“’The phantom Yellow Peril,’ said Nayland Smith, ‘to-day materializes under the very eyes of the Western world.’” Sax Rohmer, 1913
Mirroring the words of Nayland Smith, the infamous Dr. Fu Manchu first materialized on paper in Sax Rohmer’s book “The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu” (1913). I heard about Fu Manchu in an Asian American Studies class where he was presented as one of the lasting negative stereotypes associated with Asian men. Dr. Fu Manchu, an evil Chinese genius, is characterized by his goal to conquer the Western world using his hordes of henchmen and collection of mysterious tools. In the novel, he serves as the cunning antagonist to police commissioner Nayland Smith, as the latter seeks to thwart his plans of world domination.
Written and published during a peak in anti-Asian sentiment, “The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu” captured the imagination of the Western audience by feeding off fears sparked by the 1899-1901 Boxer Rebellion. The Boxer Rebellion was an uprising led by a secret society in China called “Righteous and Harmonious Fists” which sought to drive foreigners from China. They gained momentum with the support of the Chinese government until international forces interfered and stopped their progress. By simultaneously feeding off of and feeding into fears of Eastern expansion in the time following this rebellion, Sax Rohmer launched Fu Manchu into fame and his story became an instant success.
Seeking to investigate the source of this infamous character, I decided to read the first book in what would later become an entire series featuring this character. I approached my reading of “The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu” with trepidation, preparing to come face to face with the overwhelming genius and villainy of the titular character as he wreaked havoc on innocent lives. What I didn’t expect, beneath the anticipated stereotyping and cultural insensitivity, was something very close to Sherlock Holmes — a fast-paced mystery following a daring detective figure through the perspective of his friend Dr. Petrie, a kindly doctor just trying his best to keep up.
The plot follows Smith’s efforts to track down and thwart Dr. Fu Manchu, a hidden figure who infiltrates London and causes the deaths of several important individuals. It is a dramatic, theatrical story filled with intrigue — trap doors and hidden lairs, mysteriously missing fingers and lingering traces of poisonous gas. However, underlying the plot runs a current of prejudice and xenophobia that deeply reinforces early 20th century fears of the Yellow Peril, supporting the narrative that Asians are foreign and dangerous.
“At last they were face to face—the head of the great Yellow Movement, and the man who fought on behalf of the entire white race” (Rohmer).
By giving the Yellow Peril a human form, Rohmer pits East against West with the struggle between the protagonist and antagonist, setting up a clear dichotomy between good and evil through his heroification of Sir Nayland Smith and simultaneous villainization of Dr. Fu Manchu. Nayland Smith comes to symbolize all that is good with the Western world — he is characterized as a grimly determined protector of London, devoting all his efforts to “purge England of the unclean thing which had fastened upon her.” Meanwhile, Rohmer conceptualizes Dr. Fu Manchu as “a great yellow hand…stretched out over London.” The audience is meant to sympathize with Nayland Smith and support his struggles because he is defending his home and his people from an intruding force. Thus, the conflict centers on an upstanding, proud British man’s desperate attempts to protect his homeland against the powers of the invading enemy.
This positioning of the characters in direct opposition to each other — with one symbolizing good and the other evil — lends itself to an “us vs them” mentality. This separation between Nayland Smith, representing the noble West, and Fu Manchu, a symbol of the insidious East, adds to the dangerous narrative that Asian people are fundamentally different and “other,” emphasizing their foreignness and pushing them farther away from what is considered “good.” Thus, through the framing of the story, the struggle between Smith and Fu Manchu is much more than just a conflict between two people — it casts each character into a very specific role meant to encapsulate Rohmer’s view of their races.
“…a veritable octopus had fastened upon England—a yellow octopus whose head was that of Dr. Fu-Manchu, whose tentacles were dacoity, thuggee, modes of death, secret and swift, which in the darkness plucked men from life and left no clew behind” (Rohmer).
While Rohmer uses his positioning of Fu Manchu opposite Nayland Smith to emphasize the former’s villainy, he also employs figurative language to further dehumanize the character. As I made my way through the novel, I found my attention drawn to the vivid descriptions of Fu Manchu. Rohmer describes him as an octopus with all-embracing tentacles, as well as a serpentine figure with “mummy-like shoulders.” His eyes, an unnatural green color, are covered by a film like “the membrana nictitans in a bird.” He has a “reptilian gaze” and a “feline gait” — his manner of speaking is sibilant, and his face, as repeatedly stated by Rohmer, is yellow. He is an amalgamation of animal parts, compared to everything from a bird to a cat to a reptile.
Each description works to further dehumanize the character in the eyes of the audience. By stripping him of any resemblance to a human and instead relating his features to those of animals, Rohmer paints him as unnatural, foreign and other. This portrayal extends to the men that he commands as well, who happen to be Asian. Rohmer describes them as looking “more like dreadful animals…than human beings,” continuing with the animalistic descriptions. Thus, Rohmer paints the members of the entire race in a similar light, describing them as barely human in appearance to further emphasize the difference between them and the protagonist.
Upon finishing the novel, I took a little time to reflect and process the overt messaging of this fast-paced novel. While it was an engaging read, it was also a deeply dangerous portrayal of Asian characters because it helped normalize and sensationalize this negative caricature of Asian individuals. Ultimately, I found “The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu” to be an experience of otherization, an exercise in separating “us” vs “them” and pushing the two as far apart as possible. It places a heavy emphasis on differences, a careful delineation between West and East, familiar and foreign, good and evil. And, as a result, it spreads dangerous messages about the perceived nature of Asian people, painting a picture of inhumane villainy and treacherous genius that both encapsulates and perpetuates early 20th century fears of the Yellow Peril.
Though the series of books on Fu Manchu have concluded, the character still has a lasting impact on society. Throughout the run of the series, he experienced immense popularity that catapulted him onto the big screen, prompting television and movie adaptations as he broke into the horror movie industry in both America and Britain.
There, stories of Fu Manchu continued to be great successes, with movies continuing to come out in America until 1980. He was also the focus of comic books, board games and candies, becoming an easily recognizable and prominent fictional Asian figure to Western audiences. Though his presence on the big screen has waned in recent years, another Asian villain has entered the mainstream media: Xu Wenwu, from the 2021 Marvel movie “Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” As the father of Shang Chi, he is a very different villain than Fu Manchu — however, the history of the character is complicated. In the original comics where Shang Chi was first introduced to audiences, Fu Manchu himself was Shang Chi’s father, drawing inspiration directly from Sax Rohmer’s work. Due to more recent awareness of the negative implications of Fu Manchu’s portrayal, the character was changed in the Marvel movie to Xu Wenwu, a much more nuanced portrayal of a villain.
Looking at the difference between the portrayal of these two characters, it can be easy to think of Fu Manchu as a character from the distant past, originating from a much less progressive era where xenophobia was more prevalent. However, recent events have demonstrated how anti-Asian sentiment still exists in America to this day, waiting for some inciting event to uncover it much like the Boxer Rebellion fed into fears of the Yellow Peril over a century ago. With the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of anti-Asian incidents, Asian Americans have found themselves depicted negatively once again, becoming a target of blame for the spread of the virus. The widespread impact of this narrative, perpetuated through platforms such as social media, demonstrates how dangerous these stigmatizing portrayals can be for vulnerable communities.
By raising awareness of the implications of negative racial portrayals in the media and reminding audiences to be mindful of the content we consume and produce, we can work towards more inclusive representation of diverse characters.