2013 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the publication of The Mystery Of Dr. Fu Manchu, Sax Rohmer’s first novel to feature the fantastical and lurid fictitious creation that is the evil Dr. Fu Manchu, sinister Chinaman, criminal genius, racist myth. Written at the very height of Yellow Peril, the paranoid frenzy that gripped the colonial world at the time , Rohmer’s pulp fiction arch Chinese super-villain plays on the morbid fear and stereotyping inherent in Western media during the post-Opium War dread of all things Eastern, partly born of unease at the sheer size of China and its cheap workforce as well as latent guilt at the atrocities inflicted during the two conflicts fought over Imperial Britain’s desire to pedal opium to the Chinese in the Nineteenth Century.
Urbane, sinister and inhumanly intelligent, the character of Fu Manchu struck a chord in the British public’s mind and the books were soon best-sellers making its creator, who freely admitted knowing nothing about Chinese people, culture or history a millionaire, spawning cinematic and television adaptations as well as radio, comic strip and comic book versions in an enduring and archetypal presence that has become almost a template for “evil criminal genius” despite many under the age of 35 being unfamiliar at first hand with the character.
Alison Wood, in a recent Times Literary Supplement review, writes that of all the villains populating twentieth-century imaginative landscapes…
“… none lingers in quite the same way as Rohmer’s Dr Fu-Manchu, “tall, lean, and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green”. Fu-Manchu, as Leslie S. Klinger suggests in an endnote to the first of Titan’s reissues, is no ordinary menace. Sibilant and filmy-eyed, he serves the Si-Fan, a Chinese secret society with ambitions for world domination. He is pathologically cruel, a strategist commanding obedience – to the death – from the many dacoits, lascars and devastatingly beautiful women in his retinue. His methods for entrapment are preferred for their agony-inducing potential: fungi modified to become vaporously anaesthetic, centipedes of unusual size, creatures elongated of limb and fingers, along with the usual array of poisoned darts, caskets and letters.”
The Fu Manchu character also proved an immense success in America as well. William Wu in a study of Chinese-American fiction between 1890 and 1940 maintained that Fu Manchu “was the first Asian role of prominence in modern literature to have a large American readership”.
Inherently racist in depiction and now deemed too controversial for any kind of “re-imagining”, Fu Manchu has inspired numerous other characters, and is the model for most villains in later Yellow Peril thrillers.Examples of this listed in Wikipedia include Pao Tcheou, Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon, Dr Goo-Fee from Fearless Fly, Li Chang Yen from The Big Four, James Bond adversary Dr No, The Celestial Toymaker from the Doctor Who story of the same name, as well as even more famously inspiring a later adventure of the same programme The Talons Of Weng-Chiang, Dr Benton Quest’s archenemy Dr Zin from the Jonny Quest television series, Dr Yen-Lo from The Manchurian Candidate, Lo-Pan from Big Trouble in Little China, Marvel Comics foes the Mandarin and the Yellow Claw, DC Comics’ Rā’s al Ghūl, Wo Fat from the CBS TV series Hawaii Five-O, “The Craw” in more than one episode of Get Smart, Ancient Wu from the video game True Crime: Streets of LA, and “Fu Fang” in The Real Ghostbusters NOW Comics. Fu Manchu and his daughter are the inspiration for the character Hark and his daughter Anna Hark in the comic book series Planetary. As recently as May this year General Motors were forced to pull an advertisement after receiving complaints that it included a song containing a reference to “the land of Fu Manchu”.
The character also lends its name to the iconic “Fu Manchu moustache”.
The Fu Manchu Complex by Daniel York opens on October 1st! http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/detail/the-fu-manchu-complex Preview tickets just £7