May 15 2009 4:01pm

The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu

Back in 1980, I saw Peter Sellers’ very last film, The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu, which sadly isn’t very good and was certainly an odd follow-up to the critically-acclaimed Being There (which would have been a much better final film to go out on). But it was my introduction to Dr. Fu Manchu and his arch-nemesis Commissioner Sir Denis Nayland Smith. In the film, Fu Manchu is nearing the end of his very long life and seeking the ingredients to the elixir vitae in order to regain his youth. Standing in his way, his lifelong enemy. Sellers plays both Fu Manchu and Nayland Smith, and the film is notable in that the bad guy wins. Manchu appears at the end, restored to health and youth, and announces his intention to become a rock star. The elder Smith, who has refused his own chance at eternal life, walks away muttering about the “poor, deluded fool,” but even at the time, I thought it was Smith himself who was being foolish.

The movie underscores a lot of what I have come to feel about the characters. But I get ahead of myself.

In 2000, I was the Executive Editor of an Internet start-up called (long since vanished in the burst of the dot com bubble). Bookface was an online publishing venture and we had many tens of thousands of books for online reading, both public domain and publisher-supplied. Among them, the works of Sax Rohmer. I got briefly interested in checking them out, but was put off by the overt racism. Fu Manchu is described by Rohmer as embodying “the yellow peril incarnate in one man,” and I never made it further into the works than encountering that single phrase in a foreword.

Flash forward to a month or so ago, when I became obsessed with the Mountain Goats album Heretic Pride, and most specifically their song & video, Sax Rohmer # 1. Let’s pause and check it out:

Cool, no?

So, after listening to this song a hundred times and memorizing all the lyrics, I went looking up Rohmer on Wikipedia. I already knew that Dr. Fu Manchu was the inspiration for Flash Gordon’s Ming the Merciless, the Shadow’s Shiwan Khan, James Bond’s Dr. No, Jonny Quest’s Doctor Zin, Doctor Who’s Weng-Chiang, and Batman’s Dr. Tzin-Tzin. What I didn’t know was that he was also the primary inspiration for my favorite Bat-villain, Ra’s al Ghul. To learn that fact, and to see the scope of his influence so clearly enumerated,  made me curious again to check out the source material. Add to this my obsession with Stanza for iPhone and instant access to thousands of public domain titles, and I soon had the original 1913 Sax Rohmer novel, The Insidious of Dr. Fu Manchu, in front of me.

Now, before I go any further, this book is overtly racist. And not in the same way that other works of the period, like Edgar Rice Burroughs or Sexton Blake, are colored by the lamentable attitudes of their day. Rohmer was criticized for racism by his contemporaries, and he apparently defended himself by saying that, “criminality was often rampant among the Chinese.” So, I’m not recommending this book. And, in fact, if Rohmer were alive and the book wasn’t public domain, such that no one is profiting financially off of it, I wouldn’t write this post at all. My own interest was specifically to glean insights into how Denny O’Neil created Ra’s al Ghul, and broadly to understand the evolution of the supervillain in popular culture. And Fu Manchu is very definitely one of the first supervillains.

The full quote, from Chapter Two of The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu (1913):

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.

Intriguing and offensive all at once. I’m particularly puzzled by the “magnetic eyes of true cat-green,” a description that makes me wonder if Rohmer ever actually met anyone Chinese. Elsewhere, Fu Manchu’s eyes are actually said to glow at night, and to have a sort of filmy secondary lid which is seen sliding across his iris, which sounds like a cross between Spock’s Vulcan “inner eyelid” and the tapetum lucidum of felines. In fact, this weird physicality actually helped me get through the book, as I came to view Fu Manchu as some sort of alien or supernatural being, and not a true Asian at all. Still, lines like “No white man, I honestly believe, appreciates the unemotional cruelty of the Chinese” are so distasteful that I almost quit reading, and again, would have if the work weren’t approaching a hundred years old. I don’t even like the word “inscrutable,” because I only ever see it applied to Asians, and indeed, it’s all over this book (and might even be the origin of that association for all I know). My wife is Mandarin, from mainland China, and I assure you she is perfectly scrutable, and while she does have a fondness for pinching, she’s hardly unemotional when she does it. No, these are all the trappings of a man who refuses to see people as people, when, as travel in Asia or really travel anywhere will teach you, people are people everywhere you go.

