You could say the Marvel Cinematic Universe happened because of Fu Manchu.
The villain who kidnapped Tony Stark, the Mandarin, was unseen in 2008’s Iron Man, the movie that kicked off the genre-defining Marvel Cinematic Universe. But the origins of the MCU supervillain begin even decades before his 1964 comic book debut.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which opens September 3, 2021, features a composite Mandarin blended with pulp fiction villain Dr. Fu Manchu, a mad scientist and mystic created in 1913 by British novelist Sax Rohmer. Marvel licensed Fu Manchu to be Shang-Chi’s evil father in the cult comic book series Master of Kung Fu in 1973.
While Shang-Chi files off any traces of the evil Fu Manchu, with Hong Kong screen legend Tony Leung inhabiting a soulful and masculine Mandarin (also named “Wenwu”), he still descends from a centuries-old archetype created out of suspicion and contempt toward an entire people. The imagery has incited direct violence against Asians living in America. But Asian Americans now have the power to remake him.
Shang-Chi screenwriter Dave Callaham tells Inverse he wanted to change those perceptions.
“It’s way easier to be violent or hateful to someone you don’t see the same as you,” Callaham says. “With [the history of] Asian representation in the media, it’s not just that we’ve been invisible for a long time. It’s beyond that. We’re the butt of jokes and stereotypes that are damaging. It’s not nothing.”
“We knew we wanted to change that stuff,” he adds, noting that the filmmakers of Shang-Chi had a “physical list” of things “we were looking to destroy.”
Who was Fu Manchu?
A quick glance at Fu Manchu makes it easy to see why Disney-owned Marvel Studios would delete him from its sandbox universe. With a Halloween goatee and command of dark magic, Fu Manchu’s insatiable desire to conquer Western society made him a boogeyman who epitomized fears about Asians and superpowers like China and Japan. He is the “yellow peril” incarnate, an existential menace representing an imagined threat Asia poses for white Westerners.
The origins of Fu Manchu are as baffling as his complicated plots. A popular but unverified story is that Rohmer, born 1883 in England, played with an ouija board and asked how he could make a living as a writer. It allegedly answered with the slur: “Chinaman.”
In 1913, Rohmer published The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu, the first of 13 novels with the character. Rohmer didn’t hide racism behind literary dramatics. It’s explicit in his texts and influences. Rohmer’s first description of Fu Manchu lists his unmistakable traits, like his slanted eyes, gaunt face, silk clothing, and long fingers (a leftover from old political cartoons that likened powerful entities as octopuses) — all staples of yellow peril propaganda.
So reads Rohmer’s first description of Fu Manchu in his 1913 book:
“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 … 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 … Imagine that awful being, and you have a picture of Dr. Fu Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.”
“A counterweight to Western civilization”
“Fu Manchu was a consolidation of stereotypes,” says Jeff Yang, CNN columnist and curator of the 2011 exhibit Marvels and Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics. “Fu Manchu was created very specifically for dime-store penny dreadful thrillers. [He] represented an entire ideology, a counterweight to Western civilization.”
From 1923 to 1980, Fu Manchu spawned his own Marvel-like franchise of radio serials, comic strips, and films, played by white actors like Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, and Peter Sellers. (Nicholas Cage even played Fu Manchu in parody form in the 2007 film Grindhouse.)
In the mid-20th century, Fu Manchu had such an entrenched place in American popular culture that when Marvel writer Steve Englehart and artist Jim Starlin sought to create Shang-Chi in 1972, Marvel acquired the legal rights to Fu Manchu in the interest of adding heft to Shang-Chi, one of its few ethnic minority superheroes (the full story is even weirder, but more on that in the next story).
“He’s hugely popular. A whole facial hair is named after him,” says Dr. Nancy Wang Yuen, an associate professor of sociology at Biola University and author of the book Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism.
