‘His eyes were literally on fire’

David Trotter

  • The Yellow Peril: Dr Fu Manchu & the Rise of Chinaphobia by Christopher Frayling
    Thames and Hudson, 360 pp, £24.95, October 2014, ISBN 978 0 500 25207 9

On 14 March 2011, China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress, endorsed a Five-Year Plan incorporating a firm commitment to enhance the nation’s capacity for innovative research in science and technology. In the United States, this commitment was interpreted as a green light for no-holds-barred military and industrial espionage. Cyber-warfare became one of the administration’s major themes. In October 2012, the secretary of defence, Leon Panetta, raised the stakes further by declaring that the outcome of a concerted attack on key US systems and networks ‘could be a cyber Pearl Harbor’. Cyber-warfare was now assumed to pose a greater threat to national security than terrorism. In May 2014, the attorney general, Eric Holder, announced that criminal charges had been laid against five Chinese military officials accused of hacking into US companies in order to gain trade secrets. In October 2014, as President Obama was preparing to make a state visit to China, a coalition of cyber-security companies claimed that a group of hackers with links to the Chinese government had been responsible for a wide range of attacks during the previous six years on government agencies, private companies and human rights groups, including the high-profile 2009 Aurora attack on Google.

It didn’t end there. There was also the serio-comic episode of the hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment, on 24 November 2014. On this occasion, the cyber-swag included four as yet unreleased movies, large amounts of mildly embarrassing private email correspondence, and confidential salary and performance data: all of which was immediately made available on file-sharing networks. Someone clearly had it in for Sony. But who? The FBI pointed the finger at China’s ally North Korea: Sony was about to release The Interview, a comedy involving an assassination attempt on Kim Jong-un. But the attack was astonishingly sophisticated. An official from the FBI’s Cyber Division was reported as saying that the malware used could get past 90 per cent of current internet defence systems. Such ingenuity is not what North Korea is famous for. If the FBI is right, however, there’s a chance that this ‘reclusive nation’ (copyright all news outlets) has another damaging cyber-trick or two up the sleeves of its Mao-era tunic. Given that US hegemony depends on the continuous reassertion of scientific and technological supremacy, the heavyweight political response to mounting evidence of Chinese and North Korean involvement in cyber-espionage is understandable. But, as Panetta’s Pearl Harbor jibe amply demonstrates, there is a long and complicated history behind the form the response has taken.

All of this might seem very distant from the exploits of the Chinese devil doctor Fu Manchu, the invention of an Edwardian hack-writer and music-hall lyricist who called himself Sax Rohmer. Fu Manchu has green eyes, a close-shaven skull, a long silken robe, an Arabian slave-girl and a performing marmoset; and he wages war on the West, pretty much for the hell of it, with the aid of a small army of dacoits, Thugs and zombies. ‘His props,’ Christopher Frayling writes, ‘include an arsenal of rare poisons in bubbling glassware, rare fungi and bacilli, exotic brightly coloured insects with lots of legs (“my deadly ministers”), and such fiendish torture devices as “The Zayat Kiss”, “The Coughing Horror”, or “The Cat with Poisoned Claws”.’ Rohmer’s preposterous, indestructible villain made his first appearance in The Mystery of Dr Fu Manchu (1913), playing an East Asian Moriarty opposite old Burma hand and fully accredited special agent Nayland Smith – Sherlock Holmes with a face ‘sun-baked to the hue of coffee’ – and stalwart Dr (of course) Petrie, who, like his Baker Street predecessor, tells the story and gets the girl. Nayland Smith and Petrie exist in a state of wildly malfunctioning cliché: ‘His eyes were literally on fire,’ Petrie solemnly reports of one of Smith’s more agitated moments. Rohmer didn’t waste a huge amount of time on his Englishmen. The devil doctor, as Frayling argues persuasively in his absorbing study, was the thing. Frayling examines each element of Rohmer’s Fu Manchu formula in turn, setting it in its literary and ideological context, then shows how these elements were combined and recombined to generate a long series of novels, which gave rise to countless theatrical and screen adaptations, which became in turn the object of parody and pastiche. Considered as a fictional project, he argues, Fu Manchu is ‘always serious’.

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