elixir vitae

Fu Manchu

[foo man-choo]

Dr. Fu Manchu is a fictional character first featured in a series of novels by English author Sax Rohmer during the first half of the 20th century. The character was also featured extensively in cinema, television, radio, comic strips and comic books for over 90 years, and has become an archetype of evil criminal genius while inspiring the Fu Manchu moustache.


Fu Manchu

Imagine a person, tall, sexy, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, ... one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present ... Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man. –The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu

A master criminal, Fu Manchu's murderous plots are marked by the extensive use of arcane methods; he disdains guns or explosives, preferring dacoits, Thuggee, and members of other secret societies as his agents armed with knives, or using "pythons and hamadryads... fungi and my tiny allies, the bacilli... my black spiders" and other peculiar animals or natural chemical weapons.

According to Cay Van Ash (a friend and biographer of Sax Rohmer, who wrote his own authorized pastiches Ten Years Beyond Baker Street and The Fires of Fu Manchu) "Fu Manchu" was a title of honor, which meant "the Warlike Manchu." It was thought that the character had been a member of the Imperial family who backed the losing side in the Boxer Rebellion. In the earliest books, Fu Manchu is an assassin sent on missions by the Si-Fan, but he quickly rises to become head of that dreaded secret society. At first, the Si-Fan's goal is to throw the Europeans out of Asia; later, the group attempts to intervene more generally in world politics, while funding itself by more ordinary crime. Dr. Fu Manchu has extended his already considerable lifespan by use of the elixir vitae, a formula he spent decades trying to perfect. When China falls to Communism, the Si-Fan and Fu Manchu fight to restore the China of old.


Prominent among his agents was the "seductively lovely" Kâramanèh. Her real name is unknown. She was sold to the Si-Fan by Egyptian slave traders while still a child. Kara falls in love with the editor of the first three books in the series, Dr. Petrie. She rescues Petrie and Nayland Smith many times. Eventually the couple are united and she wins her freedom. They marry and have a daughter, Fleurette who figures in later novels. Author Lin Carter later created a son for Dr. Petrie and Kara, but this is not considered canonical.

Many there are, I doubt not, who will regard the Eastern girl with horror. I ask their forgiveness in that I regarded her quite differently. No man having seen her could have condemned her unheard. Many, having looked into her lovely eyes, had they found there what I found, must have forgiven her almost any crime. –The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu

Fah lo Suee

Fu Manchu's daughter, Fah lo Suee, is a devious mastermind in her own right, plotting to take control of the Si-Fan from her father and making things difficult for him. Her real name is unknown. Fah lo Suee was a term of endearment from her childhood. She is introduced anonymously in the third book in the series and plays a larger role in several later entries. She rebelled against her father and sided with his enemies (within and outside of the Si-Fan) on several occasions. She was known for a time as Koreani after being brainwashed by her father, but her memory was later restored. She is infamous for taking on false identities, like her father. Among them are Madame Ingomar and Queen Mamaloi. The daughter of Fu Manchu has been played by numerous actresses over the years from Anna May Wong to Myrna Loy to Tsai Chin among others. Her name has been altered for the big screen several times.

Commissioner Sir Denis Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie

Opposing Fu Manchu in the early stories are Commissioner Sir Denis Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie. They are in the Holmes and Watson tradition, with Dr. Petrie narrating the stories while Nayland Smith carries the fight, combating Fu Manchu more by dogged determination than intellectual brilliance (except in extremis). Nayland Smith and Fu Manchu share a grudging respect for one another, as each believes a man must keep his word even to an enemy.

Smith is an official of the British government with a roving commission which allows him to exercise authority over any group that can help him in his mission. He resembles Sherlock Holmes and James Bond, both in their physical description, in their acerbic manner, and in their deductive geniuses. He has been criticized as being a racist and jingoistic character, especially in the early entries in the series, and gives voice to anti-Asian sentiments.

Smith has been played by many actors of varying ages over the years.

Racial debate

Even at the time of publication, there were objections to the "negative stereotyping" involved in the Fu Manchu character.

More recent admirers of the novels have claimed that Fu Manchu should not in fact be seen as specifically Chinese but as a pure creation, with no real-world referents at all. Scholars however, contend that the character is built upon a well-known structure of "racist and imperialist assumptions" about Chinese, and "catered to the racist and sensationalistic proclivities of his intended audience", though perhaps he should be viewed as a more nuanced portrayal than simply a soulless stereotype.

The sexuality of the character has also received attention, with several critics making the argument that he serves to "pervert" Chinese "masculine expression" and is representative of an "assault" of "effeminate stereotypes" on Asian men, which has caused some conflict within feminist literary theory.

The author himself, while "bemused" at the furor, defended his character by saying that the portrait was "fundamentally truthful" because "criminality was often rampant among the Chinese", especially in Limehouse.

