Shang-Chi and Yellow Peril: How A Racist History Colors Marvel’s First Asian-Led Franchise
Shang-Chi and yellow peril, a racist movement in the 19th and 20th century portraying Chinese, Korean, and Japanese as sub-human, are sadly intertwined because of intellectual property. While most of Marvel’s fans celebrated the Asian-led film and the storied characters it will bring to life, others feel the pangs of that old societal wound. It’s not that the character himself is racist (though his origins remain somewhat problematic), but rather his first nemesis that created the controversy. People in China especially, where economic and political relations with America are tense at the moment (to say the least), expressed their outrage via social media.
One site, Zhihu, saw more than seven million people view a complaint, as reported by Quartzy. The post noted that for more than a century, the character of Fu Manchu actively insults their ethnicity and culture, and that good people should not accept that. The site reports that a user on Weibo, a kind of Twitter, says that Fu Manchu defames Chinese people and culture, perpetuating the yellow peril today, including in the Shang-Chi film. Fu Manchu is not a creation unique to Marvel, however. Yet, the comics company licensed the character for use and made him Shang-Chi’s evil father. This was eventually retconned, with his father using Fu Manchu as an alias, but the damage was done.
Who is Fu Manchu and What Is Yellow Peril?
Shang-Chi may hopefully be a character best remembered for a great story and bringing diversity into the Marvel Studios panetheon. Yet, in the comics, Shang-Chi only represented a foil for another classic literary character: Dr. Fu Manchu. The comic sought to capitalize on the fascination with martial arts that started in the 1970s and, arguably, continues to this day. However, Shang-Chi and yellow peril are connected, because the father of both is Dr. Fu Manchu. Created by British writer Sax Rohmer, he serves as the archetype for the criminal mastermind and mad scientist alike. Yet, lest you think the racial component of the character is ambiguous, Rohmer described the not-so-good doctor “as the yellow peril incarnate.” Drawing from fears in Europe, the U.S., and Australia after the Russia-Chinese war, immigrants from China faced extreme racism.
Most of these immigrants would take very dangerous jobs for much less than pay than other workers. Immigration fears are usually tied to either religion or economics, and the yellow peril is no different. Drawings and literature of the 19th and early 20th century portrayed Asians as animalistic, deceitful, and savage. Ironically, xenophobia against Western colonists inspired the martial-arts militia The Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists to start a violent rebellion. An alliance of eight nations brought 20,000 troops to fight the so-called “Boxers.” The invading Western armies, at least the German, Russian, and Austrian forces, committed many atrocities against civilians. There were public executions of rebels and government officials alike. The aftermath and impact of this tragic conflict remains debated by scholars and historians today. However, this started the long history of yellow peril fears in the West, culminating (for us) with Shang-Chi.
Shang-Chi and Yellow Peril: Westernized Asian Culture versus a Harmful Stereotype
To capitalize on the license for Fu Manchu, Marvel created his “son” Shang-Chi, the Master of Kung-Fu. An honor-bound martial artist, Shang-Chi sought to dismantle his father’s criminal empire. Marvel leaned-in to the racist caricature for drawing Shang-Chi’s father. He has the demon-like face, the long nails, and wears the moustache that bears his name. As the original series, which lasted ten years, went on, Fu Manchu became a literal bloodsucker, feeding on the blood of his children to preserve his immortality. The license for the character expired in 1983, but it wasn’t until more than 20 years later when Ed Brubaker retconned it. “Fu Manchu” was just an alias for Shang-Chi’s father. An attempt to distance the property both from the character and its troubled past.
Yet, Shang-Chi and yellow peril don’t necessarily begin and end with Fu Manchu. In the early days of the comic, artists drew the character with a very “yellow” skin tone. This changed with time as comic art itself became more realistic and sought to shake off problematic tropes. Some think that the Western appropriation of Asian martial arts, mysticism, and myth is just an extension of the plunder undertaken during the Boxer Rebellion. On the other hand, people across all demographics appreciate Shang-Chi for several reasons, particularly representation. Others know that comic books are comic books, but the introduction of these elements in the comic led to real-world study and appreciation of indigenous Asian culture. As we develop our understanding of far-flung and distant cultures, companies like Marvel need to make sure they represent them with respect.
Should Marvel Go Ahead With Their Plans for Shang-Chi?
While Shang-Chi and yellow peril are inextricably linked in history, the character’s current incarnation represents none of those problems. The best martial artist in the Marvel Universe, Shang-Chi is the myth of the regular man made exceptional, like Batman. His power, like Iron Fist’s, stems from harnesses “chi.” This is a historically Chinese term for the ubiquitous mythical concept of a “life force” or even “the soul.” So, essentially by using the power of will, Shang-Chi can fight superhuman characters to a standstill and even defeat them. This is a powerful figure to include in the MCU, and one that could fill the sort of pure, moral hole left after the exit of Chris Evans’s Steve Rogers. Stopping this film now would be a waste of a huge opportunity for everyone.
First there is the fact that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings could be for Asian Marvel fans what Black Panther was for black and African Marvel fans. With David Callaham (also writing the sequel to Sony’s Into The Spider-Verse), Daniel David Cretton directing, and Simu Liu, Tony Leung, and Awkwafina in the cast, the story will be handled with great care. It also appears that Marvel will use the opportunity presented by this film to help modernize another problematic character from their past, Iron Man nemesis the Mandarin. While the comic books, many written in less enlightened times, may be problematic, this movie could do for superhero films what Crazy Rich Asians and Always Be My Maybe did for Romantic Comedies. This time, Marvel can get the origin right and one of their coolest characters gets his time to shine on the big screen.
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.