Golden Age crime writer Ronald Knox is well-known for having devised an ironic decalogue – a list of 10 commandments – for the genre. Among them was the advice to ensure that the criminal was known to the other characters, and to the reader, and did not suddenly appear out of the blue. Another was to avoid reliance on sinister Oriental villains, a token of how many cliché figures like this were appearing in popular thrillers at the time, especially in the Fu Manchu novels of Sax Rohmer.
These novels were very popular from the 1920s onwards. Sax Rohmer was a pseudonym of Arthur Sarsfield Ward (1883-1959). He used his knowledge of London's Chinatown and of the Far East in his stories about Fu Manchu, the archetypal sinister Oriental. The Mystery of Fu Manchu
(1913) was the first, and they continued into the 1950s, by which time plot-lines incorporated readers' fears about communism during the Cold War. Fu Manchu was a Moriarty-figure, an evil genius pitted against good guys like Sir Denis Nayland Smith, who was the Sherlock Holmes counterpart keeping society safe.
Ronald Knox's ironic concern did not come from nowhere. For decades, Western writers alleged that China was a benighted place unable to change, resistant to the Christian Gospel, and a rival to European imperialist ambitions. In his novel, Kim Kipling helped to bring into popular currency the phrase 'the Great Game', reflecting European fears that China would invade India, and captured in spy fiction of the period.
As today, wars were fought over Afghanistan for ideological and military control. The emigration of Chinese labour into America led to fears in Britain that agriculture would be overwhelmed and British workers put out of employment. Nature writer Richard Jefferies speaks about this back in 1880. 'Chineseness' became a set of qualities evoking fear and prejudice, and often fictionally represented in sinister Orientals like Fu Manchu with mesmeric eyes, diabolical cunning, a devious way with poisons, and a plan to rule the world. Dated and xenophobic though it sounds, the phrase 'the Yellow Peril' is still one we know today, though now it is used, if at all, cautiously and euphemistically.
Like Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes
stories, Voldemort in Harry Potter
and The Master in Dr Who
, Fu Manchu is a figure of towering evil genius. His opponents refer to him as dangerously clever. They feel his evil power when they are in his presence, knowing that he can hypnotise them with a look, can beguile them with treacherous femme fatales, and kill them in 1,000 hideous ways if they get in his way or unless they comply with his wishes. In The Shadow of Fu Manchu
, he reactivates the dead into zombie killers, creating a robotic army called the Dead Men which help him torture and remove his opponents, and enable him to carry out his plans to rule the world.
Using his power and scientific knowledge, and prepared to use any means to do it, he sets out to gather around him all the best scientific experts in the world. His plan, he claims, is to bring about world peace, and ensure that the troublesome intentions of both the Soviet state (and its spies) and the Chinese Communist state (and its spies) are neutralised and absorbed by his own organisation. Benign though this seems, Sax Rohmer makes it clear in what Fu Manchu actually does – milk scorpion poison to make a plague venom, terrorise his victims with deadly insects and mindless killers, assassinating powerful politicians who get in his way – that his plans for world control are evil.
Fiction can resolve such fears and allay such conspiracy theories easily enough, especially since there are plenty of stalwart muscular British heroes to go round. Today it is easy to dismiss these perceptions as products of imperialist prejudice, and believe that 'we know better now'. We are open for business as 'global Britain', with all the open-minded and prejudice-free thinking that suggests. We know, for instance, that China is a world economic powerhouse, that many of things we use and need from day to day are made there, that Chinese history goes back so far that they were civilised when we were cavemen. They are indeed 'dangerously clever', outnumbering and outclassing most of us.
So it is worth asking whether thoughts like this – in fiction and real life – encourage us to stop for a moment and ask the question: have our fears about 'the yellow peril' really gone away or have they gone underground? After all, it is understandably human to admire clever and successful people, and want some of the influence that powerful figures and countries seem to have in spades. We wonder 'wouldn't it be nice if… we had more influence on the world stage… if Britain weren't (as Putin says) just a tiny island off Europe… if we had really strong wise government… if once again Britain really did rule the waves… if we were right to think our political and moral values were really the best'.
