Must every American story be built on a racist foundation?

OK, so after a long theater hiatus, I broke down and saw Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. There were some good bits, in particular the fight in the bus at the beginning, but after that it was a long slide down to end in a lot of CGI goop to wrap it up and incorporate the hero and Awkwafina in some kind of Avengers/superhero gemisch.

The big flaw in the movie was that there was so much exposition and so many flashbacks that the story never really got any momentum going. It’s a martial arts movie! Why are you stopping the kicking and punching and flying leaps to fill in a rather humdrum back story?

There’s a good reason for that, though. We have no cultural background on which to frame the story — they had to explain everything, because you won’t find it anywhere except in comic books from the 1970s. Shang-Chi was invented by two white American guys, based on their assumptions about Chinese culture, which were in turn formulated by an English novelist in the early 20th century. This has zero connections with Chinese culture and mythology — except for the idea that all Chinese guys should know chop-sockey.

Furthermore, that English novelist is best known for … Fu Manchu.

According to his own account, Sax Rohmer decided to start the Dr Fu Manchu series after his Ouija board spelled out C-H-I-N-A-M-A-N when he asked what would make his fortune. Clive Bloom argues that the portrait of Fu Manchu was based on the popular music hall magician Chung Ling Soo, “a white man in costume who had shaved off his Victorian moustache and donned a Mandarin costume and pigtail”. As for Rohmer’s theories concerning “Eastern devilry” and “the unemotional cruelty of the Chinese,” he seeks to give them intellectual credentials by referring to the travel writing of Bayard Taylor. Taylor was a would-be ethnographer, who though unversed in Chinese language and culture used the pseudo-science of physiognomy to find in the Chinese race “deeps on deeps of depravity so shocking and horrible, that their character cannot even be hinted.” Rohmer’s protagonists treat him as an authority.

Rohmer wrote 14 novels concerning the villain. The image of “Orientals” invading Western nations became the foundation of Rohmer’s commercial success, being able to sell 20 million copies in his lifetime.

Marvel originally based Shang-Chi on that concept. Shang-Chi was the son of the evil Fu Manchu. He was renamed in the movie as Xu Wenwu, because Marvel lost the rights to the Rohmer character. I notice, too, that although the movie has an amazing Asian cast, these are the writers:

Cretton, at least, is Asian-American, born to a mother of Japanese descent, but otherwise, this is a story by white guys built on a framework created by a racist idea of the Yellow Peril. At least Marvel is doing a bit of white-washing of its ugly history.

Correction: David Callaham is also Chinese-American, so two of the writers have appropriate connections.

I’ll also add that the movie has significant Asian contributions, and representation is important. I just think the source material has a troubling derivation.


  1. says

    You can tell it’s gonna be a bullshit superhero punch up flick by the amount of spandex in the promo posting.

    Meanwhile I’ll watch Mystery of Chess Boxing again, in honor of this piece of junk. There exist good and credible martial arts flicks such as Hero or the IP Man movies with Donnie Yuen. Jet Li, however, lacks spandex but flowing hanfu are more cinematic anyhow.

  2. hillaryrettig1 says

    The star, Simu Liu, is in a great fun Netflix series, Kim’s Convenience. That one has more authentic cred, being written by Korean-Canadians about the KC experience.

  3. says

    One of the fight choreographers for Mystery of Chess Boxing was Ricky Cheng Tien-Chi. One of the handful of films he was lead in was 1985’s The Dancing Warrior. If you’ve ever wondered what a kung fu film crossed with Flashdance would look like, that’s it. It was directed by Chang Cheh, one of the big names in Hong Hong action films in the ’60s and ’70s, who also had Cheng as lead in the bizarre martial arts fantasy The Weird Man.

  4. PaulBC says

    This seems like a regression, considering the popularity of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon over 20 years ago. Yes, I know it is not a superhero movie, but I would guess there is some overlap in audience. There’s a market for authentic Chinese culture. Who needs fakes?

    I’d rather see a film adaptation of Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem than rehashed stereotypes from Marvel.

  5. Akira MacKenzie says

    My favorite supervillain, DC’s Ra’s Al Ghul, is sadly built upon the same “insidious Easterner plotting (Western) civilization’s doom” trope.

  6. PaulBC says

    According to his own account, Sax Rohmer decided to start the Dr Fu Manchu series after his Ouija board spelled out C-H-I-N-A-M-A-N when he asked what would make his fortune.

    The old “Don’t blame me. My Ouija board is a racist.”

  7. HidariMak says

    To me, Shang Chi had so much magical and fantasy elements as to make Marvel’s Avengers movies seem grounded by comparison. Free Guy was my first return to the movie theater, and it was the better of the two movies, with Ryan Reynolds both starring in and producing the movie like he did with Deadpool.

  8. birgerjohansson says

    I just learned some Texas Republican referred to pregnant women as “host bodies” (which is something I normally associate with science fiction and mind-controlling aliens).
    Sorry about the derail, I just think this takes dehumanisation to new levels.

  9. erik333 says

    @1 Marcus Ranum
    6 September 2021 at 10:03 am

    There exist good and credible martial arts flicks such as Hero or the IP Man movies with Donnie Yuen.

    Clearly this is a new and artistic use of the word “credible”.

    @4 PaulBC

    This seems like a regression, considering the popularity of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon over 20 years ago. Yes, I know it is not a superhero movie,…

    CTHD absolutely is a superhero movie, people can’t actually do that stuff.

  10. Pierce R. Butler says

    “Sax Rohmer” does sound a bit exotic and weird (if not Oriental); his actual name was Arthur Sarsfield Ward.

    But who’d believe buy novels about evil global conspiracies from anyone with an ordinary domestic ‘nym?

  11. raven says

    I just learned some Texas Republican referred to pregnant women as “host bodies” …

    Also known as mobile or ambulatory incubators.
    The misogyny and contempt for women in this bill is massive.

    A woman voting for the GOP is like a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders.
    They do it anyway. White women voted by a majority for Trump in the last election by 53%.

    PS Have we heard women called baby factories yet?

  12. gijoel says

    @6 Ah yes, The Butcher of Brisbane. It amused my family to no end to here our home town mentioned.

  13. Russell says

    Marvel should do a remake of Drums of Fu Manchu with Tesla robots playing the good doctor’s lobotomized minions.

  14. microraptor says

    I really laughed when I saw a trailer for Shang-Chi say that it was called the best superhero movie of the year. Not like there was a ton of competition.

  15. robertkstarr says

    Re: The writers

    The way that Hollywood credits writers can be pretty misleading and I wouldn’t be surprised if at least another half a dozen writers had uncredited contributions to the script. Things get especially complicated when working with adaptations or previously established characters. I was in film school when the original Spider-man came out and it seemed like every one of the writers who came to speak with us had had a crack at a draft or two of that script, but, in the end, only one writer ended up being credited and it was unclear how much of of the final product he was responsible for.

  16. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    trivial point that I caught for some reason, was Shiang telling Katy [Awkwafina] how to pronounce his birth name, she knows him as Sean. She remarked “why would you change from Shiang to Sean, to hide out? Like could it be more obvious, like Michael changing to Mikkel?”.
    What I noticed is they left unsaid the typical Americanization of unconventional foreign names. Like when my grandfather’s parents immigrated from Germany, their name was spelled Giwer, pronounced giver, and immigration changed the spelling to the American form: Giver. A colleague changed his from Admah to Adam when he naturalized.

  17. Trevor Sloughter says

    I should point out that of the three writers, the initial script was written by Callaham, who is on record saying he wanted to infuse his experience as a Chinese-American into the movie. Andrew Lanham, who I believe is white, was brought on by director Cretton to make additions and changes closer to production, because they’ve collaborated on Cretton’s past movies and know each other’s specific styles quite well. There’s certainly a lot that could be said or unpacked about that, how Hollywood is so hard to work in without a white male hand involved at some point, but simply reading the credits for Shang-Chi doesn’t clarify how and why each writer got involved nor what they actually contributed.

    I think it’s interesting that they believed they could take a story that was created to capitalise on Yellow Peril racism and turn it back around. Whether they succeeded or not is definitely up for debate, and the final act of CGI monsters smashing into each other was… a let down, to be sure… but I greatly enjoyed the scene where Tony Leung’s Wenwu discussed the importance of names and what they can convey and what it means to change or choose your own name(s). I thought that was an interesting exploration of not just the character’s origins as Fu Manchu and the Mandarin in the comics, but the use of the Mandarin in Iron Man Three.

    But I also feel like the need to cram in the CGI monster fight took time away from those more interesting scenes. I’m also very white myself and may be giving too much credit to some of the good scenes.

  18. magistramarla says

    slithey tove @ 16
    My thoughts exactly. When my maternal great-grandparents emigrated from Scotland, they were the Mac Williams family,
    After settling in Illinois, the name was Americanized to Williams.
    I rather like the Scottish version, myself.

  19. freemage says

    Odd side-note. A few years ago, I picked up copies of the first few Fu Manchu books for free, largely out of curiosity. They were… well, they were even more racist and colonialist than I’d been expecting, but they also had a surprisingly strong female lead. In an era of femme fatales and fainting-couch pearl-clutchers, Kâramanèh, while admittedly also filled with racist overtones, also has actual agency, and an agenda entirely her own, which causes her to both help and hinder the ‘heroes’ of the stories, at least until the inevitable romance with the narrator. Even then, though, she retains her primary motivations and goals–all in all, a surprisingly progressive portrayal for the genre and era. Modern writers wanting to write “strong women” characters could do worse than to study Kâramanèh.