Featured Post


This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Saturday, February 20, 2016


It was [Sax] Rohmer's contention that he based Fu Manchu and other "Yellow Peril" mysteries, and real Chinese crime figures he met as a newspaper reporter covering Limehouse activities.-- Wikipedia essay on Fu Manchu.

I vaguely recall that during one of my arguments on HU, someone, possibly Berlatsky, attempted to distort my position on racial myths by saying something along the line of "well, of course it's OK to say denigrating things about other races, as long as they're *true.*" I add the asterisks to indicate the tone of sarcasm suggested, for clearly the speaker meant that it was not OK.

Thanks to the sanctimonious moralizing of many such Social Justice Warriors, it's impossible to show negative traits in any character of a non-WASP race or ethnicity without being accused of racism, as I've demonstrated in various essays, particularly INCORRECTLY CORRECT, which referred to the character Connie of TERRY AND THE PIRATES as a "racist caricature" without providing any justification for the accusation.

To attack the over-zealousness of the ultraliberal ideologues is not to state that there are no actual racist caricatures. In REDEFINING THE RACIAL OTHER PT 2  I expatiated on the ideological idea that all characterizations of outgroups by a dominant ingroup are rooted in the ingroup-subject's projecting onto the outgroup qualities that aren't really there-- irrespective as to whether the qualities are good ("the noble red man") or bad ("the lazy shiftless Negro.")

I am not saying that no projection takes place. Though it's become de rigueur to view the character of Fu Manchu as nothing but a projection of British fears of "the Yellow Peril," I certainly wouldn't deny that such projection is an element of Sax Rohmer's creation, particularly since according to his biography, Rohmer didn't really know much about Chinese culture when he created the character. At the same time, that doesn't mean that every observation Rohmer was automatically incorrect, even if he lacked in-depth knowledge. 

In other words, although Fu Manchu was a fictional creation, he is at last partly indebted to Rohmer's encounter with real-life Chinatown criminals in London-- particularly a man whom Rohmer identified as "Mister King," whose physical features the author ostensibly used as a model for the Master of the Si-Fan.

Now, though ultraliberal ideologues automatically assume that every negative characterization of an outgroup must be an attempt at social control, it's impossible to prove that most creators of fiction are significantly concerned keeping the minorities down, as opposed to those writers who wear their ultraconservative ideology openly, like Thomas Dixon, Jr.  The ultraliberals' solution to this difficulty is to resort to secondhand Freud, as recycled via Barthes: even creators who have no axe to grind subconsciously absorb racist stereotypes, viewing them as "natural" rather than as social constructs.

Sax Rohmer, as I've stated before, was certainly guilty of making racist statements at times. This 2011 blogpost  summarizes a scene from the second Fu Manchu novel in which Nayland Smith speaks of "the national childishness of the Chinese." That this is a racist caricature, there can be no doubt.

However, I mentioned in RACIAL OTHER 2 that at times Rohmer had characterized Fu Manchu as something of a torture-happy fiend, and this is not necessarily racist-- particularly as we see in a scene from THE DRUMS OF FU MANCHU, where the devil-doctor is lecturing Nayland Smith and a companion within a room filled with European torture-devices.

Slowly he extended a gaunt hand in the direction of the torture room:
"Medieval devices designed to stimulate reluctant memories."
He stepped aside and took up a pair of long-handled tongs.
"Forceps used to tear sinews."
He spoke softly, then dropped those instruments of agony. The clang of their fall made my soul sick.
"Primitive and clumsy. China has done better. No doubt you recall the Seven Gates? However, these forms of questions are no longer necessary. I can learn all that I wish to know by the mere exercise of that neglected implement, the human will. 

Though the subject matter might seem offensive to many, particularly to persons of Asian ancestry, it should be noted that there's a touch of sly humor here: of Fu Manchu calling attention to the Western world's own history of torture and then dismissing it as inferior to his people's mastery of the arts of pain. At the same time, the narrator adds a qualification to Fu Manchu's behavior that doesn't appear in the earlier scene referenced: that Fu "had the majesty which belongs to great genius, or, and there was a new horror in the afterthought, to insanity. He was perhaps a brilliant madman!"

Though it's been some time since I read all of the Fu Manchu prose novels, I would say that the devil-doctor is more often a racial caricature than a racist one-- in part because Rohmer makes his focal villain so much more interesting than any of the author's other characters. I assume a liberal ideologue would view the imputations of the doctor's "genius" and "majesty" as stereotypical positive qualities that are at base no better than stereotypical negative qualities.

Rohmer's "bad apple defense"-- that Chinese criminals are not representative of the Chinese people as a whole-- is the dominant strategy used by professional fiction-writers who choose to utilize negative characters from stigmatized or marginalized outgroups. Like anything else, the strategy can be used very well or very badly. In my review of the 1935 serial THE MIRACLE RIDER, I called attention to the political implications of the "Vanishing American" trope in that serial and other westerns. My sociological reading bears a slight resemblance to the ideological readings of the ultraliberals, but with the important difference that I, being a more centrist liberal, am not willing to view every portrait of a Native American, good or bad, as some absurd subconscious method of social dominance.

I'll address some other complications of the Bad Apple Defense in Part 2.


MikeM said...

Wasn't Fu-Manchu actually described as having a greenish tint to his skin, and sideways eyelids? There's an untold story in there about him actually being a totally other "other"!

Gene Phillips said...

I seem to remember something like that, like someone called his eyes "chatoyant." Also maybe pointed ears, though that would seem to play hell with his repute as a disguise artist.

If we were talking about Robert E HOward, I might hazard that the author was making allusions to some perterhuman past for the Chinese people, but I didn't think Rohmer ever waded in those depths.