Saturday, October 29, 2011

Train reading - the mystery of Fu Manchu

This week my train reading has been Sax Rohmer's The Mystery of Fu Manchu. As with much of my train reading, this is an older book plucked from the shelf almost at random.

First published in 1913, the book introduced the character of Dr Fu Manchu who became the archetypal oriental villain. I loved the book as a kid because it was a good yarn. Now reading it again so many years later, I find myself responding differently.

One feature of the book that stands out to me now is attitude towards race. Dr Fu Manchu is both apparent evil incarnate and a representative of the yellow peril. The heroes represent the white race. British simplicity is contrasted with oriental duplicity.  The replication of then stereotypes now stands between me and the story. And yet, things are not quite what they seem.

Charles Darwin has a lot to answer for. His ideas of natural selection combined with the concept of competition to find expression in what became known as Social Darwinism. Just as species in general survived, changed and died through competition, so with humanity in general and the various races within humanity. At its extreme, tooth and claw winnowed the weak, leaving the strong. 

Dominant groups always believe that they are right, that they form the natural order. At the time Social Darwinism emerged, it was natural for the dominant European powers and especially those of British ancestry in the Empire and the emerging Unites States, to believe that they were exemplars of natural selection.

Despite the presence of pseudo scientific theories and analysis, the idea of "race" as such and its place in natural selection was always muddy. Terms such as race, peoples, nationalities and nations were used almost interchangeably in discussions on Darwinian processes applied to human societies.

As Edwardian society danced its way towards the First World War a deep sense of unease had emerged as Darwinism spread its tentacles throughout life. After all, on-one could take survival for granted.

In Europe, competition among nations and empires led to concepts such as new economic efficiency. Education and especially technical education was seen as a state tool in the competition between countries and empires. In Britain, Gemany, Italy and even the distant Australian states, technical education was restructured in an attempt to increase its contribution to economic performance. Competition had become central.

Outside Europe, European dominance was being challenged by the rise of the Japanese Empire, while in China the ancient Chinese Empire had fallen the year before the first Fu Manchu book was published. In the Indian Empire, too, independence movements were challenging the established order.

Beneath the stereotypes, The Mystery of Fu Manchu is a deeply ambivalent book. In the Darwinian competition, it is far from clear that the white race can win. Further, Rohmer plays to stereotypes that were themselves potentially inconsistent.

One stereotype was the fascination with the orient. 

In 1978, the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said in his book, Orientalism, wrote of a "pervasive Western tradition, both academic and artistic, of prejudiced outsider interpretations of the East, shaped by the attitudes of European imperialism in the 18th and 19th centuries." Said was writing from a present perspective, whereas Rohmer was capturing the popular view at the time.

The term orient simply means the east. In the 19th century, the east began at the Balkans. To continental Europe and especially the French, the orient focused especially on what we now call the middle east. To the British with their far flung empire, the term included the far east and especially China and Japan. A Frenchman might think of the orient as Egypt, an Englishman China.

Regardless of the precise geographical coverage, the orient with its ancient civilisations was a place of fascination and mysticism, of sometimes arcane knowledge, that exercised a profound influence on western thought. Rohmer plays to that fascination, but was also influenced by it.

In that first book, Rohmer contrasts Fu Manchu with Young China, the new republic. A brilliant scientist with great powers of organisation, Fu Manchu draws from an older tradition, although it is not really clear just who he represents. He stands for power and the mysticism of the orient.

The almost bumbling efforts of Denis Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie in thwarting the evil machinations of Fu Manchu (they don't defeat him in any permanent sense) play to another stereotype, that of the honest and straightforward Englishman who somehow muddles through. Fu Manchu represents evil, Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie good. This is superiority based on morality, not power.

Rohmer himself seems aware of the tensions and inconsistencies, of the mixed views within his audience. At a personal level, he seems to have had a tendency to mysticism, a leaning towards orientalism. In Kâramanèh, the main love interest who ultimately becomes Petrie's wife, we have one type of classical oriental figure. Rohmer is aware of prejudices attached to such a multi-racial mix and feels obliged to defend her.

