Fu Manchu and the Yellow Peril

In exploring Asian cultures through cinema, we must occasionally turn away from the cinema of the region and focus instead on the explorations of Asian cultures in Western cinema. These 'western visions' of Asia are at times entertaining, at times fascinating, at times repulsive, and almost always bizarre. They reveal more about Western culture, societal mores, and xenophobia than anything even remotely Asian. The question that must be asked then, is where did these ideas come from, that are portrayed so consistently in Western cinema?

But first, we must narrow the scope of our investigations. For 'Western' cinema, I mean primarily America, home of Hollywood. Asia is a big place, and by 'Asian' I suppose I must mean the same thing that 'Oriental' would have meant at the turn of the last century, which is, any country from Egypt through India and at last to the far east of China and Japan. All have problematic representations in Western Cinema. The representation of Asian-Americans (or rather, the complete lack thereof) forms another subset of the discussion. I propose in this article to discuss specifically Chinese representations in Western cinema, focusing first on the primary channels through which the west has historically come to 'know' the east, then on the tradition of 'Yellowface' acting which allows the west to play act their knowledge thus gained, without the interference of reality, and finally to explore the 'Fu Manchu' series of films as the most prominent example of these visions in Western cinema. Even with this narrowed scope, however, it will be necessary to occasionally turn to Asian-American, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Korean representations anyway, because of the Western tendency to confuse and blend the various cultures together.

The Yellow Peril

A vast hoarde of the unknowable other, poised to take over our jobs, our women, our country, sweeping over the steppes, plotting world domination, making better cars than we do, and buying up all our golf courses. And the west trembles...

The original Yellow Peril: Attila the Hun and his mongol horde, swooping through Europe in the 5th Century AD, displacing peoples such as the Ostrogoths and Visigoths, who then in turn pushed into the Roman Empire and sacked Rome. All of Europe lived under the shadow of invasion for some fifty years, until Attila dropped dead, the Huns dropped back, and the threat of invasion faded. But the image remained, reinforced by the later incursions of Genghis Khan. Picture the Golden Horde: vicious, demonic peoples whose way of life is utterly foreign, who seem to have inhuman courage and endurance, who do not feel pain, who know nothing of the rules of war and do not take prisoners, who rape and pillage, who are invincible and unstoppable. Hold on to this image, as we now need to take it in its entirety and transpose it onto nineteenth-century America, where the idea of the Yellow Peril once again took root in Western society.

Chinese first immigrated to America in large quantities when reports of the California Gold Rush reached coastal China in 1849. Immigration reached its gold rush peak in 1852, when over 20,000 Chinese, mostly farmers from around the Canton area, headed over to work mines in search of gold. The immigration slowed drastically afterwards, until the late 1860s, when Chinese papers advertised looking for workers on the railroad, and the rush was on again.

With such a large number of immigrants in California, China could no longer be simply an exoticized and distant 'other.' So Chinese instead became a clear and present danger. California strongly wished to enter the Union as a Free State, that is, one without slavery, and it did so. Perhaps less widely known is that it wanted no blacks, free or slave, in the country, and instead keep California a pure, white land. Attempts were made to legally restrict entrance of California to only free, white people, some successful, some not. Although the debate began as black/white issue, it soon became clear that the Chinese would be a greater threat to California's ideal of a pure white land (in the 1850s, when California had only 4000 black residents, there were 47000 Chinese). At the same time, small mines were being pressured out of business by larger mining operations. Those Chinese who still worked various private mines became the outlet of white anger, and blamed for lost jobs. In 1854 the California Supreme Court ruled that the Chinese could not testify in court in any case in which a white person is a party. The threat of the Chinese to the working class and their jobs continued to be a constant theme up through the early 20th Century.

Having been driven out of mining and agriculture, and laid off as work on the trans-continental railroad came to a close, the Chinese immigrants moved into other work, such as manufacturing, laundering, and domestic occupations, running head first into another minority group: the Irish. The Chinese would often take lower wages than the Irish workers, and many employers found them by and large to be a far superior working group to the Irish, cleaner, more hard working. But the leaders of the Irish community took the opportunity to attempt to raise their own status in Anglo-Saxon society, by promoting a sort of pan-ethnic whiteness, defining Irish and Anglo-Saxon peoples to stand together in a 'white' category, as separate from 'black' or 'yellow' races. They used the imagery of the Yellow Peril -- legions of Chinese sweeping into the country, taking away the good honest work of the white man. They were for the most part very successful. Even today in America, the lumping together of all white races is done as a matter of course, without thought.

