Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu by Sax Rohmer

(Book Review)

“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 green cat. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellectual, with all the resources , if you will, of a wealthy government –which, however, 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.”
I’ve often been accused of having bizarre or esoteric interests, and Dr. Fu-Manchu probably falls under that category. 60 or 70 years ago Dr. Fu-Manchu was a house-hold name. Originally a series of books, Fu-Manchu became a radio show, newspaper comic strip, comic book, television show, film serials and feature films.

But you don’t hear too much about Fu-Manchu these days. The series is so politically incorrect that, unlike contemporaries such as Tarzan or Dick Tracy, Fu-Manchu has not passed the test of time. (Although Marvel comics is apparently still using a variant of this character in their story lines.)

My first encounter with Dr. Fu-Manchu was during a Calvin Interim course entitled “Western Perspectives of China.” As the title of the course suggests, we looked at some of the various ways China has been portrayed in Western books and media. As part of this course, we read some of the old Fu-Manchu comics and watched some clips from the movies. It was so incredibly cheesy that I’ve always wanted to return to the world of Fu-Manchu just for the sake of curiosity or a laugh. I just never got around to it until now.

Dr. Fu-Manchu is actually not the main character of the series that bears his name, but rather the villain. The hero of the series is a British government agent named Nayland Smith. The series is narrated from the point of view of Smith’s trusted friend and confident Dr. Petrie, in a manner very similar to the relationship of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

Fu-Manchu represents the yellow peril incarnate who, with the help of his Oriental henchmen, plot the doom of the white race. To say this book is politically incorrect is an understatement. In fact even simply calling it racist wouldn’t be doing it justice. Every page contains something blatantly offensive. Examples are simply too numerous to mention, but include Nayland Smith’s assertations about the cruelty of the Chinese race. Or comments about the ease with which Oriental women form attachment to men. Or the simply assumption throughout the book that there is a constant race war, and lower races are always looking for ways to plot the doom of the white race.

What makes the book readable is that all of this is so over the top it becomes self-parody. It’s like “Mystery Science Theater 3000". You can’t help but laugh at our unenlightened ancestors as you read the book.

The only thing that sobers me a little bit is that anyone who was reading this book when it came out in 1913 might get the impression that all Chinese people were plotting the destruction of Western Civilization. And it makes me wonder if this book might have been the cause of violence against Asian immigrants in England or America. Which wouldn’t be very funny.

But perhaps those people back then weren’t as dumb as we like to think. I think that I can read this book because I’m intelligent enough to discern it wisely, but maybe people in the good old days also knew how to distinguish between entertainment and reality. I don’t know.

Although the Fu-Manchu series has dropped off the pop culture map now, during the 50 years or so he was popular it was not without its impact. For example, Ian Fleming claims to have been inspired by Fu-Manchu, and for this reason the Fu-Manchu series is often called “the literary link between Sherlock Holmes and James Bond.” Fu-Manchu was also the inspiration for a lot of other yellow-peril characters, like Ming the Merciless from “The Flash Gordon” series, and “The Mandarin” from the Iron Man comics.
(Apparently The Mandarin is coming to the big screen as the main villain in the upcoming “Iron Man” unbelievable as that seems in the 21st century).

So, if you’re interested in the history of pulp fiction, this book is worth reading from that perspective as well. It is roughly contemporary with the Sherlock Holmes series, and reads in the same sort of Victorian prose which is somewhat stilted and jolting for modern readers. But if you have the patience, it is highly readable.

The entire book is a battle of wits between Nayland Smith and Dr. Fu-Manchu. At some points Nayland Smith will be just about to capture Fu-Manchu, and then Fu-Manchu will slip through his fingers. At other points, Fu-Manchu will capture Nayland Smith and Petrie and they will have to escape from one of his diabolical death traps.

In a world of trap doors, secret liars, and a cunning super-villain, it is easy to see how this series became the inspiration for James Bond. On the other hand, half-way through it I began to loose my patience with all the near misses. Maybe television has ruined my attention span, but I just wanted them to get to the final face off with Fu-Manchu and be done with it. And yet the climatic ending was really great.

At this point I’m not sure if I’m going to bother continuing on with the “Fu-Manchu” series. At the very least I plan on taking a break before going on to the next volume.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
James Meredith, the civil rights pioneer who was the first Black to attend the University of Mississippi and about whom Bob Dylan wrote the song "Oxford Town"....
later became an arch conservative and spent several years on the staff of Senator Jesse Helms.

Link of the Day
You may soon be able to get a shot of “anarcho-syndicalism” with your mocha Frappuccino, if the Cambridge City Council has its way.
In its meeting last night, the council passed a resolution supporting the right of Starbucks employees to organize under the aegis of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or "Wobblies," a union made famous in the early 20th century for a brand of radical socialism known as “anarcho-syndicalism.” The IWW advocates “aboliton of the wage system” on its website.

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