Twentieth Century Geopolitics and East-West Relations in the Shadow of Dr. Fu Manchu

Rereading Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu series the past year or so has been a fascinating experience.
Not always the reading. The books don’t hold up as well as I remember them; I’m not sure if it’s the books, or me having heightened expectations. But rereading them in order (in my teen years I had to settle for whichever ones I stumbled across) has shown how Rohmer had to adopt his mastermind’s insidious agenda to the changing winds of the first half of the 20th century.
In the first book, The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, the devil doctor is a Chinese super-patriot: His goal is to reverse the course of western imperialism and do to Britain and Europe what the west has done to China. Something which I imagine would have been a lot more horrifying back in the day, when it was a threat not merely to Britain but the dominance of the white race itself (as series hero Sir Denis Nayland Smith puts it in Island of Fu Manchu).
That held true for several further books, though the focus of Fu Manchu’s efforts gradually shifted toward the USA, culminating his attempt to put a puppet in the White House (President Fu Manchu). I don’t know why—the British Empire was still a going concern in the 1930s, so was it because Rohmer had more fans the far side of the Atlantic? Or did he sense the American Century was coming?
But then Japan invaded Manchuria and it must have seemed obvious to contemporary readers that this would make Japan a better target for Fu Manchu’s wrath than Britain. So Rohmer redefined Fu Manchu as the harbinger of a new world order; as fleshed out in later books, the goal was to create a base from which his organization could attack anyone who initiated a new war. Fu Manchu didn’t have to fight Japan directly because he was adopting a cut-off-the-head-and-the-body-dies strategy.
Drums of Fu Manchu takes things a step further by having the good doctor threaten the fascist leaders of Europe with death if they don’t draw back from war. He actually kills a thinly fictionalized Hitler here, which Island of Fu Manchu explained as a foreign office cover-up.
The first post-WW II book, Shadow of Fu Manchu shows Rohmer fitting Fu Manchu into the anticommunism of the times. Stalin is preparing to launch World War III with the help of ex-Nazi officers and a secret Soviet conspiracy is on the brink of seizing an American death ray for the cause (this fits perfectly with Screen Enemies of the American Way). Fu Manchu’s plan, it turns out, is simply to eliminate the weapon before anyone can exploit it. The ray seems like one of the era’s several fictional analogs to nuclear weaponry; Sir Denis actually dismisses the a-bomb as unimportant (perhaps because Fu Manchu couldn’t do much about putting that genie back in the bottle?).
The book itself is a fairly conventional spy thriller, stripped of Fu Manchu’s penchant for death by mutant scorpions and the like, which makes it mundane (even his undead killer comes off little different from OddJob). But it does transition the devil doctor smoothly into the late 1940s—though as China’s government fell to Mao, more changes lay ahead (as I’ll get to when I read the books later this year).


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6 responses to “Twentieth Century Geopolitics and East-West Relations in the Shadow of Dr. Fu Manchu

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