Review: Serial Fu Manchu by Ruth Mayer

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Discussed in this review: Serial Fu Manchu: The Chinese Supervillain and the Spread of Yellow Peril Ideology by Ruth Mayer. Temple University Press, 2013, 216 pages. Buy at Temple UP or Amazon.

Downton Abbey. Sherlock. Who would have thought that in the 21st century we would still be living our lives waiting for the next episode or installment of something? It is a wonder PBS’s influence on our cultural lives hasn’t been dubbed “Nouveau Seriality.”

I admit I had never heard the term “seriality” until I opened the book Serial Fu Manchu: The Chinese Supervillain and the Spread of Yellow Peril Ideology by Ruth Mayer. My only exposure to Fu Manchu was as a bored moviegoer watching Peter Sellers’ final film, The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu, a flop released after the actor’s death and since forgotten.

Mayer’s book is a fascinating look at not only the concept of seriality but a reminder that when the character Fu Manchu debuted in 1912 in a story and began his life as a serial the following year, China was regarded by the West as a backward, troubled mess. Thus, this book is worth reading for those interested in popular culture and the intersection in fictional form of East and West.

Who Was Fu Manchu?

Fu Manchu
“The Castle of Fu Manchu” (Photo credit: Mike Atherton | flickr)

The creator of Fu Manchu was the British writer Sax Rohmer (1883–1959), who produced fiction featuring the character on and off from 1912 to his own death. Just as Arthur Conan Doyle got mightily tired of Sherlock Holmes, so too did Rohmer tire of Fu Manchu. Thus, depictions of Fu Manchu by Rohmer are a little spotty in the 1920s. But moviedom made the most of Fu Manchu until Rohmer resumed writing the stories and novels. Fu Manchu was a cash cow for Rohmer, his publishers, and movie studios.

Mayer commences her book by reminding the reader who this supervillain was; he once ranked up there with Professor Moriarty in the ranks of tip-top baddies. But whereas Moriarty still retains a grip on our collective imagination as a master criminal, Fu Manchu has been shelved as a cultural embarrassment in our more enlightened age.

Mayer writes, “There was a time when Fu Manchu was everywhere and everybody seemed to know him. Those days are over.” As she rightly says, “at best, people recall the mustache.” We might come across depictions of Fu Manchu as we page through histories of the movies and note that Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee both played him.

Mayer reminds us that comparable figures like Ming the Merciless or Dr. No don’t make us quite as uncomfortable as the outright racism in Fu Manchu’s portrayal because Dr. No was half German and Ming was from another planet. Those two were not as identifiably Chinese as Fu Manchu was and so have not been relegated to the halls of embarrassment with quite the finality that Fu Manchu has. (Although, as Mayer tells us, most of the Fu Manchu stories are still in print, but she does not say who reads them.)

Mayer tells us, quite fascinatingly, that vis-a-vis genre, Fu Manchu was all over the map. The first of the stories were of the detective story type but later took on elements of the genres of horror, science fiction, and fantasy until Fu Manchu became a figure of fun in the parodic Peter Sellers version.

The Many Manifestations of Fu Manchu

As I read Mayer’s book, I could not help thinking of the pop culture and fan fiction aspects of Sherlock Holmes – how he has lived on through social media and the Internet generally. And many of the American comic book heroes (Batman, the Incredible Hulk, and Superman) continue to be reliable money-spinners for Hollywood. But Fu Manchu? He is as dead as a doornail in terms of modern pop culture.

As Mayer reminds us, there was once quite a Fu Manchu franchise – as she puts it, a literary and filmic Fu Manchu. Fu Manchu does live on to some extent, as the name of a rock band and of a computer virus. But we are not likely to see Fu Manchu embraced anew at least by non-Asian writers and filmmakers. He is commercially radioactive now because of concerns about racial and ethnic stereotyping.

What Made Fu Manchu Tick?

Mayer makes the fascinating point that apart from wanting world domination, it is often not clear what Fu Manchu wants. He is rather like Moriarty in that money does not seem to be a main motivation for Fu Manchu. He seems to be free of money concerns, and like Holmes and Moriarty, he is endowed with superhuman brilliance and a wide knowledge of science and the technology of his day. He doesn’t seem to be explicitly interested in creating a world in which China as a nation dominates the globe.

