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  • Modernity's (Yellow) PerilsDr. Fu-Manchu and English Race Paranoia
  • Urmila Seshagiri (bio)

The modern mind has become more and more a calculating one.

—Georg Simmel, "The Metropolis and Mental Life" (1903)

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 eyesof 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 of science past and present, 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.

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

When The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu was published in London in 1913, Sax Rohmer (1883–1959) catapulted from literary obscurity into astonishing fame that lasted for almost fifty years. Over the decades that witnessed two World Wars, the emerging Cold War, and rapid scientific and technological change, Rohmer's thirteen novels about a Chinese "devil doctor" captivated massive readerships in England and America. The central, recurring conflict of these thrillers—Dr. Fu-Manchu's schemes for global domination—rewrote the master narrative of modern England, inverting the British Empire's racial and political hierarchies to imagine a dystopic civilization dominated by evil Orientals.1 Although the rhetoric of these novels exalts twentieth-century England as a fount of progress, knowledge, and virtue, Dr. Fu-Manchu's near-total appropriation of sociopolitical and technological systems points to the negative capabilities of industrialization and modernization. By paralyzing English heroes and giving a Chinese [End Page 162] villain limitless authority over the metropole, Sax Rohmer's novels overturn the tropes of imperial-era popular fiction and echo the complex treatments of urban modernity in the experimental literature of high modernism. Metropolitan alienation and dehumanization—mod-ernism's signature discontents—become, in the Fu-Manchu tales, conditions expressed through an irrefragable racial anxiety. And rather than illustrating imperial Britain's unassailable authority, these bestselling thrillers unwittingly reveal the very emptiness of twentieth-century technocratic utopianism that constitutes the focus of much modernist thought.

The celebrity that began in 1913 with The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu and ended in 1959 with The Emperor Fu-Manchu rested on Rohmer's imaginative representations of the Yellow Peril.2 The image of Oriental hordes invading Western nations yielded a malleable literary formula that became the cornerstone of Rohmer's commercial success: the thirteen Fu-Manchu novels sold more than 20 million copies during Rohmer's lifetime. Vanity Fair magazine called Dr. Fu-Manchu "the most exotic and diabolic of contemporary villains in the annals of crime," and for decades the imperial propaganda machine, the burgeoning horror-movie industry, and British and American publishing houses reaped material (and ideological) profits by selling Rohmer's Chinese villain to white middle-class audiences.3 Methuen and Company first published The Mystery of Fu-Manchu in 1913 and went on to reprint this title another twenty times; between American and British reprints, thfirst Fu-Manchu novel alone has seen forty different editions (Van Ash and Rohmer, 297).4 The Yellow Peril promised to be almost infinitely commodifiable, a set of paranoid race-fantasies that audiences eagerly consumed in a variety of genres and guises. In 1923, English audiences flocked to the cinema to be awed by the Stoll Production Company's film The Mystery of Fu-Manchu. Stoll plastered London's Underground stations with enormous posters featuring the devil doctor's malevolent face and boasting that more than 100,000 Fu-Manchu novels had been sold. American movie studios in Hollywood took over the production of Fu-Manchu feature films in the 1930s, and Rohmer contributed to scripts and screenplays while continuing to write new novels about his despotic Chinese villain.5 During World War II, he circulated the Fu-Manchu stories through radio broadcasts, and in the 1950s, he helped to create a series of half-hour [End Page 163] television shows called The Adventures of Fu-Manchu...