American legislators became obsessed with stemming the oriental tides that they feared would soon overtake them. In 1790, the Naturalization Act explicitly stated Naturalization as a citizen was only possible for "free white persons" only. This did not necessarily exclude Asians, as many people considered the Asiatic races to fall into the 'white' category (at least, George Washington did). In 1870, the abolition of slavery prompted a change in the wording, and it was amended to include persons of African descent. It was also amended to specifically exclude persons from China. In 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, banning not only Naturalization of peoples from China, but immigration as well. It allowed for some loopholes, which were quickly closed up with an 1884 amendment. Ironically, just a couple years later, the Statue of Liberty is unveiled in New York City.

Having stemmed the illusory tide, there was still the question of what to do with the Chinese immigrants already residing in the United States. Race riots in San Francisco and elsewhere made it clear that they were seldom welcome. They represented another facet of the Yellow Peril: the threat of miscegenation. Immigration policy kept the amount of Chinese women at a bare minimum, in an attempt to discourage immigrants from permanent residence. At the same time, coincedentally, far more Irish women survived the potato famine and immigrated than did men. Their prospects for finding a suitable Irish man rather limited, then, a statistically insignificant few did in fact marry Chinese men. Even this small amount was unacceptable to the Irish community, trying at that time to create a clear color line between the two races. In fact, the term 'micegenation' was coined by Irish pamphleteers decrying inter-racial marriage (the earlier term, 'amalgamation,' was not as negative as apparently they wanted it to be). Even today, the threat of miscegenation looms. In American cinema, although white men are often romatically engaged with asian women, only very, very rarely will you see an asian man and white woman romantically involved with each other, and even then the relationship is seldom demonstrated explicitly.

A vast hoarde of the unknowable other, poised to take over our jobs, our women, our country. This is the image of the Yellow Peril, set in the latter half of the nineteenth century. It would prove to be a remarkably resilient vision, which has lasted up until the present day.

From the Yellow Peril to the Red Menace

As the nineteenth century ended, America suddenly changed, becoming a small empire after the Spanish-American war, with Spain ceding Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines to the United States. Guam and the Phillipines, especially, were strategically significant, giving America coaling stations for its fleet in the Pacific, and giving it a close base from which to watch the Yellow Peril of Asia. But instead of calming fears, it heightens them -- the thought of making the Philippines, or any of the other territories, states of the union, becomes a way in which millions of 'dark or yellow-skinned' peoples can enter the United States, become a corrupting influence, and destroy the way of life of its citizens. Of course, immigration was again tightly restricted.

Then in 1905 fears of the Yellow Peril became all too real, when the Japanese smashed the Russian fleet and forced them into a treaty, ending the Russo-Japanese War with a resounding victory for the Japanese. It was the first time an Asian military power bested a Western power, and the entire world took notice.

For a while, Japan had special exemption from immigration restrictions into the United States. Instead, in 1907 Congress asked that Japan 'voluntarily' stop giving visas to Japanese trying to emigrate to the states. But by 1917, an 'Asiatic barred zone' has been created, preventing immigration of any Asian or Pacific Islander.

In 1922, the U.S. Government further enacted fear of the Yellow Peril as law, passing the Cable Act, which revoked the citizenship of any woman who married a foreign national.

World War II: China ostensibly becomes an ally, and Japan the enemy. The Japanese are demonized and persecuted, rounded up in internment camps. LIFE magazine publishes a description of the difference between Chinese and Japanese, to help budding racists identify who to hate, with such unbelievable items as "The Chinese have parchament-yellow complexion...while Japanese have an earthy yellow complexion."

An important component of the Yellow Peril myth is the dehumanizing of the 'other.' In this case, the Japanese are seen as 'unable to feel pain the same way we do,' to be deadened to pain, and by extension to inflict the cruelest of tortures on his victims. The same was said of the Mongol hoardes, the same too of San Francisco chinamen, one of whom a doctor studied and concluded that "their nerve endings are farther inside their skin than ours...and so more resistant to pain."

