015. Hear his latest single "Blue Christmases" here

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the insurgents

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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon