Doctor Fu Manchu is a fictional character introduced in a series of novels by British author Sax Rohmer during the first half of the 20th century. The character was also featured extensively in cinema, television, radio, comic strips and comic books for over 90 years, and has become an archetype of the evil criminal genius while lending the name to the Fu Manchu moustache. He is by far Rohmer’s most famous character, though he wrote many other stories including murder-mysteries, several novels of supernatural horror, including Brood of the Witch-Queen and The Romance of Sorcery, the mystery-solving magician character Bazarada based on his friend, the famed magician and escapologist, Houdini.
A master criminal, Fu Manchu’s murderous plots are marked by the extensive use of arcane methods; he disdains guns or explosives, preferring dacoits, Thuggee, and members of other secret societies as his agents armed with knives, or using “pythons and cobras … fungi and my tiny allies, the bacilli … my black spiders” and other peculiar animals or natural chemical weapons.
In the 1933 novel, The Bride of Fu Manchu, Fu Manchu claims to hold doctorates from four Western universities. In the 1959 novel, Emperor Fu Manchu, he reveals he attended Heidelberg, the Sorbonne, and Edinburgh. At the time of their first encounter (1911), Doctor Petrie believed that Fu Manchu was around 70 years old. This would have placed Fu Manchu in the West studying for his first doctorate in the 1860s or 1870s.
According to Cay Van Ash, Rohmer’s biographer and former assistant who became the first author to continue the series after Rohmer’s death, “Fu Manchu” was a title of honour, which meant “the Warlike Manchu.” Van Ash speculates that Fu Manchu had been a member of the Imperial family who backed the losing side in the Boxer Rebellion. In the earliest books, Fu Manchu is an agent of the secret society, the Si-Fan and acts as the mastermind behind a wave of assassinations targeting Western imperialists. In later books, he vies for control of the Si-Fan which is more concerned with routing Fascist dictators and halting the spread of Communism. The Si-Fan is largely funded through criminal activities, particularly the drug trade and white slavery. Doctor Fu Manchu has extended his already considerable lifespan by use of the elixir vitae, a formula he spent decades trying to perfect.
Opposing Fu Manchu in the early stories are Denis Nayland Smith and Doctor Petrie. They are in the Holmes and Watson tradition, with Doctor Petrie narrating the stories while Nayland Smith carries the fight, combating Fu Manchu more by dogged determination than intellectual brilliance (except in extremis). Nayland Smith and Fu Manchu share a grudging respect for one another, as each believes a man must keep his word even to an enemy.
Fu Manchu’s daughter, Fah lo Suee, is a devious mastermind in her own right, frequently plotting to usurp her father’s position in the Si-Fan and aiding his enemies within and outside of the organisation. Her real name is unknown; Fah lo Suee was a childhood term of endearment. She was introduced anonymously while still a teenager in the third book in the series and plays a larger role in several of the titles of the 1930s and 1940s. She was known for a time as Koreani after being brainwashed by her father, but her memory was later restored. She is infamous for taking on false identities, like her father, among them Madame Ingomar and Queen Mamaloi. In film, she has been portrayed by numerous actresses over the years. Her character is usually renamed in film adaptations because of difficulties with pronunciation.
After the 1932 release of MGM’s adaptation of The Mask of Fu Manchu, which featured the Asian villain telling an assembled group of “Asians” (consisting of caricatural Indians, Persians and Arabs) that they must “kill the white men and take their women”, the Chinese embassy in Washington issued a formal complaint against the film.
Following the 1940 release of Republic Pictures’ serial adaptation of Drums of Fu Manchu, the US State Department requested the studio make no further films with the character as China was an ally against Japan. Likewise Rohmer’s publisher, Doubleday, refused to publish further additions to the best-selling series for the duration of the Second World War once the United States entered the conflict. BBC Radio and Broadway investors subsequently rejected Rohmer’s proposals for an original Fu Manchu radio serial and stage show during the 1940s.
The re-release of The Mask of Fu Manchu in 1972 was met with protest from the Japanese American Citizens League, who stated that “the movie was offensive and demeaning to Asian-Americans.”
It was Rohmer’s contention that he based Fu Manchu and other “Yellow Peril” (!) mysteries on real Chinese crime figures he knew during his time as a newspaper reporter covering Limehouse activities.
In May 2013, this again received media’s attention as General Motors pulled an advertisement after receiving complaints that it included a song containing reference to “the land of Fu Manchu”.