Both Yang and Yuen say Fu Manchu birthed his own archetype. Riffs on him exist in the pop culture multiverse, from James Bond nemesis Dr. No to Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon. The superhero genre is rooted in it too. Detective Comics (the birthplace of Batman) had Chin Lung, a villain with blank white almond eyes, on the cover of its premiere issue.
“He’s hugely popular. A whole facial hair is named after him.”
“The West is defined by the East, and the West exists because there’s this ‘other’ that is so different,” says Yuen. “Any time [artists] want to represent ‘different,’ they draw on orientalist tropes. Think Star Wars, Darth Vader looking like a Japanese warlord. They draw on things instilled in the Western mind of what is ‘far away,’ and that is Asia.”
Adds Yuen, “That makes Asians seen in a particular light.”
How “Yellow Peril” formed
The first Asians to come to North America were not Chinese but Filipinos who settled in California and Louisiana in the 1580s. By the 1830s, more groups from Asia began making their way to the Americas to join the workforce as cheap, expendable labor, earning 30 to 50 percent less than their white co-workers.
In England, employers brought in Chinese servants when slavery was abolished there in the 1830s, says Michael Salgarolo, a Ph.D. candidate at New York University studying Asian American history.
Presumed to be stealing jobs from working whites, Asian discrimination persisted throughout the late 19th century and endured into the twentieth. Menacing yellow peril cartoons and anti-Asian editorials in newspapers fueled sentiment that led to the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers into the United States. To this day, Chinese Exclusion is still the only law in U.S. history to ban immigrants of a specific ethnic group.
Episodes of anti-Chinese violence sandwiched Chinese Exclusion. On October 24, 1871, in Los Angeles, a mob of 500 white and Hispanics stormed into Chinatown and killed 19, resulting in one of the largest mass lynchings in American history. In 1885, the Rock Springs Massacre in Wyoming, carried out by white miners, ended in approximately 28 to 50 dead Chinese. Unprovoked attacks of anti-Asian violence increased during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I do think Western media is largely to blame for that,” says Shang-Chi screenwriter Callaham. “Without representation [in media], it’s much easier to paint Asians as ‘other’ and not equal to.”
“Chinese Exclusion is a major piece of legislation that affected immigration in this country for an entire century,” says Phil Yu, writer of the popular Asian American culture blog Angry Asian Man. “[Yellow peril] takes on different forms over the years. The incarceration of Japanese-Americans, that’s xenophobia, racism, yellow peril wrapped in one.”
“Yellow peril” was coined by German Emperor Kaiser Willhelm II (who made up the phrase die Gelbe Gefahr, or “yellow peril”) to justify colonization of China and Japan. It found mainstream use by author Jack London in his 1904 essay for the San Francisco Examiner, writing that “the menace to the Western world lies … in the four hundred millions of yellow men.”
The yellow peril has had many faces, but Fu Manchu epitomized them for mass culture.
“The ‘peril’ lay not in the fact that he was cunning and leading this criminal conspiracy that could destroy the white man,” explains Jeff Yang, “It was that he represented this antithetical view where life was cheap. That is a creature you can make nightmares out of.”
Fu Manchu’s burst in popularity came when China and Japan both started developing superpower status. At the same time, cinema was maturing as an art and industry. “The challenge of the era was creating monsters in ways that were visually impactful,” says Jeff Yang.
While Fu Manchu is not among the Universal Monsters, like Dracula and Werewolf, Yang thinks he’s just as elemental.
“Those creations were coming up around Fu Manchu,” he says. “You started to see shorthand aspects, pointed ears, arching eyebrows, for a diabolical evil. [Fu Manchu] was a template for the way monstrosity was depicted in years to come.”
Reclaiming “yellow peril”
As a character, Fu Manchu fell out of favor toward the 21st century. The ghosts of yellow peril did not.
In 1982, 27-year-old Vincent Chin was beaten to death by two white men, both of whom lost jobs in the American automobile industry to the Japanese market. One of the assailants was reported by witnesses saying to Chin: “It’s because of you little motherfuckers that we’re out of work.” (Vincent Chin was Chinese, not Japanese.) After Chin’s death, his attackers received a lenient sentence of $3,000 fines and no jail time; the case became a flashpoint for Asian-American civil rights.