Mayer writes, “the narratives operate by means of what could be called a semantics of spread – that is, through techniques and imageries of expansion, takeover, and appropriation that defy textual, generic, and medial boundaries.” Think about that the next time you hear some pundit wringing his hands over the rise of Chinese soft power and its supposedly malign influence over hearts and minds in Asia and in other parts of the world. Mayer’s book should be assigned reading not only in courses on 20th century pop culture, but in those related to 20th century world, social, and political history and the cultural dynamics of international relations.

Fu Manchu and Seriality

Serial Fu Manchu
Serial Fu Manchu: The Chinese Supervillain and the Spread of Yellow Peril Ideology


I found Mayer’s driving thesis about Fu Manchu and his relationship to the concept of seriality heavy going at times. She writes, “The scope of this study is transmedial – it examines serial novels, films and film serials, comics and graphic novels – and it pays particular attention to the impact of media changes on the serial flow of Fu Manchu’s transnational career.” She goes on to say that the stories act “as generators rather than as mere reverberators of the ideological knowledge that is being disseminated.” She rather grandiosely refers to the Fu Manchu series as a “machinic constellation.”

Now really, wasn’t Fu Manchu simply a vehicle by which the hack writer Rohmer made a lot of money as did many of the screenwriters, directors, publishers, and so on who glommed on to Fu Manchu? Money is motivator enough. You might as well argue that Winnie the Pooh was designed by A.A. Milne and employed by Walt Disney later on to further the aims of an Anglo-American alliance bent on global hegemony. In the case of Fu Manchu, sometimes trash is just lucrative trash. Mayer is given to employing academese (e.g., diegetical and extradiegetical) to make her argument, but it doesn’t always convince.

But given how many millions of people are enraptured by glorified soap operas like  Downton Abbey and by Sherlock, Mayer’s comments here are worth pondering, “The form of the serial needs to be seen in close conjunction with the media through which it is being actualized and with the ideological regimes within which these actualizations take place.” Why worry about ever-higher rates of income inequality or social injustice, for example, when PBS reliably entertains us with the difficulties (those pesky taxes!) of elegantly attired aristocrats running landed estates and dealing with servant problems? Why fuss about NSA incursions into our most intimate communications when we can watch Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes insulting peons?

Weaknesses in the Book

The major flaw in the book is the energy Mayer expends on trying to persuade us that Fu Manchu movies were evidence of active ideological enlistment by moviemakers and racist audiences in Yellow Peril hysteria instead of just being run-of-the-mill mainstream racist schlock that was standard Hollywood fare of the 1930s and 1940s. She examines the 1932 Boris Karloff vehicle, The Mask of Fu Manchu, with an earnestness that borders on the exhausting. I wanted to cry out with what Alfred Hitchcock is supposed to have said, “It’s only a movie.”

The weakest chapter in the book is, “Machinic Fu Manchu: Popular Seriality and the Logic of Spread.” Mayer trolls through decades-old TV versions of the Fu Manchu saga but to no really useful end. She mines this ephemeral junk dutifully, but my eyes glazed over quite frequently. There is supposedly something crucial going on in these old TV shows on a geopolitical level. Yeah, right. I kept thinking, “These shows were just drivel, Ms. Mayer. Could we move on now, please?” Yes, the Chinese were often portrayed as scheming to take over the world. So were Russians, Germans, Japanese, Arabs, communists, corporations, aliens, and zombies. Not a lot of news there. And much of the book’s argument about seriality as a cultural force with a mind of its own is overblown. After all, much of it was merely merchandising and abandoned when it became less profitable than it had been. Poor Fu Manchu has to shoulder more of a scholarly treatment here than he can really bear.

Mayer writes, for example, “The media that provided scope and momentum to Fu Manchu’s career worked by means of associative interlinkage and accrual, concrescence and concatenation.” Well, you could argue that it did the same thing for nearly every recognizable literary character of the 20th and 21st centuries, from Wonder Woman to Peter Rabbit to Harry Potter. Much of this book is a bit on the pretentious side and the book often seems padded. An article might have done just as well.

Should You Read This Book?

Even though much of this book is repetitious, it will interest those in the fields of literary and film history. Mayer is widely read, and her discussion of the serial as a genre in film and literature is worth reading, as is the way Fu Manchu began to fade from public consciousness as American society became more diverse and less tolerant of racial stereotyping. Moreover, I had never heard before of the French literary character, Fantômas. I am grateful to Mayer for mentioning him.

This is a solid contribution to cultural studies.