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.

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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