Now, as to the book itself, it (and the next two Fu Manchu novels), are narrated by a Dr. Watson character called Dr. Petrie, but Petrie is more actively involved than Watson ever was, often driving the action and even going off on his own a time or two. Petrie is writing in his study when Nayland Smith, formerly of Scotland yard, recently of Burma, bursts in, enlisting him to help prevent an assassination. We realize that quite a few British gentlemen, all associated with India in some way or other, are being targeted by secret operative of the Chinese government, our title character. Smith and Petrie race to the scene, arriving too late, but not before Petrie, standing guard outside, is approached by a mysterious woman who warns him away. She is later revealed to be Karamaneh, an intoxicatingly beautiful Arabic woman, who is both a slave to Fu Manchu and one of his best assassins. Now, this is where my ears pricked up, because Karamaneh falls instantly in love with Dr. Petrie, and what follows is a succession of cliffhangers in which Petrie and Smith blunder into a succession of death traps and Karamaneh arrives to save them. She won’t abandon Fu Manchu, who has a mysterious hold over her, but neither will she allow her beloved Petrie to come to harm. Starting to sound familiar?

This is it, the inspiration for Ra’s al Ghul’s daughter Talia (also Arabic, deeply in love with Batman, but unable to betray her father). Karamaneh was combined with Fah lo Suee, the daughter of Fu Manchu who was introduced in later books. A deadly supervillain in her own right, Fah lo Suee often fought with her father for control of his organization. She also fell in love with Nayland Smith. O’Neil combined the two women, added a touch of On Her Majestry’s Secret Service, and viola, Ra’s al Ghul and Talia are born.

Anyway, Smith and Petrie try to outwit assassination after assassination, often showing up to warn the victim and then camping out with him while they await the attempt. Some times they are successful, other times Fu Manchu manages the kill by means of mysterious poisons that have been secreted into the victim’s residence at an earlier date. And this, combined with the villain’s bizarrely green eyes, makes me think that Fu Manchu is also the inspiration, at least in part, for the Joker, because that green-eyed maniac’s first appearance, in Batman #1, is oddly similar, with the Joker announcing his intention to kill a succession of victims, Batman and the police staking out the house, and the Joker largely accomplishing his kills in the same manner.  

About midway through the book, Smith and Petrie takes the fight to Fu Manchu, ferreting out his hideouts in an opium den, a mansion, and a grounded ship, destroying each one in turn. Finally, Karamaneh appears to lead Petrie to Fu Manchu’s primary base of operations, an opulently-appointed suite of apartments, in which we learn the nature of his hold over the beautiful assassin. It seems that Fu Manchu, whose medical knowledge “exceeds that of any doctor in the Western world” possesses a strange serum that can induce seeming-death in a person and reawaken them later. He holds the life of her brother Aziz suspended in this way. Karamaneh procures the serum for Petrie and induces him to free her brother, at which point she is no longer in Fu Manchu’s sway.

Fu Manchu himself is then seen locked seemingly in an opium delirium (he is an addict, and Petrie pronounces the habit will soon kill him). But when Smith, Nayland and an Inspector Weymouth approach to apprehend him, they fall through a trap in the floor (the book has a lot of these) into a den where Manchu, a brilliant fungologist, has cultivated a giant variety of empusa muscae that attacks humans (this shows up in Batman too).

Eventually, they free themselves, and Smith and Nayland are witness to a battle on the Thames between Weymouth and Fu Manchu. Both are apparently drowned, but not before Weymouth is injected with a serum that Manchu has developed that drives men mad.

Weymouth resurfaces, coming home to knock on his own backdoor at one a.m. each night, but he is a gibbering maniac (again with the Joker and his “Joker venom,” plus a little bit of Professor Hugo Strange.)

Later, a completely chance encounter reveals that Fu Manchu has survived. He is apprehended, and Smith asks him if he will restore Weymouth to sanity, though Smith adds that “I cannot save you from the hangman, nor would I if I could.”

Fu Manchu replies that, “What I have done from conviction and what I have done of necessity are separate—seas apart. The brave Inspector Weymouth I wounded with a poison needle, in self-defense; but I regret his condition as greatly as you do.” He then agrees to cure the man, on condition that he be left alone with him, as he refused to reveal his secrets. This is arranged, and shortly, a confused by hale Weymouth emerges from the house, only for the building itself to erupt in unnatural flames. Naturally, no bones are ever found among the ashes.

But a note is, in Inspector Weymouth’s pocket, in which Fu Manchu announces that he has been recalled home “by One who may not be denied.” He goes on to write that “In much that I came to do I have failed. Much that I have done I wold undo; some little I have undone,” and adds the enigmatic “Out of fire I came—the smoldering fire of a thing one day to be a consuming fire; in fire I go. Seek not my ashes. I am the lord of the fires! Farewell.”

Of course he comes back. For twelve more books. And that death and resurrection should also remind one of Ra’s al Ghul. Meanwhile, this novel ends with Petrie wondering if sending Karamaneh off on a ship home wasn’t a mistake, followed by the news that Nayland Smith has extended Petrie an invitation to join him on his forthcoming trip to Burma!

