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Literature / Fu Manchu

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"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, 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."
The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu (1913)

The villain of various pulp novels by Sax Rohmer, this Diabolical Mastermind is the archetypal Yellow Peril villain. He has made his way into many media, including film, radio, TV, and comics.

Fu Manchu has a long Evil Moustache in the famous "Fu Manchu" style.note  He has squinty eyes: pure Yellow Peril. He is a Chessmaster setting up The Plan and he's as much of a Karma Houdini as the codes of production allow.

Fu Manchu's arch-nemeses are Sir Denis Nayland Smith, an agent of the British government, and Dr. Petrie, Smith's Watson. Likely inspired by the Sherlock Holmes series, Sax Rohmer had Petrie narrate each of the first three novels as Smith combated Fu Manchu's latest evil plot.

His actual public domain status is complicated. The first three Fu-Manchunote  books were published prior to 1922 and are public domain in the USA; however, some characters are not public domain since they were introduced later, particularly his daughter Fah Lo Suee, who was introduced in the third book but not named until the fourth book, published in 1931. Also, Fu Manchu is not in the public domain in Europe (Rohmer died in 1959).

He has been played in over forty films by over a dozen different actors, including H. Agar Lyons (an Irishman), Warner Oland (a Swede), Boris Karloff (an Englishman with some Indian ancestry, with Irish-American Myrna Loy as his daughter, here called Fah Lo), Christopher Lee (an Englishman with a bit of Italian in him, see page image), and Peter Sellers (also English) — but never yet by an actual Asian actor, although Fu Manchu's daughter has been played by two Asian actresses: the Chinese-American Anna May Wong as Ling Moy in Daughter of the Dragon and the Chinese Tsai Chin as Lin Tang in Lee's version. In fact Sellers' take, The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980), is the last movie centered around the character to date, and a parody at that.

His first appearance on radio was on a show called The Collier Hour, which presented adaptations of various popular works. This was followed by the short-lived Fu Manchu radio series, which lasted from 1932-1933. There was also a Fu Manchu newspaper comic which ran from 1931 to 1933.

There was a brief television series entitled The Adventures of Dr. Fu Manchu airing in 1956. The show can be considered Fair for Its Day as it contains some sympathetic, peace-loving Asian characters as well as some villainous Western characters. However, Fu Manchu is still played by a white man (Glen Gordon) in Yellow Face and it contains the same over-the-top exoticism, so it can still be a little cringe-worthy.

Of course, Fu Manchu also made a notable cameo in the Grindhouse fake trailer Werewolf Women of the S.S. where he was played by none other than Nicolas Cage.note  He was also the original father of Marvel Comics hero Shang-Chi, though public domain complications eventually led to this being retconned away.

He probably bears direct responsibility for killing off an entire moustache style (although Toki Wartooth is a rare modern example of the style), a feat only matched by Adolf Hitler.

    Novels by Sax Rohmer 
  • The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu (1913)Note 1  Note 2 
  • The Return of Dr. Fu-Manchu (1916)note 
  • The Hand of Fu Manchu (1917)note 
  • Daughter of Fu Manchu (1931)note 
  • The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)note 
  • The Bride of Fu Manchu (1933)note 
  • The Trail of Fu Manchu (1934)note 
  • President Fu Manchu (1936)note 
  • The Drums of Fu Manchu (1939)note 
  • The Island of Fu Manchu (1940)note 
  • The Shadow of Fu Manchu (1948)note 
  • Re-Enter Fu Manchu (1957)note 
  • Emperor Fu Manchu (1959)note 
  • The Wrath of Fu Manchu (1973)note 


The Fu Manchu novels provides examples of:

