‘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’.

For Frayling, Fu Manchu, whom Nayland Smith describes as the ‘yellow peril incarnate in one man’, is Orientalism’s pure product. The book’s preface describes a ‘genial lunch’ with Edward Said in Paris in 1995, during which Said graciously conceded that there were two ‘very significant gaps’ in his account of 19th-century constructions of a European identity defined by its encounters with the non-European ‘other’: an analysis of popular culture, and case-studies involving China. ‘Maybe I would be interested in taking on such a project?’ There can be no doubt that the concept of Orientalism throws a good deal of light on key elements of the Fu Manchu formula: the man’s ‘cruel cunning’, for example. Western commentators had for centuries characterised the Chinese as specialists in torture. This ‘Oriental aesthetic of horror’, as Frayling terms it, achieved an apotheosis of a kind in Octave Mirbeau’s sardonic Le Jardin des supplices (1899), with its pleasure garden staffed by craftsmen-torturers who prune flesh and foliage more or less indiscriminately. Mirbeau, the William Morris of death by a thousand cuts, meant his descriptions of the array of minutely calibrated torture devices to provide a critique of Western military technology and its bureaucratisation of death. That Fu Manchu, who seems to have read Mirbeau attentively, should devote so much time and effort to refining methods of torture is sure evidence, for Rohmer, of the ineradicable barbarism of the Chinese ‘mentality’.

There’s one element of the Fu Manchu formula, however, which doesn’t quite fit the Orientalist paradigm as Frayling defines it: the devil doctor’s eager, skilful exploitation, witnessed by Nayland Smith, of ‘all the resources of science past and present’. Fu Manchu’s scientific credentials draw attention to the difference between China’s otherness and all the other sorts of otherness conjured up, in Said’s account, by 19th-century Orientalism. The difference is China’s history of economic superiority. For a long period during the 17th and 18th centuries, China enjoyed significant industrial and technological advantages over Europe in the manufacture of commodities vital to the development of the global economy, such as tea, silk, porcelain and printed calicoes. After the European economies took off decisively in the 19th century, it became plausible for the first time to propagate the myth of China’s epochal stagnation. During the Great Exhibition of 1851, Charles Dickens and Richard Horne wrote a piece for Household Words that contrasted the wonders of the Crystal Palace with the quaintness of an accompanying display of artefacts from China at a gallery in Hyde Park Place. ‘It is very curious,’ Dickens and Horne noted, ‘to have the Exhibition of a people who came to a dead stop, Heaven knows how many hundreds of years ago, side by side with the Exhibition of the moving world.’ In their eyes, England and China represented the extremes of progress and reaction: ‘England, maintaining commercial intercourse with the whole world; China, shutting itself up, as far as possible, within itself.’ China, evidently, was 1851’s ‘reclusive nation’. But the thought must occasionally have arisen over the next half-century or so, as China modernised, despite the scant leeway afforded by a series of coercive treaties with the West, that this reclusive nation might have a technological trick or two left up its silken sleeves. If so, the thought must count, like the recent anxieties about a cyber Pearl Harbor, as techno-Orientalist.

Techno-Orientalism is a term invented by David Morley and Kevin Robins to describe the ‘Japan panic’ of the late 1980s. By that time, the Japanese economy, driven by non-stop technological innovation, had become the second largest in the world after the United States. Japan was the leading creditor nation. In time-honoured fashion, an economic success story began to morph into a story about a culture intent on creating a future in its own autocratic, rule-bound, affectless image. Japan, after all, was the land of the video game and the assembly-line robot. In October 1989, Akio Morita, the then chairman of Sony, told the Sunday Times that Westerners contemplating Japan’s new economic clout ‘have the feeling that strangers, or something foreign, has entered their midst. This gives them strong feelings of fear and anxiety.’ The panic spiked when the strangers began to lay their hands on some sacred American institutions. In 1990, a Japanese company bought the Pebble Beach golf course; for the first time ever, the US Open was played on ‘foreign’ soil. The year before, Sony had paid $3.4 billion for Columbia Pictures, creating Sony Pictures Entertainment, now back in the news as victim rather than aggressor in a techno-Orientalist fantasy. Anyone tempted to see the next Pearl Harbor in the Sony hack might conclude that the ‘Orient’ had just set about bombing itself.

