London in the early years of the twentieth century feasted upon the fruits of an empire upon which the sun never set; from Burma to Rhodesia to British Honduras, the Union Jack flew proudly. Today the countries are known as Myanmar, Zimbabwe, and Belize, and the British come, if at all, as tourists. As the nineteenth century ended, the Urabi revolt in Egypt and the death of Gen. Charles "Chinese" Gordon defending Khartoum against a Sudanese uprising at the end of the nineteenth century were a foreshadowing of the problems of empire. And the new century brought with it two surprises out China. In 1900, a mystical secret society known as the Fists of Righteous Harmony led the Boxer Rebellion against the European devils; in 1901, nine European nations, Americans, and the Japanese invaded, seized Beijing, and enforced the Boxer protocols. Four years later, after Russia violated the terms of the protocols by refusing to withdraw its troops from Manchuria, the Japanese declared war on Russia. The world watched, shocked, as the Japanese devastated the Russian navy in the Russo-Japanese War. The war seems today like a distant memory, but it was the first time since the Industrial Revolution that an Asian nation had so soundly defeated a Western power. The English called the nineteenth century struggle for control of central Asia the Great Game; the Russians called it a "Tournament of Shadows". England’s refusal to supply coal to the Russians was a major factor in their defeat, but to Englishmen concerned with the fate of the new imperialism, the defeat of Russia only added new concerns. There was trouble stirring in the East, and that trouble was soon to gain a face. In 1903, a young writer named Arthur Henry Ward adopted a more romantic pen name: Sax Rohmer. Ten years later, he created the character who would make him rich. The neighborhood of Limehouse in the East End of London was populated with only a few hundred Chinese. Most were cooks or launderers; George Formby‘s song "Chinese Blues" wasn’t far off the mark. But Rohmer took an incident involving a Chinatown gambling ring and spun it into his most famous creation: the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu. The American mania over the "Yellow Peril" was largely the result of nativist sentiment whipped up by a fear of Chinese immigrants taking American whites’ jobs. Rohmer’s British version is slightly simpler: Fu Manchu is a supervillain. A master of impenetrable disguises, hashish and hypnosis, poisons unknown to Western science, Limehouse cellars filled secret passages and fatal spores, and pets that put Blofeld’s cat to shame:
"One of my pets, Mr. Smith," he said, suddenly opening his eyes fully so that they blazed like green lamps. "I have others, equally useful. My scorpions—have you met my scorpions? No? My pythons and hamadryads? Then there are my fungi and my tiny allies, the bacilli. I have a collection in my laboratory quite unique. Have you ever visited Molokai, the leper island, Doctor? No? But Mr. Nayland Smith will be familiar with the asylum at Rangoon! And we must not forget my black spiders, with their diamond eyes — my spiders, that sit in the dark and watch — then leap!"
Fu Manchu is quietly murdering any Englishman — or Frenchman, or German — capable of recognizing the plans he has, plans described by Rohmer in the introduction to The Insidious Fu Manchu: "So, you see, I had really brought something into being. I had set Dr. Fu Manchu out upon his great march to conquer the Western world. I had challenged him to sweep aside the white races and to win domination for his own." Rohmer portrays the struggle between Nayland Smith (and Smith’s Watson, Dr. Petrie) and Fu Manchu as a struggle not between England and China or even good and evil, but as one between East and West, between the white races and "the yellow peril incarnate in one man". Smith is a British spymaster previously stationed in Burma; Fu Manchu has brought with him to England Burmese dacoits and Indian thugee. (The ethnicity of Fu Manchu, despite his implausibly Chinese name, is never specified; his portrayal as Chinese arises from the movie The Mask of Fu Manchu, starring a pre-Thin Man Myrna Loy and a mustached Boris Karloff. Karloff’s mustache gave rise to the style of whiskers called a "Fu Manchu" today; in Rohmer’s novel, the man with "a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan" is clean-shaven.)
Fu Manchu drugged and kidnapped Western geniuses, smuggling them to Asia to work on his nefarious schemes. He murdered Egyptologists and enemies of Young China at will. The term "Chinese water torture" — sadistically driving people mad through a constant trickle of water dripping onto their forehead — seems to have been invented by Harry Houdini (a man whom Rohmer held in no small regard), but surely the deathtraps of Fu Manchu helped the name to stick. The insidious inspired a legion of clones: Wu Fang, Wu Ming Shi, Dr. No, the dragon princess Yu-Malu. And yet Rohmer’s original slowly softened; over the course of Rohmer’s milking of the character over book after book, the war between Smith and Fu Manchu softened. Rohmer wrote his final Fu Manchu story in 1959; by then, Fu Manchu and Nayland Smith were practically on friendly terms. Why not? Ten years prior, Young China had been replaced by Red China. Fu Manchu could be a piece in a struggle between a unified Asia and the "civilized world" of Empire, but what place did he have in a world of ideological, rather than merely national and racial, struggle? Then again, as Dr. Petrie mused forty years earlier, could anything really be ruled out when the hand of Fu Manchu was involved?
The Chinese Republican is of the mandarin class, but of a new generation which veneers its Confucianism with Western polish. These youthful and unbalanced reformers, in conjunction with older but no less ill-balanced provincial politicians, may be said to represent Young China. Amid such turmoils as this we invariably look for, and invariably find, a Third Party. In my opinion, Dr. Fu-Manchu was one of the leaders of such a party.