  • Affably Evil: Fu Manchu, who, despite using underhanded tactics, is a man of his word and even sends a wedding-gift to his nemesis.
  • Antagonist Title: All of the books in the series, as well as most films, feature Doctor Fu's name in their titles.
  • Bad Guys Do the Dirty Work: "Daughter of Fu Manchu" features a climax where the eponymous character, having dug up her father's stash of superweapons and reformed the Si Fan, has captured both our narrator Shan and series hero Nayland Smith, evades a possible last minute rescue, and is preparing to make the former victim of a gender reversal of the Scarpia Ultimatum, when Fu Manchu simply walks in the room and immediately takes over the resurgent Si Fan and release the prisoners. A rare case where The Bad Guy Wins, so long as we consider Fu Manchu the Big Bad of the series, is also a happy ending.
  • Big Bad: Fu Manchu is always the big bad; it's his job.
  • Brainwashed: Fu often uses his mental powers on his victims.
  • Brownface: In-Universe, Neyland Smith uses this to disguise himself as an Arab in one book.
  • Character Development: Fu starts out as a Chinese ultranationalist seeking the sovereignty of China and developed into one who seeks personal world domination. Moreover, as the series progresses Fu becomes more and more the Noble Demon type of character, a man of honor who occasionally even joins the heroes (as in The Island of Fu Manchu) to fight a greater evil (typically communism.)
  • The Chessmaster: Fu Manchu.
  • Daddy's Little Villain: Fah Lo Suee embodies the "beautiful but at least as evil as her father" version.
  • Death Trap: Quite a few of the novels begin with someone being murdered in a mysterious and gruesome manner (often with the victim gasping out a cryptic Dying Clue), and the hero(es) later being attacked by the cause (very often some hideous reptilian/arthropodian horror). Rohmer claimed that every method he devised was based on actual scientific fact.
  • Diabolical Mastermind: Fu Manchu himself.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: Starting with Dr. Petrie, most of the series' narrators find themselves Dating Catwoman and occasionally suffering from lapses in judgement thanks to a brief moment of eye contact with any of Fu Manchu's beautiful henchwomen.
  • Does Not Like Guns: Fu Manchu is a rare villainous example; he disdains guns and explosives because they lack finesse.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: In President Fu Manchu the assassination of a populist political candidate recalls that of Huey Long.
  • Dragon Lady: Fah Lo Suee, Fu Manchu's daughter, is one of the archetypes of this trope.
  • Elixir of Life: Fu Manchu has devised a version of the long sought-after elixer of life, which keeps him young, though he must keep drinking it to retain his youth. The key ingredient is oil from a plant in Burma, where it takes about eighty years to bloom; one of his ongoing projects is cultivating it so it takes less time.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Fu Manchu never breaks his word, with the exception of all the times he promises his daughter "You Have Failed Me for the last time" and "kills" her. She's the only real affiliate of his to never complete a Heel–Face Turn and still survive the entire book series.
  • Even Evil Has Standards / Noble Demon: Fu, despite his willingness to mind-control, murder, and torture to gain his ends, nevertheless refuses to indulge in unnecessary cruelty and is always scrupulously a man of his word. He gives Shan Greville wedding presents and sincere congratulations in the epilogue of The Mask of Fu Manchu.
  • Expy: Of Sherlock Holmes:
    • Nayland Smith is Holmes
    • Dr. Petrie is Watson
    • Fu Manchu is Professor Moriarty
  • Faking the Dead: Fah Lo Suee is supposedly executed by her father in The Trail of Fu Manchu. The Drums of Fu Manchu reveals this trope was in play, and she was actually taken away and brainwashed (or "reincarnated", as Fu Manchu puts it) into a new identity, named Koreani.
  • Femme Fatale: Zarmi and Fah Lo Suee.
  • Good Hair, Evil Hair: You will never, ever see a good character with a Fu Manchu mustache. Unless he's a Klingon.
  • High-Heel–Face Turn: Kâramanèh, who starts out as one of Fu Manchu's henchwomen but eventually falls in love with Dr Petrie.
  • I Gave My Word: Both Fu Manchu and Nayland Smith both believe a man should keep his word even to an enemy.
    Nayland Smith: A servant of the crown in the East makes his motto: "Keep your word though it break your neck!"
  • Karma Houdini: Fu Manchu — which made him a problem character under The Hays Code.
  • Love at First Sight: Endemic to the series in pretty much every single romantic subplot. Even Fu Manchu's daughter claims to have developed a case of this when she first saw Nayland Smith. When he was pointing a gun to her head and she left him to die of thirst in a prison cell.
  • Majored in Western Hypocrisy: Fu Manchu was an early character of this type, having studied in the prestigious institutes of the day such as Edinburgh and the Sorbonne.
  • Master Poisoner: Fu Manchu is a master of many insidious and undetectable Oriental poisons.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: In The Drums of Fu Manchu "Marcel Delibes" represents Leon Blum, "Monaghani" is Mussolini, and "Rudolph Adlon" is a creepily sympathetic portrait of that other guy with a moustache. In President Fu Manchu, Huey Long and "radio priest" Father Coughlin appear as "Harvey Bragg" and "Abbot Patrick Donegal".
  • Not Distracted by the Sexy: Nayland Smith is portrayed as a hyperactive, tireless agent of the crown and its interests, and alone among all the protagonists, never gets put off course by anyone of the Doctor's beautiful henchmen. The one person who comes close is Fah Lo Suee, and that's only after she's grabbed him for two last chance snogs and survived a Fate Worse than Death with Laser-Guided Amnesia, and he still remains in control, though she does manage to prove that he's Not So Stoic.
  • Really 700 Years Old: Thanks to repeatedly imbibing his Elixir of Life formula to keep himself alive and young, Fu Manchu is well over a hundred years old.
  • The Triads and the Tongs: Fu Manchu is often depicted as controlling or at least working with these groups.
  • Thinking Tic: Sir Denis Nayland Smith tugs on an earlobe when thinking—even if he's in disguise at the time.
  • Vague Age: Fu Manchu is established to be past seventy, but we are never given an exact statement of just how aged he is supposed to be.
  • Villain-Based Franchise: There's a reason why the titles of nearly every novel, film, and show in the franchise contain the name "Fu Manchu" instead of "Nayland Smith".
  • Violently Protective Girlfriend: Kâramanèh asserts her credentials as an Action Girl by shooting two of Fu Manchu's assassin's when they are about to catch Petrie and Nayland Smith. Later, Fu Manchu uses Laser-Guided Amnesia to subdue her back into his service. She regains her memory just in time to realize that her master is psychologically torturing Petrie in the next room. She doesn't like that. And if it weren't for Joker Immunity, that would have been the end of Dr. Fu Manchu.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: In their own way, Fu-Manchu and the Si-Fan organization at times. The Drums of Fu Manchu sees them claiming they want to end war and working to eliminate certain individuals (or at least remove their influence) whom they claim could plunge Europe into such a conflict.
  • Wicked Cultured: Fu Manchu.
  • Wife Husbandry: Attempted. A year after Dr. Petrie marries Fu Manchu's former servant Kâramanèh, their daughter is born, but she supposedly dies when she's just three weeks old. Book 6 reveals her existence and that she was kidnapped by Fu Manchu or one of his servants, and raised under the name Fleurette for the purpose of bearing a son for him when she's old enough (he specifically states that no romance is intended, and he is just using her to bear his child). This is thwarted when she meets and falls for Alan Sterling (the narrator of The Bride of Fu Manchu) instead, and Fu Manchu, seeing his plan has effectively been sabotaged (however unintended), releases her to be with him. While he later abducts Fleurette again in the very next book, he is more concerned with using her as a hostage against his foes until he can achieve his actual goal of preparing one more dose of the formula that keeps him young and alive.
  • Xanatos Gambit: Fu Manchu is a master of them. Even when his main scheme is foiled by the heroes, he'll find some way to gain something of value he can use for future schemes.
  • Yellow Peril: The Trope Codifier. Fu Manchu himself launched a host of villainous Oriental genius imitations.