Japan panic eased once the Japanese economy began to falter, but not before the Hollywood empire had struck back. In Ridley Scott’s Black Rain (1989), two New York City cops, maverick Nick Conklin (Michael Douglas) and happy-go-lucky (i.e. obviously doomed) Charlie Vincent (Andy Garcia) escort a Japanese gangster by the name of Sato (Yusaku Matsuda) back to Osaka to face charges. They manage to lose him at Osaka airport, and thereafter have a hard time imposing their different versions of frontier spirit on an unforgivingly technological and bureaucratised environment. Their Japanese colleague Masahiro (Ken Takakura) solemnly informs them that music and movies are all America is now good for. ‘We make the machines,’ he adds; and then, just to make it clear that it’s not too soon to panic, ‘We build the future. We won the peace.’ Techno-Orientalism has a fondness for futures that offend the Western belief in linear progress by remediating old content (ancient practices once deemed necessary, or at least purposeful) as new form (modernism’s freedom to pick and choose among styles). So Sato and his biker gang wield an array of hi-tech ceremonial blades designed to bewilder a dumb cowboy in desperate need of an honest-to-goodness pump-action shotgun. You wince every time anyone unsuspectingly places a hand on a flat surface, knowing that there’s likely to be significantly less of it available for orthodox use by the time it’s retrieved by its owner. The film’s torture garden is an underground car park in which Charlie Vincent is stylishly cut to ribbons before being beheaded, while Nick Conklin looks on helplessly.

Does Fu Manchu do any up-to-date science? Frayling, whose emphasis is on the formula’s 19th-century origins, seems to think it unlikely. It’s true that Fu Manchu’s main strategy is to kidnap eminent Western scientists and carry them off (no doubt after skilful application of ‘The Zayat Kiss’ or ‘The Cat with Poisoned Claws’) to his Chinese HQ; while the secret laboratories in which he pursues his experiments in London seem to owe as much to John Dee as to Ernest Rutherford. But there’s more to it than that, if you look closely enough. One of Fu Manchu’s nastiest tricks is to envelop his victims in an asphyxiating ‘yellowish-green cloud’, which Petrie identifies as a poisonous gas ‘in many respects identical with chlorine, but having unique properties which prove it to be something else – God, and Fu Manchu, alone know what!’ Fu Manchu has not just copied Western science. He has found a way to enhance the lethal capacities of one of the chemical industry’s most versatile reagents. Bursting into the study of the eminent Orientalist and explorer Sir Lionel Barton, Nayland Smith and Petrie find it still full enough of ‘that fearful stuff’ to have ‘suffocated a regiment’ – which is what the Germans were to do to the French at Ypres in April 1915. Equally striking, from the technological point of view, is the episode in which Fu Manchu steals the plans for a new kind of ‘aero-torpedo’ from a locked safe. The aero-torpedo was an experimental aeroplane, notable for its streamlined fuselage, which made a strong impression at the Paris Aero Salon in December 1911. That Rohmer should know enough about it to realise it was the sort of machine likely to attract Fu Manchu’s attention indicates a more than casual interest on his part. He could only have got the information he needed from a specialist magazine like Flight. Despite Nayland Smith’s best efforts at interception, the stolen aero-torpedo plans find their way to China. Frayling describes Fu Manchu as the ‘Osama bin Laden of his day’. He seems to me more like a hacker with readily deniable links to a national government. Information is what he deals in, not spectacle.

Every bit as significant as Fu Manchu’s strategic and tactical genius is Nayland Smith’s complete lack of it: his eyes might as well be literally on fire for all the good they do him when it comes to spotting Fu Manchu’s ruses. His rare victories almost invariably involve the triumph of brawn over brain (on one occasion, he dashes the poisonous life out of a giant centipede ‘with one straight, true blow of the golf club’). Fu Manchu represents, by virtue of his command over science and technology, an Orient for which mere Orientalism is no preparation at all. The most disconcerting thing about him is that he operates within a territory of his own design: a network of sites (safe houses, laboratories, torture chambers) linked by the River Thames. The very ground on which East meets West has been redefined as Eastern (as an East inside the West). Fortunately for Nayland Smith and Petrie, that’s not the whole story. There is a mediating agency available, a go-between or fifth-columnist. Kâramanèh, Fu Manchu’s Arab slave-girl, has, as Smith puts it, ‘formed a sudden predilection, characteristically Oriental,’ for Petrie. Kâramanèh may not have chosen the ground on which East will meet West, but she can, and does, influence the terms on which the encounter is conducted. It is she who gets Smith and Petrie out of the scrapes they stumble blindly into, and who gives them the only realistic chance they’re likely to get of laying hands on Fu Manchu. To Petrie, Kâramanèh seems like something out of The Arabian Nights; and indeed she is. The Mystery of Dr Fu Manchu is not an Orientalist fantasy. It’s a techno-Orientalist fantasy (the ‘male’ Far East triumphs over the ‘male’ West) that summons up an Orientalist fantasy (the ‘female’ Near East succumbs to the ‘male’ West) in order to persuade itself, despite much evidence to the contrary, that East will never again meet West on ground and on terms determined by the former.

