Fifty Shades of Fu Manchu: Yellow Peril as a Recurring Nightmare

Poster for the 1966 film "The Brides of Fu Manchu." Although the poster insinuates that Fu Manchu takes a harem, the Christopher Lee incarnations of the doctor are very much depicted as very much asexual.

Efe Levent

All captions penned by Efe Levent. 

Like Halloween has Jack o’ Lanterns, Thanksgiving has Turkey and Christmas has its own Starbucks cups—election season in the United States has always come with a solid dose of sinophobia. It is a tradition that goes back to the 1880s, when San Fransisco-based trade unions were agitating for legislation to bar Chinese immigrants from US soil. Their efforts have resulted with the 1882 Chinese exclusion act. Having a pop at the Chinese has, since then, become almost mandatory for prospective office holders. It is unsurprising that Donald Trump has hardly said anything other than “China” during his campaign. Ben Carson has made unsubstantiated allegations about Chinese involvement in Syria. Hillary Clinton has attempted to paint herself as a feminist champion by calling the Chinese president Xi JinPing “shameless”; for the arrest of feminist activists, as if the United States is a place where black women are not being murdered in police custody for failing to signal a lane change. Bernie Sanders, the darling of the American Left, has followed in the footsteps of his socialist predecessors and complained about cheap Chinese labor taking over American jobs.

Sanders’s political ancestor, labor agitator Dennis Kearney called to his fellow working men in Boston Common in 1878 to “drive these moon-eyed lepers back by steamship and by sail.” The language of “yellow peril” and impending Chinese invasion, has remained depressingly familiar since then. Senatorial candidate Pete Hoekstra’s 2012 campaign ad consists of a Chinese woman cycling around paddy fields in an allegedly post-apocalyptic future in which he has lost the elections. She congratulates the American public for making the wrong choice and informs them “your economy get very weak. Ours get very good. We steal your jobs.”

Although white supremacy and its hysterical fears of the Chinese remain a predictable constant, the specific ways in which these fears are voiced can be telling about the society which manufactures them. Determining how colonialism annuls and trivializes the objects of its domination can illuminate how these stereotypes are based in its own insecurities. And a clearer understanding of these insecurities can be a powerful tool of decolonization.

The depiction of "Yellow Peril" comissioned by Kaiser Wilhelm to Hermann Knackfuss.
The depiction of “Yellow Peril” comissioned by Kaiser Wilhelm to Hermann Knackfuss.

The figure of Fu Manchu functions as a Rorschach test for Western society over an extended period as a serial character who dies at the end of each episode only to resuscitate at the beginning of the next. Tracing his development throughout his illustrious career in villainy, is almost like interpreting the collective racial nightmares of the developed world. Looking at how Fu Manchu has changed between his original inception by Sax Rohmer as a pulp novel in 1913 and his later incarnation in late 60s starring Christopher Lee in “yellowface,” diagnoses the compulsive avarice and ravaging lechery of a schizophrenic society which continues to paint itself as the bastion of freedom and civilization—tracing how Fu Manchu has changed between these periods is tracing the evolution of this pathology. It is particularly revealing in terms of how the beneficiaries of colonialism have understood themselves as sexual beings. The unifying thread between the different reincarnations of Fu Manchu is a heightened concern with sexual conquest, perversion, and virility.

From its very inception, the character crawls out its author’s primordial soup of colonial greed. Sax Rohmer is recorded candidly telling his biographer the commercial motivation behind exploiting the colonial zeitgeist:

Conditions in 1912 for launching a Chinese villain on the market were ideal. I wondered why it had never before occurred to me. The Boxer rebellion had started off rumours of a Yellow Peril which had not yet died down. Recent events in Limehouse had again drawn public attention Eastwards.

The recent events Rohmer alludes to are the rumours of a Chinese organized crime gang conducting a series of murders in London’s then Chinatown. Although historic police records do not show an increased crime rate in any of the UK’s tiny Chinese communities, this does not stop those with vivid imaginations from projecting nightmarish fantasies.