Cultural impact

The character of Fu Manchu became a stereotype often associated with the Yellow Peril. Fu Manchu has inspired numerous other characters, and is the model for most villains in later "Yellow Peril" thrillers. Examples include Pao Tcheou, Dr. Azimn, Ancient Wu from True Crime: Streets of LA, Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon, Li Chang Yen from The Big Four, James Bond adversary Dr. No, Dr. Yen-Lo from The Manchurian Candidate, Lo-Pan from Big Trouble in Little China, Marvel comics foes the Mandarin and the Yellow Claw,DC Comics' Rā's al Ghūl, and Wo Fat from the CBS tv series Hawaii Five-O.

"Comrade Li" in Peter George's "Commander-1" (1965) is essentially the same type of villain - despite his name having only a thin veneer of Communism or Marxism, being rather a suave philosopher steeped in ancient Chinese learning whose cold-blooded machinations bring about a nuclear holocaust in which nearly all humanity perishes (including China, which he sought to make great) and who eventually meets a suitable gruesome and ignominious end.

Fu Manchu is also one of the earliest known examples of a supervillain, with Professor Moriarty being among the few other precedents.

The style of facial hair associated with him in film adaptations has become known as the Fu Manchu moustache although Rohmer's writings described the character as possessing no such accoutrement.


In other media

Film serials

Fu Manchu first appeared on the big screen in the 1923 British film serial The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu starring Harry Agar Lyons. Lyons returned to the role the next year in The Further Mysteries of Fu Manchu.

Fu Manchu returned to the serial format in 1940 in Republic Pictures' Drums of Fu Manchu, a 15-episode serial considered to be one of the best the studio ever made. It was later edited and released as a feature film in 1943. Republic had wanted to do a second serial Fu Manchu Strikes Back, but the State Department persuaded them to refrain from doing so because China was a war-time ally against Japan.

Feature films

In 1929 Fu made his American film debut in The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu starring Warner Oland, best known for his portrayal of Charlie Chan. Oland repeated the role in 1930's The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu and 1931's Daughter of the Dragon. Oland appeared in character in the 1931 musical, Paramount on Parade where the Devil Doctor was seen to murder both Philo Vance and Sherlock Holmes.

Nevertheless, the most famous early incarnation of the character was The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) starring Boris Karloff and Myrna Loy. The film's tone has long been considered racist and offensive, but only added to its cult status alongside its campy humor and Grand Guignol sets and torture sequences. The film was suppressed for many years, but has since received critical re-evaluation and been released on DVD uncut.

Other than an obscure, unauthorized 1946 Spanish film El Otro Fu Manchu, Fu was absent from the big sceen for about twenty five years, until producer Harry Alan Towers and his company, Towers of London, began a series starring Christopher Lee in 1965. Towers and Lee would make one Fu Manchu film per year through the end of the decade: The Face of Fu Manchu (1965), The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967), The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968), and finally The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969) His last authorized film appearance was The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu, a 1980 spoof starring Peter Sellers as both Fu Manchu and Nayland Smith. The film, taking place in contemporary times bore little connection to any prior film or the original books. However Peter Sellers' characterisation of Fu Manchu and Nayland Smith were aged as the characters of the Harry Alan Towers films set in the late 1920s would have been, and seems to fit in with the Towers series. In the film, Fu Manchu claims he was knows as "Fred" at public school, a reference to the aforementioned "Fred Fu Manchu" from the Goon Show.

Jess Franco, who had directed The Blood of Fu Manchu and The Castle of Fu Manchu, also directed the second of three Towers films based on Rohmer's Sumuru character, The Girl from Rio and an unauthorized 1986 Spanish film about Fu Manchu's daughter, Esclavas del Crimen.

Nicolas Cage cameos as Fu Manchu in Rob Zombie's faux trailer Werewolf Women of the SS, which is part of the 2007 film Grindhouse.

Harry Alan Towers has several times announced unsuccessful plans to revive the character since the early 1970s, most recently at Cannes in 2007.


Fu Manchu was first brought to television in NBC's 1952 short film The Zayat Kiss starring John Carradine. It was intended to be a series of mystery films starring the character, but only an unsold pilot was produced.

From 3rd September 1956 till 26th November 1956, Hollywood Television Service (a subsidiary of Republic Pictures) produced a 13-episode syndicated programme, The Adventures of Fu Manchu starring Glen Gordon as Dr Fu Manchu, Lester Matthews as Sir Dennis Nayland Smith, Clark Howat as Dr John Petrie, Carla Balenda as Betty Leonard, Laurette Luez as Karamaneh (Fu Manchu's woman servant) and John George as Kolb (his dwarf flunkey). The shows would start off with a chess game, telling us that the white pieces were good/life and the black pieces bad/death, that the Devil was said to play chess for men's souls and so does Fu Manchu who is evil incarnate. At the end of each episode, after Nayland Smith and Petrie had foiled Fu Manchu's latest fiendish scheme, he would signify that it was over by breaking a black chess piece. It was directed by noted serial director Frank Andreon as well as William Witney. Unlike the Holmes/Watson type relationship of the films, the series featured Smith as a law enforcement officer and Petrie using his medical knowledge to complement each other.

In 1990, Spanish television broadcast the spoof, The Daughter of Fu Manchu featuring an impressive performance by Paul Naschy as the Devil Doctor.