So, where did it leave me? Exactly where the Peter Sellers movie did. I really like Dr. Fu Manchu. As apparently does Dr. Petrie, who goes out of his way a dozen times to tell us what a genius he is, an unparalleled doctor and chemist, and probably the smartest man then alive. In fact, it’s mostly Smith who’s the racist and Petrie, falling in love with and in later books marrying an Arabic woman, who seems a good deal more broad-minded. Fu Manchu himself seems to regard Petrie as more of an equal-than-obstacle and Smith as the reverse. Even Rohmer seems to step back from his racism a time or two. After establishing Fu Manchu as an agent of a foreign power, he modifies this opinion and has Smith say that he thinks Fu Manchu represents neither the “Old China” of the Mandarin ruling class, nor the “young China” of “youthful and unbalanced reformers” with “western polish” —but a mysterious and secret “Third Party.” This seems a move to distance him from any real actions of the Chinese country or government. Just as Smith’s bizarre recounting of a (I’m guessing completely fabricated) Chinese legend that children born near graveyards can become possessed of evil spirits under certain circumstances and that Fu Manchu’s own birth occurred under such circumstances seems an attempt to distinguish him from regular Chinese persons, i.e., those not possessed of evil spirits. And then Fu Manchu disappears in the midst of an act of charity, and leaves a note of regret for some of his actions. So, basically, I like Fu Manchu, even as I dislike Nayland Smith and his creator, Sax Rohmer. It’s almost as if the character broke free of the limits of his own creator, as indeed he did, given the wide scope of his influence recounted above. And it’s no wonder he has found himself adapted into the works of Philip José Farmer, Kim Newman, and George Alec Effinger. Fu Manchu shows up, as himself, in both DC and Marvel comics, and is the unnamed “Devil Doctor” of Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. He is named in numerous songs, including ones by the Kinks and Frank Black of the Pixies, and even has a band named after him. He’s been featured in over ten films (five times portrayed by the great Christopher Lee), and Nicolas Cage even cameos as Fu Manchu in Grindhouse. Given all this, and the numerous connections to the Batman legend, I’m glad that I read The Insidious Dr Fu Manchu. I feel like I’ve filled in a glaring hole in my pulp education. But I’m gladder still to live in a world where people are generally more sensitive to such negative stereotyping. Ignorance of Fu Manchu was a hole in my pop cultural education, and my pop culture is rooted in the 20th Century, where the “insidious” Doctor incontestably casts a long shadow. But this is the 21st Century, an enlightened time when hopefully we trust Asian actors to portray their own race better than Englishmen and David Carradine, and as such it’s a time for new myths, new heroes and new villains. So, if you want to know everything there is to possibly know about pulp fiction, Dr. Fu Manchu is certainly on your list, but if you aren’t a child of the 20th century, if you are growing up on the television, cinema, comic books and Internet culture of today, or even if you are older but you are just starting your genre exploration, there are a lot better, newer, and less offensive places to start. And I certainly wouldn’t recommend starting here. Still, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t something compelling—even magnetic—about the brilliant and evil, yet very honorable, Doctor and his hypnotic, penetrating, and altogether inexplicable green eyes.

And on that note, I’ll let the Mountain Goats take us out:

Bells ring in the tower, wolves howl in the hills
Chalk marks show up on a few high windowsills
And a rabbit gives up somewhere, and a dozen hawks descend
Every moment leads toward its own sad end
Yeah ah ah

Ships loosed from their moorings capsize and then they’re gone
Sailors with no captains watch awhile and then move on
And an agent crests the shadows and I head in her direction
All roads lead toward the same blocked intersection

I am coming home to you
With my own blood in my mouth
And I am coming home to you
If it’s the last thing that I do

Bruce Baugh
1. BruceB
When I read Rohmer's books, I started wondering if Fu Manchu might be Yakub, breeder of the white race and all-around bad guy in Nation of Islam doctrine.
Lou Anders
2. LouAnders
Interesting. Had not heard of Yakub before, but reminds me slightly of The Children of Hurin.
Chris Meadows
3. Robotech_Master
I would be curious to learn what you think of the treatment of the Chinese in the Shadow novels.
Lou Anders
4. LouAnders
You know, I haven't read the original Shadow stories, though I do have two of the facsimile reprints around here. My introduction to the character was via Denny O'Neil, encountering him first in Batman and then going to what O'Neil/Kaluta stories I could find. I loved the Howard Chaykin graphic novel, and read the short-lived Andy Helfer/Bill Sienkiewicz series that followed. Didn't think much of the Alec Baldwin film, but that pretty much sums up my Shadow knowledge. I'm planning on checking out the original soon though, and, on this same pulp-fiction kick, just downloaded two Doc Savage novels to my iPhone. I've been talking with my friend writer/editor George Mann about Sexton Blake, and it does seem that Rohmer was a cut above (or rather below) the attitudes of the day, and was perhaps deliberately pandering to sensationalist attitudes at the time rather than just reflecting them.
Terry Lago
5. dulac3
I'm curious what connection you see between the figure of Yakub and _The Children of Hurin_?