“Asian Americans” is also a relatively new term, originating in 1968 by UC Berkeley students Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee when they founded the Asian American Political Alliance. Until then, the terms for Asian Americans were “Orientals,” “Asiatic,” or “Mongoloid” even in government documents. For the first time, Asian Americans decided what to call themselves.
It is no coincidence that during this time, Asian Americans reclaimed “yellow peril.” In 1969 in Oakland, California, Japanese-American activist and Black Panther Party member Richard Aoki carried a sign that read “Yellow Peril Supports Black Power” during the arrest of Huey Newton. The phrase became iconic for Asian-Black solidarity.
The hyphenated political identity “Asian American” was just five years old when Shang-Chi debuted in Marvel’s comics. Now close to 50 years later, the juggernaut Marvel Studios has had to reckon with its own source material’s uglier aspects, especially Fu Manchu.
Which brings us back to Callaham’s list of things to destroy.
The “Wenwu List”
With Asian Americans in 2021 commanding buying power worth an estimated $1.2 trillion, not to mention all of Hollywood’s continued interests in mainland China — which took issue with Shang-Chi because of the Fu Manchu connections — it was in Marvel’s interests to redefine Shang-Chi’s villainous father within a celebratory superhero film. Tasked with the challenge, director Destin Daniel Cretton and screenwriter Dave Callaham, both of mixed race Asian heritage, did something revolutionary: They saw Wenwu as a human being.
“This was probably the easiest part,” Callaham tells Inverse. “No one had to think about whether we wanted to include Fu Manchu. It was obvious.”
For Shang-Chi, Fu Manchu was a non-entity; Marvel has not had the rights to Fu Manchu since the final issue of Master of Kung Fu in 1983. Since then, comic book writers have found roundabout solutions to Shang-Chi’s father. In Gene Luen Yang’s ongoing series Shang-Chi, he is now his own entity, named “Zheng Zu.”
Fu Manchu was “irrelevant” during pre-production of Legend of the Ten Rings. “He’s gone through a couple of iterations, and the ones we found most problematic tended toward the yellow peril,” says Callaham, who observes the ghost of Fu Manchu still lingers in elements like Zheng Zu’s goatee, long hair, and “Eastern sorcery.”
“It became the ‘Wenwu List’ of stereotypes we wanted to explode,” adds Callaham. “We knew this needs to be a character not intent on destroying the world, not mysterious or sneaky, or a sorcerer whose magic Westerners cannot understand.”
While Callaham says these tropes can be “cool,” citing Big Trouble in Little China as a personal favorite movie, the filmmakers of Shang-Chi aimed to add dimension to the archetype.
“When Destin came in, those conversations became serious. He’s an empathetic filmmaker drawn toward stories about families,” Callaham says, referencing Cretton’s films like Short Term 12 and The Glass Castle. “Destin wanted to have more nuance and trauma on both ends you could understand and relate to.”
“Our biggest challenge was to make him a real person,” Cretton tells Inverse. “In order to get an actor like Tony Leung, we had to do that. We looked at Wenwu as a human with multi-dimensions and personal desires. People will be surprised how much they can relate [to him].”
Adds Callaham, “I don’t think Wenwu is a villain in this movie. He does heinous things, but the places they’re coming from are understandable. He’s loving, caring. None of these things are a yellow peril. [We] paint this guy as a father, a lover, a husband. That’s relatable to everyone.”
The evolution of a yellow peril villain whose origins begin further back than pulp novels but reverberate today in Marvel blockbusters speaks to a critical part of the Asian American story.
Excluded from history and dehumanized by imaginations that weren’t their own, Asian Americans are now empowered to reclaim heroes — and villains — for themselves.
This is the first in a three-part series about the rise, fall, and rebirth of Marvel’s Shang-Chi.