With the end of World War II and the resounding defeat of the Japanese, it seemed the idea of the Yellow Peril had run its course. But another fear was rising to replace it: the Red Menace.

Russia was an ally during the war, but afterwards it became clear who the next enemy of American domination would be. The communist Russians seemed in direct opposition to the beliefs of America. In fact, it was the threat of communism swallowing up more and more governments that prompted many of our equal rights laws passed here in the United States. By making the U.S. more open and more free, it was hoped that the States would represent a clear alternative to Communism. But then China fell to Communism, and the Yellow Peril was reborn, combined with and heightened by the Red Menace. The Korean War, then the Vietnam War, worked to continue to keep images of the Yellow Peril alive, as conflict with Asians in foreign wars began to replace competition with Asians for jobs at home as the primary lens through which America viewed the far east.

In the 1980's, focus shifted back home again, to the threat to working class jobs by Japanese competition. The Japanese economy was booming, and their products outselling American products. Japanese companies bought numerous American companies, golf courses, and so on. Americans resisted what they saw as a 'foreign takeover.' Many saw the corporate buy-outs as a continuation of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor fourty years earlier. Commercials aired which encouraged people to buy products 'Made in the USA.' Japanese cars were smashed with sledgehammers in demonstrations. The threat of the Yellow Peril in America came full circle, once again imagined as a threat to the stability of working-class Americans.

The Yellow Peril has been represented in American media since its very beginning. From songs, to minstrel shows, to books, to movies. Perhaps the most famous of these representations comes not from America but from England: Fu Manchu.

Fu Manchu: The Yellow Peril Personified

In 1912, readers were first introduced to the evil Fu Manchu, a Western educated Chinaman with designs on world domination and the destruction of the west. His foil is Sir Denis Nayland-Smith of Scotland Yard, an orientalist who shows mastery over Fu Manchu and by extension all of Asia through his knowledge of their mysterious rites and rituals, and Dr. Petrie, who serves as the readers stand-in, to whom Nayland Smith may explain the Orient and thus establish his credentials.

The writer, Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward, known to the world by his pen name, Sax Rohmer, was an irishman living in London, and had no secret political agenda. Rather, he was simply able to encapsulate and reflect the uncertainties and fears the working class had against the foreigners in their midst. England had long since caught the Yellow Peril paranoia wafting over from America. Sax Rohmer would give a name to the peril, and export it back to the states, where it would be a smashing success and provide him with a steady cash flow. The final total of his earnings for the Fu Manchu books came to around two million dollars. Later in life, he moved closer to his fans, to New York, where he continued to write stories of Fu Manchu until his death in 1959.

Nayland Smith describes Fu Manchu to Dr. Petrie in the first novel:

"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 of the true cat-green. 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, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government-- which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man."

Besides the inhuman picture (much like depictions of the Japanese during WWII), what makes Fu Manchu a villain all the more monstrous is two things: his proximity to the west, and his intellect. His base is in Limehouse, the Chinese area of London. So by allowing him to live in the country, England is vulnerable to his insidious plans (and so becomes a validation of strict immigration policy). His intellect comes from Western learning, and it is often emphasized that he has been educated in a university. So we see the evil asian as using the west's own knowledge against it (much like comments made in the press about Japanese businessmen using knowledge of western economics to stage takeovers in the 1980s). Implicit in this is the idea that such learning can only come from the West, the Orient being incapable of such learning.

It is up to Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie to stop Fu Manchu's plans in each story. As Smith remarks in The Hand of Fu Manchu, "the swamping of the white world by Yellow hordes may be the price of our failure."

The books themselves are of varying quality, ranging from exciting and crisp to barely readable. Ultimately, they are pulp novels, and can be enjoyed as such, and can be read not only as engaging mystery/horror novels but as cultural artifacts which can help to map a compicated and ongoing racial dialogue between East and West.


When it came time to present Fu Manchu in the movies, the question arose as to who would play the sinister villain? The natural answer was, or course, hire a white guy.

