“Dr. Fu Manchu” as a typical Chinese villain in the Western perspective
“Dr. Fu Manchu,” as a typical epitome of the Chinese people according to the Western perspective, exemplifies the century-long historical imaginaries by the Western world about the modern China.
In the wake of China’s defeat during the War of Jiawu (the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895), the Western powers initiated a huge wave of splitting up China in order to grab their individual interests. As a result, the Boxer Movement ensued in which the boxers, driven by simple patriotic sentiments, engaged in a campaign to “assist the Qing Government by eradicating foreign invaders.” However, to the people in the West, the behavior of the boxers was, without exception, rude, barbaric and violent. “Those Chinese, countless in number, seemed to constitute a yellow monster with only one face and one head, but innumerable hands and feet . . .”8
In 1912, the rule of the Qing Dynasty came to an end. It was precisely in that year that the British author Sax Rohmer started writing his series of novels featuring the master criminal Dr. Fu Manchu. As depicted by Sax Rohmer, the protagonist Dr. Fu Manchu is both erudite and versatile, who has an incredible knowledge of science and technology of all times, both Chinese and foreign. Dr. Fu Manchu is tall, handsome and equipped with unparalleled intelligence. Regrettably, however, Dr. Fu Manchu was neither Sherlock Holmes nor James Bond, but the ringleader of an evil group that incorporated mystery, horror and conspiracy. In Rohmer’s conception, all the misfortunes of the Western world could be attributed to the representative of all the yellow people - Dr. Fu Manchu and the gang under his leadership. If the idea of the “Yellow Peril” required a specific signifier as a vehicle to demonize the Chinese, the image of Dr. Fu Manchu could perfectly answer to the Westerners’ anticipation by serving as an incarnation of the “Yellow Peril” as conceived by the Western world in the 20th century. Under such circumstances, the image of a Chinese antihero who “is tall but thin in physique, looking sinister with a bald head and inverted long eyebrows” came into being.
As an epitome of the “Chinese villain” created specifically to cater to the market of mass culture, Dr. Fu Manchu began to gain increasing popularity as part of the Western folklore. On one hand, as a symbolic signifier, Dr. Fu Manchu answered to the deep-rooted conception of the Westerners about Chinese immigrants. Dr. Fu Manchu was seen as prepared to create an Empire of Darkness in the China Town which could, at any moment, topple the Western world. On the other hand, Dr. Fu Manchu, also as a symbolic signifier, was perceived by Westerners as exemplifying those “Manchurian dignitaries” within the native land of China, people who were evil but appeared to be gentle and refined, with the superhuman power and the single-minded determination to conquer the world. In the West, Dr. Fu Manchu became a household icon that represented China. In this way, a dark, evil and hideous image of China was constructed.
“By the time of his death in 1959, Sax Rohmer, along with a considerable number of writers who came under his influence, produced dozens of novels that centered on the demonic image of Dr. Fu Manchu, constituting a spectacular landscape in the Anglo-American literary community, one in which various authors were engaged as if in a relay competition.”9 Those novels in which Dr. Fu Manchu appears as the main character became highly popular in more than 30 countries in America, Europe and Asia. Among all those works, six novels written by Sax Rohmer in his “Dr. Fu Manchu Series” were adapted into films. Compared with the image of Dr. Fu Manchu as portrayed by the written words of novels, which seemed to be somewhat flat, tedious and stereotypical, the cinematic representations of the character were much more vivid, graphic and realistic and, through several decades of sensationalizing and reinforcement, those films have served to finalize and solidify China’s demon image in the chronicles of the Western mass culture.
It is often claimed that “it takes the imagination of a single individual to produce one book but it takes the common imagination of the public to turn that book into a bestseller.”10 This assertion perfectly explains the phenomenon of how Dr. Fu Manchu evolved into a popular Western stereotype. As a symbolic signi- fier, Dr. Fu Manchu has not only developed into a literary icon embodying the “Yellow Peril” doctrine but also helped to convey and spread, in the subconscious of the Western world, the common imagination about China.