The character of Fu Manchu became a stereotype often associated with the threat from Eastern Asia. Fu Manchu has inspired numerous other characters, and is the model for most villains in other Oriental crime thrillers. Examples include Pao Tcheou, Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon, Dr Goo-Fee from Fearless Fly, L’Ombre Jaune/ Monsieur Ming from Bob Morane, Li Chang Yen from The Big Four, James Bond adversary Dr No, The Celestial Toymaker from the Doctor Who story of the same name, Dr Benton Quest’s archenemy Dr Zin from the Jonny Quest television series, Dr Yen-Lo from The Manchurian Candidate, Lo-Pan from Big Trouble in Little China, Marvel Comics foes the Mandarin and the Yellow Claw, DC Comics’ Rā’s al Ghūl, Wo Fat from the CBS TV series Hawaii Five-O, “The Craw” in more than one episode of Get Smart, Ancient Wu from the video game True Crime: Streets of LA, and “Fu Fang” in The Real Ghostbusters NOW Comics. Fu Manchu and his daughter are the inspiration for the character Hark and his daughter Anna Hark in the comic book series Planetary. Interestingly, though the style of facial hair associated with him in film adaptations has become known as the Fu Manchu moustache, Rohmer’s writings described the character as wearing no such adornment.
- The Mystery of Doctor Fu-Manchu (1913) (US Title: The Insidious Doctor Fu-Manchu).
- The Return of Dr Fu-Manchu (1916) (UK Title: The Devil Doctor)
- The Hand of Fu Manchu (1917) (UK Title: The Si-Fan Mysteries)
- Daughter of Fu Manchu (1931)
- The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)
- The Bride of Fu Manchu (1933) (original US Title: Fu Manchu’s Bride)
- The Trail of Fu Manchu (1934)
- President Fu Manchu (1936)
- The Drums of Fu Manchu (1939)
- The Island of Fu Manchu (1941)
- The Shadow of Fu Manchu (1948)
- Re-Enter: Fu Manchu (1957) (UK Title: Re-Enter: Doctor Fu Manchu)
- Emperor Fu Manchu (1959) was Rohmer’s last novel.
- The Wrath of Fu Manchu (1973) was a posthumous anthology containing the title novella, first published in 1952, and three later short stories: “The Eyes of Fu Manchu” (1957), “The Word of Fu Manchu” (1958), and “The Mind of Fu Manchu” (1959).
- Ten Years Beyond Baker Street (1984). The first of two authorised continuation novels by Cay Van Ash, Sax Rohmer’s former assistant and biographer. The novel is set in a narrative gap within The Hand of Fu Manchu and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story, His Last Bow (both published in 1917). Holmes comes out of retirement to aid Dr Petrie when Nayland Smith is abducted by the Si-Fan.
- The Fires of Fu Manchu (1987). The second of two authorised continuation novels by Cay Van Ash. The novel is set in 1917 and documents Smith and Petrie’s encounter with Fu Manchu during the First World War culminating in Smith’s knighthood. A third Van Ash title, The Seal of Fu Manchu was underway when Van Ash died in 1994. The incomplete manuscript is believed lost.
- The Terror of Fu Manchu (2009). The first of three authorised continuation novels by William Patrick Maynard. The novel expands on the continuity established in Van Ash’s books and sees Dr Petrie teaming with both Nayland Smith and a Rohmer character from outside the series, Gaston Max in an adventure set on the eve of the First World War.
- The Destiny of Fu Manchu (2012). The second of three authorised continuation novels by William Patrick Maynard. The novel is set between Rohmer’s The Drums of Fu Manchu and The Island of Fu Manchu on the eve of the Second World War and follows the continuity established in the author’s first novel.
- The Triumph of Fu Manchu was announced in 2013. The third of three authorised continuation novels by William Patrick Maynard. The novel is set between Rohmer’s The Trail of Fu Manchu and President Fu Manchu.
- The League of Dragons by George Alec Effinger was an unpublished, unauthorised novel involving a young Sherlock Holmes matching wits with Fu Manchu in the nineteenth century. Chapters have been published in the anthologies, Sherlock Holmes in Orbit (1995) and My Sherlock Holmes (2003). This lost university adventure of Holmes is narrated by Conan Doyle’s character Reginald Musgrave.
Fu Manchu also made appearances in the following non-Fu Manchu books:
- Anno Dracula (1994) by Kim Newman. An alternate histories adventure with Fu Manchu in an anonymous cameo appearance as one of the London crime lords of the nineteenth century. He also appears in Newman’s Moriarty: The Hound of the D’Urbervilles in several of the stories that make up the book. He is never named by name, but the references are quite clear.
