The Return of Dr Fu-Manchu
Dr Fu Manchu was the star of a series of really entertaining English detective/spy novels by Sax Rohmer. The first one was published in 1913 based on a series of short stories in Colliers magazine, The Mystery of Dr Fu-Manchu. This might be regarded as one of the first spy novels, telling the story of British Special Commissioner Nayland Smith, as related by his best friend and helper Dr Petrie - our narrator. The Return of Dr Fu Manchu from 1916 was the first fully conceived of a total of 13 Fu Manchu books, counting the Colliers compilation.
The evil yellow genius has returned to London from China to further his goals of political subversion of the Western order to prepare for the rise of China and the East to world dominance. In truth, he does minimal subverting in this novel. Fu Manchu is mostly pre-occupied here with staying a step ahead of the dogged pursuit of Nayland Smith.
These stories and the eventual movies were among the more popular works and characters of English literature for a couple of generations, but are generally disregarded today - discredited as "racist" - as if that would be a reason not to read them. Rather, in addition to the entertaining action and intriguing baroque strategies of the evil genius, we can also get a bonus study of perhaps somewhat unhealthy racial attitudes from the late height of the British empire.
To establish the tone of this, here's the very first description of the character in this novel:
Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, highshouldered, 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, 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.
Well, now that has an undeniably high racist quotient there, "the yellow peril incarnate in one man." The literal essence of racism is making broad judgments of people based on race. To the extent that you really take "an entire Eastern race" to heart, and seriously start thinking that the family that runs your local Chinese buffet are evil geniuses and part of the conspiracy - well, that would be racist and bad. This would be particularly bad if you held such thoughts against the patriotic Americans who run The Great Wall in Greensburg, Indiana - who provide countless Americans sustenance in these hard times with the best Chinese buffet in the land. In any case, I don't think that imagining all Asians as being like Fu Manchu was really Sax Rohmer's intent or his actual effect.
In the broadest possible meaning of the word, we're all "racists." Every man alive has had bad thoughts about general groups of people. We expect or fear some identifiable groups of people. Some of this is adaptive and necessary survival skill - and of course a lot of it is fear and protection, ignorance and wickedness. The wickedness born of bigotry is bad, m'kay?
The main true worst bad effect of racism, the thing that sets up the likelihood of bad and oppressive behavior is de-huminization. I kinda cringe at some WWII movies, with just utterly de-personalized androids of Japanese fighter pilots. They were just killing machines. They had no explanation, no motivations. They were robots, not humans. They had no personalities, and thus they were not persons. You wouldn't feel the least bit bad about massacring these inhuman monsters.
But the thing is, Dr Fu-Manchu is Mr Personality. He is frequently described as "evil" in the books, but there is a distinct respect for his mind and his distinctive sensibilities and morality. In the first storyline, Fu Manchu captured an English clergyman who had been undercover in China. He was torturing him to get him to reveal the name of his Chinese contact when Nayland Smith burst in and rescued him. After that, the clergymen was recuperating in a hospital under heavy guard of arms. In this sensitive state, he gets a personal letter from Fu Manchu assuring him that he was no longer in danger, for they had found the traitor by other means. Fu Manchu proceeds to briefly praise the clergyman's manly courage in holding up under the unfortunately necessary torture, and wished him good health and a speedy recovery.
That is not de-humanizing. Fu Manchu appreciated honor in a foe, and held no malicious wish to harm him. It was just business. You might consider that wicked, but it is not inhuman. He has no qualms about using violence and pain as tools to his ends, but the guy absolutely has a code of honor.
That code of honor and values comes most interesting in the final climax of the novel. Fu Manchu has Petrie and Smith trapped. He sets up a story about samurais committed to hari-kari having their truest loyal friend there as backup in disembowel them, in case they lose the nerve to do it themselves. Then he puts Petrie in the position of having to prove he was that deep a friend to Nayland Smith, who was being fed on by hungry Cantonese rats.
So on the one hand, Fu Manchu is an evil bastard. He's no doubt taking some co-incidental pleasure from Smith's suffering. But that was just gravy. The main point was to test Dr Petrie, for whom Fu Manchu had great respect. He considered that he was helpfully pushing Petrie to prove his mettle by being willing to put an end to his friend's suffering. So if this setup was evil, you can understand how in Fu Manchu's twisted value system, he thought he was doing Petrie a major solid - providing an opportunity for major spiritual growth.
Fu Manchu was an opium smoker, a point that would tend to make him more exotic and wicked. This was played up somewhat more in later stories, but it's barely mentioned in this first novel. It comes up in passing near the end of the book, as it is noted that he has "the yellow teeth of the opium smoker."
In any case, Fu Manchu has a unique and well developed personality and value system emerge over the course of the series. It seems wrong to really consider a character this well defined and individuated as any kind of racist charicature.
Then there's the mystery and internal torment of the Egyptian slave girl Karmaneh, sent at one point to seduce and gain influence over Petrie. But something at least partway took in that relationship. She works for Fu Manchu, clearly unwillingly at some point, but nonetheless. But she saves Petrie's life at grave risk of her own at least twice. I mean, the bitch absolutely shot her master Fu Manchu in the face over Petrie. That's brass balls. But you could never count on when her mind was under her control or Fu Manchu's much to Petrie's exquisite agony.
Ultimately, it's hard not to root for Fu Manchu, for he is far the most colorful and far thinking character. It's his world. He ought to rule. Bet he wouldn't be running multi-trillion dollar federal deficits. Plus, we'd all get to smoke opium.
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