Rereading Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu series the past year or so (this is a rewritten 2011 post from my own blog) has been a fascinating experience.
Not always the reading. The books don’t hold up as well as I remember them, though I don’t know how much that’s the books’ fault or me having heightened expectations of my teen years. I’m also much more conscious of the racist aspect than I was as a tween. But rereading them in order, instead of settling for whichever novel I stumbled across next, shows how Rohmer had to adopt his mastermind’s agenda to the changing political winds of the first half of the 20th century. As I’ve had to rewrite one of my short stories four times to adapt to the political shifts of the past four years, I sympathize.
In the first book, The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, the devil doctor is a Chinese super-patriot: His goal is to reverse the course of western imperialism and restore China to great power status. By today’s standards he’s more an anti-hero than a villain, but to Rohmer’s readers an Asian challenging England was by definition a fiend. When Fu’s nemesis Sir Denis Nayland Smith declares in Island of Fu Manchu that the doctor’s scheme will “end the dominance of the white race forever!” it’s meant as a baaad thing.
Even so, Rohmer keeps developing Fu Manchu’s good qualities: he’s a genius, never harms women and always keeps his word (the spirit, not just the letter). That’s not to say the books aren’t racist — they certainly are — and Fu Manchu defined the yellow peril villain for the rest of the century —but I feel as if there’s a better version of the character lurking underneath.
In the early books, Fu Manchu’s primary target is the British Empire but over time his focus shifted to the United States. In 1936’s President Fu Manchu, for instance, he has a scheme to install a puppet politician in the White House (the plot is similar enough to Manchurian Candidate I can’t help wondering if Richard Condon was a fan). As the British Empire still looked rock solid at the time, I wonder whether Rohmer discovered his American fan base was bigger or simply enjoyed using the U.S. as a setting.
By this point in history Japan was waging war on China, raising a tougher question for Rohmer: why was Fu Manchu targeting the West when Japan was so much more worthy of his wrath? Rohmer’s explanation was that Fu Manchu’s secret society, the Si-Fan, was fighting that war on the home front; Japan’s nationalist Black Dragon Society was actually an arm of the Si-Fan. That frees up the doctor, in Drums of Fu Manchu, to assassinate the European leaders of the Axis powers, with Sir Denis trying to save them (Fu does kill Hitler, but a later book explains this was British propaganda). In Island of Fu Manchu, the plan is to create a hidden base with the firepower to crush any nation that initiates a new war; world peace, imposed by Fu Manchu! Smith, once again, attempts to save the world from such a terrible fate.
Post-war, Rohmer pivoted again: Shadow of Fu Manchu has Stalin, assisted by ex-Nazi officers (popular post-war fiction routinely portrayed Nazis and Communists as natural allies), plotting to steal an American death ray and launch WW III. Fu Manchu is once again the good guy, scheming to destroy the ray before anyone can exploit it. In the course of the story, Sir Denis bizarrely dismisses the atomic bomb as small potatoe, perhaps because even Fu Manchu couldn’t put that genie back in the bottle.
When Rohmer returned to his creation a decade later for 1957’s Re-Enter Fu Manchu, Mao’s communists now controlled China. Rohmer makes it very clear that Fu Manchu is staunchly anti-Communist (glorifying workers offends his imperial Chinese spirit). In this novel, he’s out to provide America with a foolproof defense against air attack, shifting the balance of power in the Cold War so the Si-Fan can overthrow Mao. This also has some scenes in Egypt in which American officials emphasize their tremendous, tremendous respect for Britain’s deep understanding of Mideast politics; I suspect this was a sop to British readers still feeling the sting of the U.S. pushing them around in the Suez Crisis.
Fu Manchu is still working against the Communists in Emperor Fu Manchu, seeking to destroy both the Chinese government and a Soviet germ warfare laboratory. He tells Sir Denis at one point that they’re on the same side, but his old foe disagrees. Fu winds up losing again, as a British agent in the Si-Fan delivers a list of the network’s agents in the Communist government to Sir Denis. This was the last novel in the series — given the heavy emphasis on continuity, I suspect Rohmer knew it — though a couple of short stories followed (one of them dealt with flying saucers, showing Rohmer still trying to keep up with the times.
I find it interesting to imagine what Fu Manchu is doing today. Would capitalist China disgust him as much as Mao’s regime did? Would he celebrate that China is once again a serious player? But the authorized novels have stuck carefully to the early 20th century, so my speculation is purely the province of fan-fic.