The year following that first book's publication saw the start of the First World War, a conflict that delivered an irreparable blow to the European order. Attitudes towards competition and Social Darwinism continued to be an important and often malign influence, but a deep pessimism about the results of competition were becoming apparent.

By the time Social Darwinist and travel writer R H Curle published The Face of the Earth in 1937 (Train Reading - J H Curle’s The Face of the Earth, Sunday Essay - Race, Eugenics and the views of J H Curle) he had become deeply pessimistic about the results of the competition between peoples. In the hierarchy of races or peoples  within a Social Darwinist world, the future lay with the Chinese.

One symptom of the gathering clouds was an increased interest in the rise and fall of empires and civilisations. This had always been something of a British interest.The first volume of Gibbon's study of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published in 1776. However, now there were a series of books including Toynbee's monumental study.

I am not sure how much has actually changed in all this, although the wrapping, the form of expression, has.

The rise of China has become a dominant reality, while the end of American empire is a popular topic. We have largely rejected Social Darwinism as it applied to peoples or races, but continue to apply it to nations and other aspects of human activities. Michael Porter's writing including the Competitive Advantage of Nations is an example. The arguments about national efficiency in general and about vocational education in particular are almost identical to those used in the period up to the First World War, although we talk about productivity rather than national efficiency.

As with Rohmer, we continue to believe in superiority based on morality, a morality play now enacting itself at CHOGM where certain views held by the dominant elites in previously dominant elite countries are opposed, or at least not fully supported, by other countries.

Don't get me wrong. I do believe that liberal secular democracy is generally the best form of political expression. However, I am also conscious that the CHOGM morality play is in many ways a very old and stylised script.

I make no assumption that presently dominant views in countries like Australia will remain dominant. Despite the dismissive attitude of some of the Australian commentariat toward CHOGM, CHOGM is important because it really is a representative body that displays certain fissures in an especially clear way.

The countries on one side - the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand - were once the elites of Empire. The countries on the other side including India and the African countries represent the future. Power continues to shift and who can know the outcomes?   


Darcy Moore said...


I have been to India several times, spending a year there all up, and think we can learn much from Indian people. My visit to China last year was a revelation.

It seems to me that the dominant paradigm - democracy good, progressively benefitting all people - is being questioned for the first time in 'The West'. Or rather, we are told we have a democracy but there is not that much evidence that we have anything other than an oligarchy. The greed of Wall St. symbolises much of what is wrong with our systems in many eyes.

I feel comfortable with the excitement of a shift in the power balances of the 20th century. It is not much point feeling any other way.

Jim Belshaw said...

Like you, Darcy, I found my first visit to China exciting. While I know a fair bit about India, I haven't actually been there.

The loss of faith in the west is a real problem to my mind. By faith I include especially faith in institutions.

In our desire to win we have somehow moved away from basic principles, including the need to avoid what I call oppression of the minority.

As you say, we don't have any choice re the shift of power balances. But do we recognise this?

Evan said...

I like the naff racism when the commentators say that the West's prosperity will come from design and intellectual capital.

Historical ignorance (they forget that these countries have been ahead of Europe for most of history) and racism (apparently other cultures can't do design or intellectual reflection) in one convenient package.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Evan. I;m not sure about racism, but there is a degree of naivety.

Anonymous said...

And after you've read early A Christie, and DL Sayers, and Ngaio Marsh and WE Johns...Lots of endemic what we would now call 'racism', in what are still rattling good yarns. I recently picked up the first and final Bulldog Drummonds in a 2nd hand b'shop. Thoroughly enjoyable. Do you have them? If you would like them email or Facebook me an address, and I'll send them to you.

Jim Belshaw said...

HI JCW and thanks. Right on both counts. I find it a little odd that I can read yarns from other places or times and ignore the equivalent content. I'll facebook you re address.