Leaders of European nations asleep as the yellow peril spreads to their countries. Caption reads: "Yellow Peril- European Nightmare." Blue ball on the top left reads: "Celestial Empire."
Leaders of European nations asleep as the yellow peril spreads to their countries. Caption reads: “Yellow Peril- European Nightmare.” Blue ball on the top left reads: “Celestial Empire.”

These macabre fantasies almost invariably involve a form of sexual contact between Chinese men and white women. The idea of a racial nightmare is no longer a metaphor in the case of Kaiser Wilhelm. One morning in 1895 the Kaiser woke up to a terrifying nightmare indeed, and decided to commission a work of art to warn all his European friends. The picture which popularized the term “yellow peril”, was commissioned to German artist Hermann Knackfuss. It depicts the nations of Europe as young women guarded by the archangel Michael, facing the figure of an ominous rising Buddha. The title of the painting is “Peoples of Europe, guard your dearest goods.” It is not difficult to imagine that the dearest good of all within the patriarchal imagery of this picture is the virginal purity of European women.

Today, Victorian Europe is famously ridiculed for its obsession with virtue and chastity. These worries find their most distinctive elaboration in the writings of Sigmund Freud. In his book, Civilization and its Discontents,—a classic of white mediocrityFreud argues that civilisation is directly incompatible with instinctive human desires. For cultural advancement to be possible, humanity has to abandon pursuing the satisfaction of its urges and appetites. And yes, that also includes sex.

Illustration from the 1902 publication by American Federation of Labor titled: "Some Reasons for Chinese Exclusion: Meat vs Rice." Most American socialists and trade unions have adopted such racist imagery to support the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882).
Illustration from the 1902 publication by American Federation of Labor titled: “Some Reasons for Chinese Exclusion: Meat vs Rice.” Most American socialists and trade unions have adopted such racist imagery to support the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882).

This ideology reflects on the depiction of Fu Manchu. His very first description by Rohmer in The Mystery of Fu Manchu is interlaced with insinuations of sinister perversion. His physical features alone suggest a disquieting intellect and a uniquely Oriental sense of hypnotising perversion:

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.

Similarly, in the 1932 Movie adaptation starring Boris Karloff, Fu Manchu is once again portrayed as a lustful pervert who uses his occult powers to corrupt Western moral purity. The main hero of the story, a muscular American man by the name of Terry gets captured by the evil doctor shortly before his wedding to be tortured, hypnotized, and be given to the doctor’s daughter as a plaything. Due to the period’s squeamishness about portrayals of sexuality on the silver screen, perversions are always implied and never directly revealed. The scene where the doctor injects a mind controlling serum into Terry’s blood has often been noted for its homoeroticism. The scene takes place in an operation theatre, under the watchful eyes of the doctor’s half naked African henchmen who unaccountably appear to be perched on narrow plinths. The doctor does Terry the courtesy of telling him the recipe of the mixture, which although only marginally relevant for the purpose here, deserves to be quoted in full for its comical nature. Readers are cautioned to not try it at home.

This serum, distilled from dragon’s blood, my own blood, the organs of different reptiles, and mixed with a magic brew of the Sacred Seven Herbs, will temporarily change you into the living instrument of my will. You will do as I command!

Poster for the 1966 film "The Brides of Fu Manchu." Although the poster insinuates that Fu Manchu takes a harem, the Christopher Lee incarnations of the doctor are very much depicted as very much asexual.
Poster for the 1966 film “The Brides of Fu Manchu.” Although the poster insinuates that Fu Manchu takes a harem, the Christopher Lee incarnations of the doctor are very much depicted as very much asexual.