- “Sex Slaves of the Dragon Tong” and “Part of the Game” are a pair of related short stories by F. Paul Wilson appearing in his collection, Aftershocks and Others: 19 Oddities (2009) and feature anonymous appearances by Dr Fu Manchu and characters from Little Orphan Annie.
- Fu Manchu also appears anonymously in several stories in August Derleth’s Solar Pons detective series. Derleth’s successor, Basil Copper also made use of the character.
- Fu Manchu is the name of the Chinese ambassador in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick (1976).
- It is revealed that Chiun, the Master of Sinanju has worked for the Devil Doctor, as have previous generations of Masters in The Destroyer novel No. 83 Skull Duggery.
Fu Manchu first appeared on the big screen in the 1923 British silent film serial The Mystery of Doctor Fu Manchu starring Harry Agar Lyons. Lyons returned to the role the next year in The Further Mysteries of Doctor Fu Manchu.
In 1929 Fu Manchu made his American film début in Paramount’s early talkie, The Mysterious Doctor Fu Manchu starring Warner Oland, best known for his later portrayal of Charlie Chan in the 1930s. Oland repeated the role in 1930’s The Return of Doctor Fu Manchu and 1931’s Daughter of the Dragon as well as in the short, Murder Will Out as part of the omnibus film, Paramount on Parade where the Devil Doctor confronts both Philo Vance and Sherlock Holmes.
The most infamous incarnation of the character was MGM’s The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) starring Boris Karloff and Myrna Loy. The film’s tone has long been considered racist and offensive. Its cult status derives from its campy humour and Grand Guignol sets and torture sequences. The film was suppressed for many years, but has since received critical re-evaluation and been released on DVD uncut.
Fu Manchu returned to the serial format in 1940 in Republic Pictures’ Drums of Fu Manchu, a 15-episode serial considered to be one of the best the studio ever made. It was later edited and released as a feature film in 1943.
Other than an obscure, unauthorised 1946 Spanish spoof El Otro Fu Manchu, the Devil Doctor was absent from the big screen for 25 years, until producer Harry Alan Towers began a series starring Christopher Lee in 1965. Towers and Lee would make five Fu Manchu film through the end of the decade: The Face of Fu Manchu (1965), The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967), The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968), and finally The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969).
The character’s last authorised film appearance was in the 1980 Peter Sellers spoof, The Fiendish Plot of Doctor Fu Manchu with Sellers featured in a double role as both Fu Manchu and Nayland Smith. The film bore little resemblance to any prior film or the original books. In the film, Fu Manchu claims he was known as “Fred” at public school, a reference to the character of “Fred Fu Manchu” from The Goon Show which had co-starred Sellers.
Jess Franco, who had directed The Blood of Fu Manchu and The Castle of Fu Manchu, also directed The Girl From Rio the second of three Harry Alan Towers films based on Rohmer’s female Fu Manchu character, Sumuru. He later directed an unauthorised 1986 Spanish film featuring Fu Manchu’s daughter, Esclavas del Crimen.
In 1956, the television arm of Republic Pictures produced a 13-episode syndicated series, The Adventures of Doctor Fu Manchu starring Glen Gordon as Doctor Fu Manchu, Lester Matthews as Sir Denis Nayland Smith, and Clark Howat as Doctor John Petrie. The title sequence depicted Smith and Fu Manchu in a game of chess as the announcer stated that “the Devil is said to play for men’s souls. So does Doctor Fu Manchu, Evil Incarnate.” At the conclusion of each episode, after Nayland Smith and Petrie had foiled Fu Manchu’s latest fiendish scheme, he would be seen breaking a black chess piece as the closing credits rolled. It was directed by noted serial director Franklin Adreon as well as William Witney. Unlike the Holmes/Watson type relationship of the films, the series featured Smith as a law enforcement officer and Petrie as a staff member for the Surgeon General.
In 1990, TeleMundo broadcast an affectionate spoof, The Daughter of Fu Manchu featuring Paul Naschy as the Devil Doctor and starring the Hispanic comedy troupe, The Yellow Squad.
Although now out of favour after a lifetime of understandable accusations of racial stereotyping, Fu Manchu, still appears in the ‘safer’ environment of comics and graphics novels and also the musical world, lending his name to the stoner rock band and the Frank Black song of the same title.
Daz Lawrence, MOVIES and MANIA