The Yellow Peril
Thames and Hudson 352pp £24.95
There are certain fictional characters who take on an existence independent of their creators. Their lives and adventures are chronicled by a host of other authors and translated into other media: radio, television and film, in particular. Sherlock Holmes, Dracula and Tarzan are classic cases of this phenomenon. Another prime example is Dr Fu Manchu. This gallery of immortals achieve their individual independence because they are supreme archetypes and embodiments of particular sets of values and world-views that have resonance with the mass audience. Fu Manchu owes his longevity to the fact that he was, in the words of his creator, ‘the yellow peril incarnate in one man’. He represents in distilled form everything that western audiences feared and hated in China and the Chinese. Personally, he is cruel, cunning, condescending and apparently indestructible. Politically, he represents the deep-seated fear in the western mind of the unstoppable rise of the yellow hordes to take over the world.
Frayling sets out to examine the growth of Chinaphobia through the prism of the careers of Dr Fu Manchu and his creator. The creator was originally called Arthur Henry Ward (1883-1959) but adopted the pen-name Sax Rohmer, which he thought meant freelance in Anglo-Saxon. His most celebrated creation was Dr Fu Manchu. The 13 novels do not represent a continuous narrative but they came in cycles closely related to events in China: the 1911 Revolution, the rise of the Kuomintang, the Communist takeover.
Rohmer had never been to China and knew little of the Chinese at first hand. Frayling analyses with admirable forensic skill the sources from which Rohmer constructed his archetype. There was his extensive reading of thrillers (Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, the Dr Nikola novels of the now forgotten Guy Boothby, by MP Shiel’s lurid invasion fantasies). There was his career in popular journalism, penning for magazines such as Tit-Bits and Answers sensational exposés of opium dens and criminality in London’s East End. But most surprising of all was the influence of the music hall, which Rohmer always played down, perhaps seeing them as infra dig for a serious writer. However, Rohmer had composed song lyrics for many performers, ghosted a book of reminiscences called Pause for George Robey, which was full of references to the exotic and the occult, and wrote Chinese monologues for Bransby Williams, notably The Pigtail of Li Fang Fu and Orange Blossom, dripping with Oriental atmosphere. Chinoiserie was ubiquitous in the music hall and on the musical comedy stage.
It is a singular fact today, following the emergence of China as a major world economic power, that the original Rohmer novels remain in print and the iconic cinematic incarnations of Fu Manchu by Boris Karloff and the late Christopher Lee are regularly revived. The mere mention of the name is still capable of summoning up a mental image of ‘the Devil Doctor’.
Exhaustively researched, lavishly illustrated and engagingly written, Frayling’s book is surely the definitive account of the Fu Manchu phenomenon and its enduring influence.
Jeffrey Richards is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Lancaster.