An Open Letter to Marvel Studios: How I’d handle the racist legacy of ‘Fu Manchu’ and Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu …
Recently, Marvel Studios announced that they’re working on “Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu” as a new superhero tentpole franchise. From Deadline.com …
EXCLUSIVE: Marvel Studios is fast-tracking Shang-Chi to be its first superhero movie tentpole franchise with an Asian protagonist. The studio has set Chinese-American scribe Dave Callaham to write the screenplay, and Deadline hears Marvel is already looking at a number of Asian and Asian-American directors who want to do something as potentially monumental as was accomplished in Marvel’s first viable Best Picture candidate, Black Panther.
A little bit of background. Shang-Chi is a martial arts character created by writer Steve Englehart and artist Jim Starlin for Marvel Comics in the 1970s. He was, essentially, Marvel’s version of Bruce Lee, designed to cash in on the same Martial Arts pop culture frenzy that produced ‘Iron Fist’ and numerous other characters of the era.
Shang-Chi’s hook, though, was that while he was a hero, his father was none other than the villainous Fu Manchu, a property Marvel licensed from the estate of Sax Rohmer (the penname of ‘Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward’).
Fu Manchu is a racist stereotype. Full stop. There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it. The character is racist. His character design is racist. His behavior is racist. His very name is racist; according to Sax Rohmer, Fu Manchu means ‘The Warlike Manchu.’ For the record, Sax Rohmer didn’t speak Mandarin, Cantonese, or any Chinese dialects. He just made up a name and the meaning of the name. Rohmer told people that he got the idea for the character when he asked his ouija board, “What is the most dangerous competition to the white man?” and the board spelled out C-H-I-N-A-M-A-N. Sax Rohmer was a racist, who asked a racist question of a ouija board, and fully believed in the dangerous, destructive stereotypes of the Yellow Peril.
Sax Rohmer’s books, which played on these stereotypes and sold people in Britain, Europe and North America on the hysteria of foreign drug runners destroying white men sold 20 million copies in his lifetime.
And Fu Manchu, this utterly racist creation borne of an utterly racist ouija board session, is the character that Steve Englehart and artist Jim Starlin chose to be the father of Shang-Chi.
Marvel Studios has a problem, one I hope they see. But it’s a historic problem, one that’s touched a lot of Marvel properties over the years. The problem, as I see it, with a lot of Marvel properties is that the people originally writing them didn’t know or care anything about history, traditions, or even the names of other countries and places (see ‘The Ancient One’, Kunlun and Iron Fist) from which they drew inspiration. Or, if they did know, they didn’t care.
Did Englehart and Starlin know or care that Fu Manchu is racist? I don’t know. But we know it now, so what’s Marvel Studios going to do?
Here’s what I hope they do. My hope would be that instead of running away from the racist past of Shang-Chi and Fu Manchu, they’d acknowledge it.
So, here’s how I’d handle the racist past of Fu Manchu …
If I got to write Shang-Chi, I’d WANT to incorporate Fu Manchu into his story. Because it’d be a way to acknowledge and explore the racism and colonialism of the British Empire. Specifically, by recognizing why Fu Manchu is racist, and putting the truth of how ‘Fu Manchu’ came to be within the context of the story.
Specifically, I’d start with the premise that the British Empire were the bad guys. And I’d do it by blending history with legend.
To put this another way, Denis Nayland Smith is an agent of the British Empire, an invasion force that occupied parts of China, which led to rebellion. A close analogy is Star Wars, with Smith as an agent of Palpatine’s Empire. I’d make him a character present during the so-called ‘Boxer Rebellion.’ Why did the British name that uprising “The Boxer Rebellion?”
The Imperials reference to ‘Boxer’ was specifically in reference to what they called ‘Chinese Boxing’ i.e., Wushu, or as we call it and know it, Kung-Fu or Gongfu. The ‘Boxers’ were a secret sect of martial artists that fought against the Imperials in the Boxer Rebellion. Some of the martial artists involved in the fighting believed they were impervious to bullets! Manchu people are an ethnic group in China, and Manchu people were involved in the Boxer rebellion.
