Is China set to BAN Marvel film due to its Fu Manchu links?

Is China set to BAN Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings due to its Fu Manchu links? Movie has been snubbed by censors despite Marvel erasing the controversial character as it tries to avoid angering Beijing

  • Critics lauded ‘sensitive’ treatment of Chinese culture, called it a ‘breakthrough’
  • But Beijing’s censors are yet to approve the film released on September 3 
  • It is spun off from controversial Fu Manchu character of ‘yellow peril’ hysteria 
  • The English novelist who created the mustachioed archetypal villain described him as the embodiment of ‘all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race’

China has snubbed Marvel’s latest superhero movie, spun-off from a controversial character associated with the ‘yellow peril’ hysteria of the early 19th century.

Beijing’s censors are yet to approve Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and may even decide to ban the movie despite the character being erased from the script to avoid angering the Chinese.

Walt Disney, which owns Marvel, were hoping the Asian-led cast and Mandarin dialogue might finally help it crack the Chinese market after American critics lauded its ‘sensitive’ handling of Chinese culture and hailed it as a ‘breakthrough’ for Marvel. 

But casting a pall over protagonist Shang-Chi is supervillain Fu Manchu, described by his creator, English pulp fiction novelist Sax Rohmer, as embodying ‘all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race.’   

The mustachioed criminal mastermind was portrayed by white Britons such as Boris Karloff, Peter Sellers and Christopher Lee and is considered the archetype of Western anti-Chinese sentiment.

Tony Leung playing Wenwu in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Wenwu has replaced the controversial Fu Manchu character but Beijing is still considering whether to ban the film

English actor Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu in the 1965 thriller, The Face of Fu Manchu

Christopher Lee and Tsai Chin in ‘The Face of Fu Manchu’, 1965 (left); and Peter Sellers and Helen Mirren in The Fiendish Plot Of Dr Fu Manchu, 1980

Fu Manchu does not appear in the new movie but in the Marvel universe he is Shang-Chi’s father, owing to the US comic franchise buying the rights to Rohmer’s character in the 1970s.

And many Chinese believe that the new film cannot disassociate itself with this legacy.

Shi Wenxue, a film critic in Beijing, told the Global Times, a Communist mouthpiece: ‘Fu Manchu is a treacherous representation of the ‘yellow peril’ stereotype. Chinese audiences cannot accept a prejudiced character.’

Marvel replaced Fu Manchu with a new character, Xu Wenwu, played by Hong Kong star Tony Leung.

Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Pictures, last month told a Chinese critic that Fu Manchu ‘is very offensive’ and added that Wenwu ‘cannot even be called [a] villain.’ 

Screenwriter Dave Callaham told Inverse, ‘We knew we wanted to change that stuff,’ adding that the filmmakers had a ‘physical list’ of things ‘we were looking to destroy.’

However, the choice of Chinese-Canadian Liu Semu for the lead role angered some Chinese critics who viewed him as ‘not Chinese enough.’

Semu was born in China but moved to Canada aged five.

Others claimed that the 32-year-old had the stereotypical looks of what Westerners associated with Chinese people. 

Boris Karloff in The Mask of Fu Manchu, 1930, (left) and Peter Sellers in The Fiendish Plot Of Dr Fu Manchu, 1980

In the last decade, US studios have increasingly focused their attention on the Chinese market – worth $9 billion last year. 

Disney, which owns Marvel, came under fire last year with its live action version of Mulan which was partially shot in Xinjiang province, notorious for its Uyghur detention camps.

The studio even altered the screenplay to placate Chinese censors.

But despite a plot based on Chinese folklore and a largely Chinese cast, it was rejected by Chinese critics and flopped at the box office.

‘Face like Satan and with all the cruel cunning of the Eastern race’: Fu Manchu the archetypal supervillain rooted in ‘yellow fever’ hysteria of the early 19th century

English novelist Sax Rohmer said he asked a Ouija board how he would make his fortune and it spelled out: ‘Chinaman.’

Rohmer had never been to China and thus relied upon early 19th century cliches of the ‘yellow fever’ hysteria which cast the Chinese as a malevolent, expansionist foe which threatened white Western hegemony. 

In 1913, his first novel in the series was published, The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu.

So reads the character’s first introduction to the reader: 

‘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 … 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 … Imagine that awful being, and you have a picture of Dr. Fu Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.’

Christopher Lee in The Brides of Fu Manchu – 1966

Sellers as Fu Manchu in the 1965 thriller The Face of Fu Manchu directed by Don Sharp

Fu Manchu became a pulp fiction, penny dreadful hit and, although Rohmer would kill the character off on several occasions, he was always pressured into bringing him back to life.

In total there were 13 Fu Manchu novels by Rohmer and the character inspired multiple spin-offs on stage, screen, in radio serials and comic books.

The mustachioed criminal mastermind was portrayed by white Britons such as Boris Karloff, Peter Sellers and Christopher Lee.

He influenced James Bond villain Dr No and Flash Gordon’s Ming the Merciless.

By the mid-20th century the character was so entrenched in popular culture that Marvel writer Steve Englehart and artist Jim Starlin were inspired to create Shang-Chi in 1972. 

Rohmer’s creation influenced Ming the Merciless in the 1980 film, Flash Gordon

Boris Karloff in The Mask of Fu Manchu, 1930 

Fu Manchu was Sang-Chi’s evil father in the long-running comic book, Master of Kung Fu, which ran from 1973 to 1983.  

He was portrayed in a manner mostly consistent with Rohmer’s novels: a brilliant and calculating master villain who aspires to rule the world.

From 1983 onwards, Shang-Chi – introduced as the son of Fu Manchu by Marvel – had his own comic book series.


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