Jamaican reggae pioneer Desmond Dekker recorded a song titled "Fu Man Chu" in 1968 with the chorus, "This is the face of Fu Manchu."

Frank Black (of the Pixies) recorded a song called "Fu Manchu" in 1993.

Fu Manchu was the name of a bull, mentioned in Tim McGraw's song Live Like You Were Dying

British band Ash include Fu Manchu in the lyrics to their song "Kung Fu"

British band The Wildhearts include Fu Manchu on their list of admired villains in the song "Rooting For The Bad Guy".

Village Green Preservation Society on the similarly titled album by The Kinks mentions Fu Manchu, alongside other fictional villains, Moriarty and Dracula, in its list of things to preserve, "Help save Fu Manchu, Moriarty and Dracula".

The stoner rock band Fu Manchu (band) was named after him.

Hip Hop group The Fugees briefly mention Fu Manchu in the song Vocab, from the album Blunted on Reality.

Montréal French speaking rock singer Robert Charlebois composed a song entitled "Fu Man Chu (Chus d'dans)" in 1972, in which he refers to the Fu Man Chu and Gene Autry black and white movies of the 1950-1960s. Through the story of Bill, the hero, the song highlights the main events of the second half of the 20th Century, starting with Bill initially dreaming about being attached to a railway track when the train is coming, then his posting abroad to war (presumably Vietnam) and finally ends with Lady Trenton losing her virginity to Bill, whom she saved from the villains after his trip to the milky way.


Fu Manchu earliest radio appearances were on the Collier Hour 1927-31 on the Blue Network. This was a radio programme designed to promote Collier's magazine and presented weekly dramatizations of the current issues stories and serials. Fu was voiced by Arthur Hughes. A self titled show on CBS followed in 1932-33. John C. Daly, and later Harold Huber, played Fu.

Additionally, there were "pirate" broadcast from the Continent into Britain, from Radio Luxembourg and Radio Lyons in 1936 through 1937. Frank Cochrane voiced Fu Manchu. The BBC produced a competing series, The Peculiar Case of the Poppy Club starting in 1939. That same year The Shadow of Fu Manchu aired in the United States as a thrice weekly serial dramatizing the early novels. The series stared Gale Gordon as Dr. James Petrie, and Bruno Lang as Fu Manchu. (As a side note: both Gordon and Lang worked together three years earlier on the radio series "The Interplanetary Adventures of Flash Gordon", with Gordon as Flash and Lang cast as the Ming The Merciless.)

The last Fu Manchu radio series The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu aired in 1944 on NBC.

A character with the name "Fred Fu Manchu" appeared as a famous Chinese bamboo saxophonist as part of The Goon Show, a 1950's British radio comedy programme. He appeared in his very own episode, " The Terrible Revenge of Fred Fu Manchu" in 1955 (announced as "Fred Fu-Manchu and his Bamboo Saxophone"), as well as making minor appearances in other episodes (including " China Story", "The Siege of Fort Night" and " The Lost Emperor"(as "Doctor Fred Fu Manchu: oriental tattooist")). The character was invented and performed by Spike Milligan, who used the character to mock British xenophobia and self-satisfaction, the traits summoning the original Fu Manchu into existence, and not as a slur against Asians.

Comic strips

Fu was first brought to newspaper comic strips in a black and white daily strip drawn by Leo O'Mealia and ran from 1931 to 1933. The strips were adaptations of the first two Fu Manchu novels and part of the third. They were copyrighted by "Sax Rohmer and The Bell Syndicate, Inc".

Comic books

Fu Manchu made his first comic book appearance in Detective Comics # 17, and continued, as one feature among many in the anthology series, until #28. These were reprints of the earlier Leo O'Mealia strips. Original Fu stories in comics had to wait for Avon's one-shot The Mask of Dr. Fu Manchu in 1951. A similar British one-shot The Island of Fu Manchu was published in 1956.

In the 1970s, Fu Manchu appeared as the father of the character Shang-Chi in the series Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu. However Marvel Comics lost the rights to the character in the 1980s, so in later appearances, Fu Manchu is never named, only referred to as Shang-Chi's 'father,' and never shown out of shadow. In a recent Black Panther storyline, he is referred to as "Mr. Han", apparently a play on the name of the main villain in Enter the Dragon.

Fu Manchu appeared as a villain in the first volume of Alan Moore's comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but was referred to only as "the Doctor" or "the Devil Doctor" as the character is not in the public domain. In Moore's storyline, Fu Manchu is engaged in a struggle with the infamous Professor Moriarty to control London's organized crime. In The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier he is stated as being a distant relative of Dr. Julius No and also stated as being the great-grandfather of Sachs.

Fu Manchu and his daughter are the inspiration for the character Hark and his daughter Anna Hark in the comic book series Planetary as well as Ming the Merciless and Princess Aura in Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon series. Fu Manchu was also the inspiration for Ra's al Ghul in Batman and The Mandarin and The Yellow Claw in his own four issue Atlas (Marvel) Comics series as well as Marvel Comics' Nick Fury and Iron Man series.

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