But the Orient, in Rohmer’s fiction, isn’t always mythologised as manageable. During the final decades of the 19th century, the telegraph, already the pre-eminent global telecommunications system, became a fiercely contested item of technology transfer between China and the West. Great Northern Telegraph, a Danish company that had laid submarine cables connecting Shanghai to Hong Kong and Nagasaki, and aimed to build further networks in the interior, began to train engineers and technicians at a special school in Fuzhou. At the company’s behest, the astronomer and linguist H.C.F.C. Schjellerup designed a numerical code for the transmission of Chinese characters. By 1900, a rival school at Tianjin could boast an all-Chinese teaching staff. Before long, telegraphy was to be transformed by wireless transmission. Again, China wasn’t all that far behind. On 17 July 1914, the Marconi Company announced in the Times, the Daily Express and other papers that it had been granted permission to build wireless stations in China for ‘internal and external telegraph services’. Two years later, in The Devil Doctor, Fu Manchu transmits a Marconi message to Dr Petrie on a steamer in the Straits of Messina. The message arrives over a previously unheard-of distance from an undetectable source. It is, Petrie confesses, a ‘miracle of modern science’. Flash forward to 2005, and a flurry of concern when it looked as though Marconi, then in serious difficulties, might sell out to the Chinese company Huawei, thus compromising its Ministry of Defence contracts. Rohmer didn’t exactly see all this coming, but he did find a way to imagine what it might feel like.

Frayling understandably restricts himself to the colourful figure of Fu Manchu. But Fu Manchu may not be Rohmer’s best villain. In fact, he may not even be Rohmer’s best Chinese villain. My vote goes to the Black Mandarin, who features in a story published in the Christmas number of the Illustrated London News in November 1922. You have to admire the man’s minimalism. Not only does he dispense with the ameliatory effect of even the most outlandish of surnames; he also takes the sensible precaution of getting himself killed before the serious action starts (by an American agent, it transpires, Britain having already dwindled to a client state). This is a really good move. It spares him the whole wearying business of bugs, gases and ghastly experiments. And he doesn’t have to worry about being evil all the time. The only glimpse we get of him is a silhouette on calling cards, which circulate by means of London’s messaging systems. The Black Mandarin has become pure information, his emissaries forever beyond the reach of even the straightest, truest blow of the golf club. The investigators, Harley and Knox, prove as hapless as Nayland Smith and Petrie, from whom they seem to have been cloned. In Bat Wing (my favourite Rohmer title, though The Yellow Claw and The Orchard of Tears run it close), Harley and Knox had unconcernedly seen through, and seen off, the machinations of a ruthless ex-governor of Cuba with a handy working knowledge of voodoo. But they are no match for the Black Mandarin’s lieutenant, Madame de Medici, who effortlessly lures them into a trap in order to elicit the information that will enable her to take her plot against the West to the next stage. She phones them, after the event, to let them know she’s won.

The phone call produces genuine consternation in the hitherto unflappable chief investigator (‘But, truth to tell, I have lost faith in myself. Another peg of whisky is indicated, I think, Knox’). Harley has finally understood that Madame de Medici is not European, as he had supposed, but Chinese. This is techno-Orientalism’s anagnorisis. What Harley has realised is that mediation – the terms on which the encounter between East and West will take place – now belongs conclusively to the ‘Oriental’ other. There’s a further intriguing twist. For Rohmer seems to think China capable of exercising soft as well as hard power. Much is made throughout the story of the perfume Madame de Medici wears, which Harley, an expert on the subject, regards as vastly superior to the ‘preparations of the popular French firms’. This may be a historical joke. Catherine de’ Medici took her perfume specialist, Renato Bianco, with her to Paris when she married Henri II in 1533 (it was said that a secret passageway connected her apartments to his laboratory). But Rohmer wanted his techno-Oriental scent to be thoroughly modern, too. ‘The Black Mandarin’ appeared in the same year as The Waste Land, in which a woman sits in a room swept by ‘strange synthetic perfumes’. I like to think of Madame de Medici’s perfume as a compound far removed from merely natural fragrance. Unlike Kâramanèh in the Fu Manchu novels, she does not wear it as a personal signature, or proof of her presence in the flesh. It functions instead as a shared milieu, a medium of communication, the signal indicating that a signal has been sent. For Madame de Medici does not fulfil the function of an Ariadne threading the Minotaur’s labyrinth on behalf of a tweedy Theseus. She is the labyrinth. It scarcely matters any longer, as Sony was to find out, whether or not the labyrinth contains a Minotaur.