Have to agree on Rohmer's offensiveness...I couldn't make it through more than 1/3 of _The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu_
Chris Meadows
6. Robotech_Master
If you can get ahold of them, it's interesting to read them starting from the first one available. It's interesting to note that the Shadow was, himself, well-versed in the mysteries of the Orient, and his girasol ring concealed some sort of seal or sigil beneath the gem that struck awe and terror into any Chinese man to whom he showed it. I never entirely understood that part.

It seemed to me that the Shadow at least treated the Chinese as a people who were worth knowing about (because if they weren't, why would the Shadow—an outsider—have bothered to learn their mystic secrets). But it's been long enough since I read them (and I only got a dozen books or so in) that I may be misremembering.
James Goetsch
7. Jedikalos
Thanks for the Mountain Goats video: very nice indeed.
Lou Anders
8. LouAnders
Robotech - yeah, the fact that his abilities owe their origin entirely to the east speaks well, though mythologizing/mystifying the east is its own kind of stereotype. My wife and I had to put up with a lot of "those people are just so smart" comments when we first got together, largely from people for which it would be too much effort to try and explain why this was also an offensive stereotype. Nod and smile.

Jedikalos - isn't the video amazing? Interestingly enough, the CD also has the track "Lovecraft in Brooklyn," a reference to another ur-pulp master with some rather lamentable opinions about non-Westerners.
Bridget McGovern
9. BMcGovern
Great post! I've been intermittently curious about Fu Manchu for a long time, but I still haven't read any of Rohmer's novels; also, thanks for detailing the character's influence on the Batman pantheon of villainy. I'd never thought about the Joker in connection with the sinister Doctor before--it makes total sense. Lastly, I've been nursing a serious Mountain Goats obsession of my own lately, but somehow hadn't seen this video before; John Darnielle never fails to amaze me. I now feel happily enlightened on a variety of fronts :)
Lou Anders
10. LouAnders
One thing I forgot to mention is that Fu Manchu somehow controls the Thugge, which explains why O'Neil said Ra's al Ghul did too & yet did nothing with it. And yeah, Goats are AMAZING!!
11. Brian2
The Shadow has a mildly complicated history. The character started out as a sort of mystery show host, then became so popular that he starred in a series of novels by the amazingly prolific Walter B. Gibson -- a bit as if the Cryptkeeper in Tales from the Crypt had gotten his own magazine series. A Shadow radio series followed a few years later, which is where "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows" comes from.

The Gibson Shadow and the one in the radio series were quite different. For example, the one in the magazines was just very adept at sticking to the shadows, while the radio Shadow had the power to "becloud men's minds" and thus become invisible, learned in what was then called the Orient. The radio Shadow is the version of the Shadow that's usually thought of.

Recordings of the radio programs are still available, and the first series of them, with Orson Welles as the Shadow and Agnes Moorehead as Margo Lane, are great fun. (They're what first made Welles a star, and when he put on his first play, it was mobbed by people wanting to see what the Shadow looked like.) For the time, they're refreshingly free of racism. There are a lot of Asian adepts popping up, and the Shadow regards them as his peers, evil or not. At one point he travels thousands of miles to answer a telepathic call for help from someone who back then would have been classed as a "native."

After Welles, a lot of actors played the Shadow, and the show seemed to just tread water.
12. scott vasquez
The Manchu in China were known as the Man
Fu in Chinese means Bat
e.g. Bat Man
Batman was first know as The Bat Man
Then known as Batman. i.e. Fu Man
13. The Dark Avenger
The Chinese connection to The Shadow in his pulp version is because they reused a cover that showed a Chinese man cowering before a shadow for their first novel. Mr. Gibson had to incorporate a Chinese angle into his story to go with the cover. In subsequent novels, it was revealed that the Shadow spoke many dialects of, and read, Chinese, and it was hinted that he spent some time there after his WWI activities. There was even a Chinese associate, Dr. Roy Tam, added later on to the series, and an Eurasian agent, Ming Dwan nee Myra Reldon, who with makeup could pass for Chinese and go places no Westerner would dare intrude.

The Chinese in the novels called him "Ying Ko", and he was as feared and dreaded as any imaginary demon from Chinese mythology.

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