Let’s stop for a second, Marvel is sitting on a legend about a secret sect of martial artists who rebelled against an evil Empire and believed their Wushu was so strong that they were bulletproof. That’s just amazing.
So, it’s not a stretch for an ignorant Imperialist like Denis Nayland Smith to take a rebel ‘Boxer’, torture that person, and then when that person under torture screamed “Gongfu Manchu” or “Manchu Gongfu” for Smith to completely mangle the interpretation of what someone said, and wonder aloud, “Who is this Fu Manchu that these rebels are always screaming about when they die?”
Cao Futian was a real leader of the Boxer Rebellion, who was executed by beheading. I think our racist Denis Nayland Smith could’ve mistaken him for ‘Fu Manchu.’ But, Smith would believe the ‘true Fu Manchu’ remained out there, leaning into his racist stereotypes of the ‘yellow peril.
So, “Fu Manchu” is a racist name bestowed on a mysterious Chinese rebel leader by the British, specifically by Smith. This is not out of character for Imperial Britain. It’s also literally what happened, given what Sax Rohmer wrote, given all the propaganda and racist stereotypes he put out, using a made-up name and horrific stereotypes with no connection to any reality. I’d lean into THAT as well, and say that all the ‘Fu Manchu’ books were Imperialist propaganda, obscuring the real stories, painting their sinister agent Smith as the hero, while the real hero was cloaked as a villain and blamed for the crimes of Smith and the Imperial British Empire.
That would make the person the racist British called ‘Fu Manchu’ a Rebel, probably akin to Saw Garrera. And since this is my story, I’d make the second person that Smith mistakes for Fu Manchu ‘Huo Yuanjia’ AND I’d lean WAY into the legends of his martial arts powers. Like, heighten them into Wuxia territory, with all of the leaping, impossible acrobatics, and more that we see in that beautiful genre.
And I’d change “Shang Chi” to ‘Tseng Chi’. Shang-Chi doesn’t really mean anything. Tseng is a family name, and Chi means ‘energy.’ So, ‘Tseng Chi’ could mean ‘Tseng Family Energy.’ Which is another way to describe a family’s Wushu. So, I’d make Tseng Chi both the name of the character’s Gongfu, and make it a code name for ‘Liu Zhensheng.’
Liu Zhensheng is a legendary kung-fu figure who’s, arguably, the model for the fictional ‘Chen Zhen’ who’s appeared in so many movies, including ‘Fists of Fury’ and ‘Fist of Legend.’ He sounds like the perfect character to base a superhero around.
The legends of Liu Zhensheng’s Wushu, and of Huo Yuania, already rise to superheroic levels, but without vita-rays, pills, or armor. Their powers come from their intense training and their discipline. To take it over the top, I’d also make the source of their training the secret manuals descended from Shaolin that they’ve kept alive all of these years, in addition to traditional medicine that’s kept them alive. They don’t need Steve Rogers Super Soldier Serum, or Nick Fury’s Infinity Formula, when they have the best ginseng in the world growing in their sanctuary.
And if I got to write all of this, and use all those licensed properties, and assuming the estate of Sax Rohmer didn’t object or put an injunction on the story, I’d call the origin story The Immortal Rebel “Fu Manchu” (不朽的反叛者 “福满楚”) and the Shang Chi story The Iron Legend of Shang-Chi (尚志的铁传说).
I don’t know if I’ll ever get to write stuff for Marvel or any of these properties, but if I did, I know exactly how I’d want to handle Fu Manchu and Shang-Chi
My hope is that whoever Marvel taps to produce this work, to shape the work after the screenwriters and other creators put their work into it, puts at least this much thought and care, and hopefully more, into learning some real history and something about the cultures they’re mining for their latest epic.