Western Visions:
Fu Manchu and the Yellow Peril

This article is in five parts. This is part three. To view one of the other parts, click on the numbers below.

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Fu Manchu: The Yellow Peril Personified

In 1912, readers were first introduced to the evil Fu Manchu, a Western educated Chinaman with designs on world domination and the destruction of the west. His foil is Sir Denis Nayland-Smith of Scotland Yard, an orientalist who shows mastery over Fu Manchu and by extension all of Asia through his knowledge of their mysterious rites and rituals, and Dr. Petrie, who serves as the readers stand-in, to whom Nayland Smith may explain the Orient and thus establish his credentials.

The writer, Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward, known to the world by his pen name, Sax Rohmer, was an irishman living in London, and had no secret political agenda. Rather, he was simply able to encapsulate and reflect the uncertainties and fears the working class had against the foreigners in their midst. England had long since caught the Yellow Peril paranoia wafting over from America. Sax Rohmer would give a name to the peril, and export it back to the states, where it would be a smashing success and provide him with a steady cash flow. The final total of his earnings for the Fu Manchu books came to around two million dollars. Later in life, he moved closer to his fans, to New York, where he continued to write stories of Fu Manchu until his death in 1959.

Nayland Smith describes Fu Manchu to Dr. Petrie in the first novel:
"Imagine a person, 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. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government-- which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man."
Besides the inhuman picture (much like depictions of the Japanese during WWII), what makes Fu Manchu a villain all the more monstrous is two things: his proximity to the west, and his intellect. His base is in Limehouse, the Chinese area of London. So by allowing him to live in the country, England is vulnerable to his insidious plans (and so becomes a validation of strict immigration policy). His intellect comes from Western learning, and it is often emphasized that he has been educated in a university. So we see the evil asian as using the west's own knowledge against it (much like comments made in the press about Japanese businessmen using knowledge of western economics to stage takeovers in the 1980s). Implicit in this is the idea that such learning can only come from the West, the Orient being incapable of such learning.

It is up to Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie to stop Fu Manchu's plans in each story. As Smith remarks in The Hand of Fu Manchu, "the swamping of the white world by Yellow hordes may be the price of our failure."

The books themselves are of varying quality, ranging from exciting and crisp to barely readable. Ultimately, they are pulp novels, and can be enjoyed as such, and can be read not only as engaging mystery/horror novels but as cultural artifacts which can help to map a compicated and ongoing racial dialogue between East and West.

When it came time to present Fu Manchu in the movies, the question arose as to who would play the sinister villain? The answer, and possible reasons for it both then and now, take up our next section.

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