Later in the film Terry awakens from his hypnosis by his fiancee Sheila. The scene is remarkable for the message it carries about Western notions of romantic love. Terry snaps back into consciousness when fondled by his heart’s delight who proclaims her unconditional love for him. It works, because True Love is understood as a natural process which works like a chemical antidote against Chinese quackery. It is bound tightly with human biology itself. The uniquely Victorian aspect of the scene is the chasteness of Terry’s relationship with Sheila. While Fu Manchu and his daughter Fah Lo See are depicted as lusting over Terry’s masculine body, Sheila offers naive declarations of devotion. This period of European self identification places a great deal of emphasis on chastity. The impromptu notes which constituted the script for the movie describes Sheila’s initial reaction to seeing Terry hypnotised as follows:

Sheila draws back in horror. She could have almost stood anything but this- Death for Terry would have been better- but this idea of sex creeping in- the fact that he has slept with this Chinese girl- that would serve to arouse any woman who has loved a man.

It is no coincidence that the Freudian paradigms of sexual chastity have gained prominence during an era of increased concern about mixed race children and the threat they pose to patriarchal property. Whereas the previous era of colonialism in the 17th century encouraged intrepid settlers to obtain local concubines to gratify their domestic and sexual needs, by the 19th century, more organized, state sponsored colonial ventures started churning out policies and popular literature to restrict intermarriage in colonial territories. All the while, forced prostitution and rape of natives continued unabated. In 1868 the Indian contagious diseases act was passed in British India. The legislation criminalized and imprisoned female sex workers suffering from sexually transmitted infections, and not the men soliciting their services. The discriminatory nature of the policy reveals the entitlement the British Empire had over the bodies of Indian women. Bodies, branded by lawmakers to satisfy the lust of conquering white men, who considered brown women as their birthright.

The original Fu Manchu franchise, marching to the beat of official propaganda had the cheek to portray the colonized as the rapists and the colonizers as the target of their lecherous intentions. This discourse functions as an automated system of denial. How could these chaste, civilised Westerners with their full grasps of romantic love ever commit any heinous act at all? Especially when they are on a mission to civilise reluctant savages!

It wasn’t long, before paradigms have changed. Freud’s insistence on sexual repression collapsed under new theories developed by the likes of Havelock Ellis and Steve Reich. Both Ellis and Reich have trumpeted the dawn of a new “sexual revolution.” Reich, indeed had so much faith in the importance of orgasms that he postulated a theory of “Orgone”, claiming orgasmic energy as a profound force that moves the universe. Although Reich has been discredited and later arrested for quackery, crackpot ideas about the healing power of orgasms continue to flourish in popular thinking. Sexologists of this era like Havelock Ellis, Alfred Kinsey and Masters and Johnson have challenged Freud’s insistence on repression and put forward what is now known as the “hydraulic model of sexuality”. This model suggested that sexual desire is uncontrollable or will lead to profound psychosis if suppressed. Sexual urges are seen as permanently simmering in a pressure cooker, requiring release. According to these researchers, criminal incidents like rape and sexual harassment are caused by men’s urges not finding healthy release in sexual activity. The underlying suggestion of this literature is that human sexuality needs to be “liberated” from social pressure for predatory pathological behaviour to disappear. Unlike Victorian women who were told: “grit your teeth and think of England.” Modern women are expected to enjoy providing release for men’s urges.

The counterculture movement of the 1960s is largely to thank for the infusion of the act of coitus with revolutionary significance. It is often noted in the biographies of participants in radical left organizations of the time and the writings of feminists that this revolutionary “discovery” of sex by Western youth was often not more than a weapon to coerce women into proving that they are “liberated” by conceding to advances. Dana Densmore, in her response to the trend Independence from the Sexual Revolution in 1973, summarizes it as thus:

Under the banner of “not denying our sexuality” and pointing to repression in the past when women were denied the right to any pleasure in their bodies at all, many of us now embrace sexuality and its expression completely uncritically. As if present excess could make up for past deprivation. As if even total sexual fulfillment would change anything. Except…is this true?—except private dead-of-the-night fears that maybe we really are the sexually frustrated, neurotic freaks our detractors accuse us of being. Are we chasing sexual fulfillment so earnestly because we have to prove that our politics are not just a result of our needing a good fuck?

Poster for the 1962 James Bond film "Dr. No" The appearance of James Bond on the Silver screen will reverse the sexual roles assigned to the white hero and the Chinese villain.
Poster for the 1962 James Bond film “Dr. No” The appearance of James Bond on the Silver screen will reverse the sexual roles assigned to the white hero and the Chinese villain.