Nostalgic and unrealistic though it seems, 'heart over head', we yearn for the solutions that fiction can offer us – or used to offer us – that clear binarism of good and bad we find in Buchan and Ambler, Household and Oppenheim, Childers and Charteris (of The Saint
fame). Perhaps that accounts for the resurrection in reprints of the Fu Manchu tales from Titan Books of London, the continuing appearance of reprints of the Judge Dee stories by Robert van Gulik from publisher Kodansha, and the emergence of thoughtful but high-octane thrillers from indigenous Chinese authors like Qin Xiaolong and Zhen Haohui, and Japanese authors like Kenzo Kitakata and Fuminori Nakamura. Soho Crime and Head of Zeus have developed impressive lists of 'Oriental' crime in English translation, and fortunately there are others.
Two important shifts in creativity and reading opportunity, then: first, the resurrection and perpetuation of 'pulp thriller' themes both in thriller/crime fiction and manga/game/film formats (for instance, updated representations of Judge Dee now appear in many of them); and second, a widening range of Chinese and Japanese, Korean and other writing – in both genre fiction and mainstream literature – available in translation for readers around the world. Indigenous readership in China itself is substantial and underpins much of the economic success of publishers there.
The Judge Dee books themselves, written by the Dutch Orientalist Robert van Gulik (1910-67) and based purportedly on a historical Chinese magistrate of the Tang dynasty who solved crimes, were first published in the 1950s. They have evocative titles such as The Chinese Gold Murders
. Others include Lake
, and Maze
murders, The Willow Pattern
and The Haunted Monastery
Judge Dee is a magistrate, a learned man, skilled in law and music, brought up in the Confucian tradition, perceptive and intuitive. He always solves the crime. He has been called the Sherlock Holmes of the Tang dynasty (around the seventh century). Unlike Fu Manchu, Judge Dee is dangerously clever but only to those who commit evil or defy law and order. Readers like solutions to their crimes and van Gulik provides them with great ingenuity and no little eroticism. His Confucianism represents the moral order which, like that of Sherlock Holmes, faces off the evil forces threatening to subvert society. His worldly wisdom appeals, also, like that of Kai Lung (the famous 'wise Chinese' created by author Ernest Bramah, 1868-1942, in works like The Wallet of Kai Lung
, published in 1900).
And yet, and even so, readers coming to the novels of Sax Rohmer and Robert van Gulik today are likely to pause for thought. For all his sensationalism, Rohmer forecasts a time when Fu Manchu and his Sublime Order will rule the world and introduce a Celestial Age. Having thrown out the British imperialists and frightened off any rival (like Japan), he or China (we never know quite which) will go on to out-perform the Soviet state and its agents, and Fu Manchu himself will transform Chinese communism itself by ruling the world himself. He will do this by fair means or foul, an argument made by imperialists through the ages.
For all his cleverness, Judge Dee is a magistrate set on law and order. Time and time again, he has to impose compliance on wayward groups within society – Arab traders set on introducing Islamic law into southern China (Islam was a major threat to the T'ang empire), a Korean underclass growing the drugs and prostitution market, citizens exploiting disorder when there is a plague in Canton, religious orders masquerading as honest. Judge Dee says at one point that it is important for Chinese law and order – and for the integrity and future of society – for all its constituent races to submit to the Confucian order. The yin and yang of law and chaos, good and bad, symbolise such things astrologically.
We can over-read ancient texts and imagine they foretell the future: people have been deciphering the Bible
and the Qur'an
for centuries, as Left Behind
novels demonstrate in an almost sinister way. The news tells us about Chinese economic imperialism in Africa; the fate of Hong Kong and Taiwan tell their own stories. There are claims that Confucius Institutes set up in British universities are insidious channels of soft Chinese propaganda. Conspiracy theories multiply as vigorously today as ever they did.
Chinese whispers is a party game where an original message gets distorted by passing it on. We believe that we believe what we choose to believe, and believe that we are able to see distortions of the truth when they come our way. We might look back on Fu Manchu and Judge Dee as crude stereotypes and imagine that we know better now. Identity politics and racial awareness has enabled us to grow up. Yet the unconscious fears and vain imaginings persist – in our thoughts and dreams and in the fictions and media fantasies we continue to create for ourselves. Game of Thrones
and Harry Potter
, His Dark Materials
and Scandi noir, true crime and Marvel comics: none of this has quite gone away and never will. Nor has a changing world in which we hope to stay safe.
Dr Stuart Hannabuss is a former chaplain at the University of Aberdeen and an accompanist at the North East Scotland Music School