The minstrel shows of the nineteenth century, in which comic skits were played depicting every racial stereotype imaginable, can be seen as a direct precursor to yellowface acting in film. The minstrel shows would encourage audiences to laugh with some stereotypical characters, laugh at others. They compared and contrasted unacceptable, non-assimilating groups such as African-Americans and Chinese with funny but acceptable Irish, German, and English stereotypes.

In the 1850s, almost every minstrel show had at least one yellowface act, and San Francisco a major stop on the minstrelry circuit. The character of "John Chinaman" typically illustrated the reasons why Chinese were not assimilable, and therefore have no real right to citizenship or a voice in America. Three characteristics were almost always present in John Chinaman: poor, pidgin English, which is mocked as nonsense; disgusting and transgressive eating habits, wherein dog, cat, and rat are eaten; and the queue, which, since white men of that time all had short cropped hair, represented a gender transgressive element and therefore dangerous. A short minstrel song will suffice to illustrate two of these three characteristics:

Lady she am vellie good, make plenty chow chow
She live way up top side house,
Take a little pussy cat and a little bow wow
Boil em in a pot of stew wit a little mouse
Hi! hi! hi!

Most importantly, yellowface minstrelry was a means by which people of the working class could safely view the unknowable oriental. To view an actual oriental would be possibly polluting and offensive to the audience. The yellowface minstrel was a 'safe' way for white Americans to create, codify, and confirm a racial stereotype, without the interference of an actual oriental to possibly confuse the matter.

Hollywood yellowface was not necessarily as calculated as that, but it may have been. Asian actors did find work in silent movies, but the move to talkies made it more difficult for them, especially if their accent was too strong or not clear enough. It was for this reason, perhaps, that Warner Oland was given the role of Fu Manchu in the first Fu Manchu talkie, The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu. Scenes are very stationary, everyone clustered close together to make sure they were on mike. Oland spoke quite clearly (and without a Chinese accent). His features were vaguely Chinese, even though he was Scandanavian. For these reasons, Warner Oland may perhaps rank as one of the least offensive yellowface performers.

But there are more, many more. Long after poor sound equipment could be an excuse, white actors continued to play asian roles. This has been a frustration and impediment to Asian and Asian-American actors since Hollywood's beginnings. Part of the reasoning for these casting decisions are rooted in the minstrel shows and in America's century of Yellow Peril paranoia. Films in which a Chinese man threatened to rape or have a romantic relationship with a white woman would have been too much to bear for audiences, had the actor playing the asian actually been Chinese. By substituting a white actor in yellowface, the audience can experience outrage at the story, but at the same time be soothed by the fact that it is not real. Once again, like John Chinaman in minstrel shows, the yellowface actor plays out white fantasies of race in a safe environment.

Yellowface performances can be unbelievably offensive, completely unnecessary, or absurdly unreal. Sometimes, they are entirely respectable, like the above mentioned Warner Oland as Charlie Chan, or Peter Lorre as Mr. Moto. And sometimes, perhaps, they are somehow necessary. Like in the case of Fu Manchu.

I feel the role of Fu Manchu is appropriately played in yellowface. Warner Oland, Boris Karloff, and Christopher Lee all play the role to perfection. The secret in their success is this: Fu Manchu, the character, is in no way Chinese. As a personification of the Yellow Peril, Fu Manchu is the personification of the West's irrational fears and phobias. He is a rare mirror, through which we can see the pathetic characature of the Oriental that exists in the minds of so many Americans throughout history. By being a white actor in yellowface, the character's illusory, fantasy quality becomes underscored. Like children who playact as doctors and nurses, Fu Manchu is the outward representation of the childish playacting of a nation.

Fu Manchu and the Yellow Peril: The Movies.

Posted by Peter Nepstad on November 01, 2000.


I read the Fu Manchu books as a teen.
I always wanted Fu Manchu to win, he was a
much more attractive charactor than the hero.

Posted by: vivian at January 23, 2006 03:09 PM

Attila lived in the 5th century AD, not BC as stated above (fl. 433 AD obit. 453 AD). Your dating would make Attila contemporaraneous with the founding of the Roman Republic, not with the fall of the Western empire, as is proper.

Thank you for your prompt correction of this error.

Posted by: Robert A. West at January 23, 2006 04:07 PM
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