The Fu Manchu films provides examples of:

  • Censorship Bureau: The production of Fu Manchu movies was halted during World War II at the request of the US State Department as China was an ally against Japan. Rohmer's publisher also voluntarily stopped publishing Fu Manchu novels during the war. Also in 1936 all of Sax Rohmer's books, Fu Manchu included, were banned by the Nazis, on the grounds that they thought that Rohmer was Jewish (he was actually Irish).
  • The End... Or Is It?: The '60s film series (produced by Harry Alan Towers and starring Christopher Lee) would always end with Fu Manchu saying "The world shall hear from me again".
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute: How many film adaptations treat Fu Manchu's daughter Fah Lo Suee. Although she was introduced in the third novel, which is public domain in the US, she wasn't named until the fourth, which isn't. Because of this, she can't be included under that name in any adaptations without the direct permission of the Rohmer estate. To avoid the hassle, many film adaptations usually create a similar character with a different name — Ling Moy in Daughter of the Dragon, Karamaneh (who is actually named after a different Sax Rohmer character introduced and named in the first novel) in The Adventures of Dr. Fu Manchu, and Lin Tang in the Christopher Lee films.
  • Yellow Face: Every onscreen incarnation of Fu Manchu has been played by a white man. In Christopher Lee's case, this got pretty laughable, as Lee — with that big aquiline nose — looked about as non-Chinese as it's possible to get.

Alternative Title(s): The Brides Of Fu Manchu