It is precisely at this point that the Fu Manchu franchise kicked off once again. Harry Allan Towers whose name comes up in the investigations for both the Kennedy assassination and the Profumo scandal, mostly tied to his activities in recruiting women to work as prostitutes, is the esteemed producer of the new series which is launched with The Face of Fu Manchu in 1965. This time played by Christopher Lee, the character has become something entirely different. This change is greatly affected by the release of the first James Bond movie Dr. No (1962). The roles of sexual expression and repression are now reversed. Bond is the suave virile hero who romances and conquers a variety of women, whereas his half Chinese nemesis Dr No appears as an asexual figure described by Ian Fleming in the original book as “a giant venomous worm wrapped in grey tin foil.” The invariably white, sexually liberated, Western hero counterbalances the repressed Asian villain.

By late 20th century the nature of colonialism and capitalism have evolved from the Victorian model of direct invasion and military supression, to one guided by consumerism and its promise of instant gratification. This is of course entirely incompatible with Freud’s sexual repression theories. Oh how yesteryear’s fundamental cornerstone of civilization, swiftly becomes the embarrassment of today! With a change of wind, colonialists have decided to boast about their sexual liberation, and not their purified chastity. This means, that the Chinese, who function as a mirror opposite to the white ego, will have to be stripped of their former perversions to become automated robots stripped of all urges and desires.

By the 60s it has become a lot more acceptable to show sexuality on the silver screen, thus producers and directors are a lot less restricted to confining themselves to insinuation alone. The acceptability of naked female bodies on the screen is almost indirectly proportional to Fu Manchu’s interest in them. It even helps to emphasize the extent to which the on-screen villain has developed pathologies related to sexual repression. Scene after scene, we see Christopher Lee milling about in underground dungeons full of half naked women, without so much as having a glimpse at them. To the post sexual revolution virility obsessed white male mind, the reason why Fu Manchu is frightening, is not because he is expressive of his lust, but because he is repressive. The audiences in these movies are expected to find Fu Manchu frightening precisely because he does not take advantage of them. What kind of a sicko do you have to be to have occult powers of hypnosis, and not even use it once to have sex with a woman without her consent?! A remarkable difference in these movies also, is that Fu Manchu does not carry a firearm any more. Whereas in the 1932 film he can be seen pointing the ultimate totem of patriarchal Western potency to his arch-nemesis Nayland Smith, in the 1960’s reincarnation he appears castrated at every gun draw.

The perfect illustration of the difference between the two incarnations of the devil doctor is seen in the testimonies of the actors who played his daughter in 1932 and in the 60s. Myrna Loy the actor who played the part with “yellow face” in 1932 has said that she finds the script “obscene” and lamented having to play a “sadistic nymphomaniac.” By 1960s the new actor Tsai Chin lamented the exact opposite:

All I had to do in these films was to follow my father around and say a few banal lines while trying to look evil. How I envied Myrna Loy in her series. She was allowed to pepper up her part by being a nymphomaniac, while I was just plain wicked.

What is interesting about the how the character of Fu Manchu changes from being a sexually expressive pervert, to a repressed asexual, is the revelation of how Western pathologies are projected on people of color. A fundamental aspect of colonial exploitation is the manufacture of a language and visual symbolism to convince victims that colonial exploitation benefits those colonized, by bringing progress to them. Questioning the desirability of this progress by exposing the deeply disturbed ideology that it is built on could be an essential step in the long journey to decolonization. This disturbed ideology subjects sexuality to mechanical laws of technological progress. It huddles intimacy into a bar chart to measure its advancement. It turns liberation into a pissing race to display a constant willingness to be aroused at the drop of a hat. The lone figure of Fu Manchu stands out in this race as a perpetual misfit and a persistent non-conformist.

Edited by Merve Ünsal

Efe Levent is a grumpy anthropologist, specializing on representations of gender and ethnicity in popular media. He is currently working on decolonizing his mind and pairing his socks so they match.