Shanyn Fiske, “Modeling Masculinity: Engendering the Yellow Peril in Fu-Manchu and Thomas Burke’s Limehouse Nights


This entry deals with the event of the Yellow Peril, which generated fears of “Chinamen” as sexual predators, savage murderers, and criminal masterminds plotting world domination. Curiously, while these images lend Chinese men an aura of powerful virility, popular fiction credited with sensationalizing the Yellow Peril often depicted them as asexual or effeminate. Focusing on the first three novels of Sax Rohmer’s Fu-Manchu series and Thomas Burke’s Limehouse Nights (1916), I challenge the common critical assumption that the feminization or desexualization of Chinese men served to symbolically disempower a political threat. Instead, I suggest that in their interactions with their white counterparts, effeminized and / or desexualized Chinese male characters highlight problems in turn-of-the-century reconfigurations of masculinity. Such problems included recalibrating the Victorian balance between gentlemanly restraint and soldierly aggression in an unstable imperial context; redefining a sense of autonomy in a mechanized world; and renegotiating gender relations in a feminist environment. More broadly, I venture that the critical apparatus of Orientalism, which a number of theorists have applied to Rohmer’s works, is inadequate in explaining the complex interactions between Chinese and Britons in the early twentieth century. In examining the entangled racial and sexual tensions in these works, this entry historicizes the Yellow Peril within a broader context of Western male self-fashioning.

A 1913 cover of Sax Rohmer's The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Macnhu

• This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.


The Yellow Peril: A fear of and hostility toward map iconChina and the Chinese that—as a term—originated in imperial map iconGermany in the 1890s and—as a sentiment—spread through Britain with the rise of Chinese populations there and in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion ( 20 June 1900-7 September 1901). The Yellow Peril in Britain focused in particular on anxieties over the destruction of Western culture and values and became embodied in the popular figure of Sax Rohmer’s Fu-Manchu.

On 27 June 1900, the British satirical weekly Punch printed a full-page cartoon depicting a scene from the recent conflicts in map iconPeking between European forces and the Chinese rebel group known as the Boxers. The picture shows a corpulent, grimacing Chinese soldier decked out in battle robes and sporting a helmet shaped like a dunce cap. He carries in one hand a clownish shield and in the other a guandao[1] tilted at the crowd of European and American soldiers backing him against a wall. The picture’s caption reads: “A Legacy of Discord. Chinaman: ‘You allee chop-chop me now, but welly soon forrin devil chop-chop forrin devil!’”[2] Published a week after Boxers had besieged foreign legations in Peking, the image at once reduces the Chinese uprising to a childish tantrum destined to disciplinary action by Western powers and, by gesturing toward growing discord amongst European countries themselves, expresses anxiety over the future potential of a monstrous race driven by vengeance and resentment.

The Boxers were indeed suppressed by allied forces in 1901,[3] but Western anxieties only escalated, crystallizing into fears of the “Yellow Peril,” a term that became synonymous with the image of violent, sinister Chinese armies, intent on destroying European and American lives and values.[4] “Far from simply seeking to keep China for the Chinese, they would soon overrun the earth,” Diana Preston summarizes of fears following the uprising (350). In England, small Chinese communities in port cities like Cardiff, Bristol, Liverpool, and the Limehouse district of London’s map iconEast End became focal points of cultural unease.[5] These areas had been settled by Chinese sailors and merchants since the mid-nineteenth-century, and map iconLimehouse in particular had acquired a seductive mystery owing partly to the opium dens portrayed in popular fiction.[6]  Following the Rebellion, prejudices against the Chinese as a source of spiritual, hygienic, and moral contamination escalated to fears of Chinese economic takeover and sexual predation.[7]

Curiously, while images of rape, violence, and imperial domination associated with the Yellow Peril lend the early-twentieth-century Chinaman an aura of powerful virility,[8] he is often portrayed as asexual or effeminate in the most popular fictions of the time. Despite his Hollywood re-incarnations,[9] Sax Rohmer’s original Fu-Manchu, “the yellow peril incarnate in one man,” [10] sports a smooth, hairless face, feline characteristics, and dandyish mannerisms; his chief representative is a seductive Egyptian woman; he scorns the impersonal violence of automatic weapons, and his initial calling card is the imprint of a perfumed kiss.[11]  While Fu-Manchu might be the most well-known disseminator of the Yellow Peril, other writers capitalized on the fear and explored alternate manifestations of Asian otherness. Fu’s literary predecessor and, some argue, his literary model was Dr. Yen How, the Chinese-Japanese villain of M.P. Shiel’s The Yellow Danger (1898)—an evil mastermind of similarly delicate and effeminate stature.[12] The Chinese men in Thomas Burke’s Limehouse stories are dreamers, poets, and lovers ill suited to harsh, seafaring lives and ironically out of place in the violent, corrupt world of London’s Chinatown. Chinese men are threatening in these stories not because they exhibit the bravado and imposing physical presence of the caricature in the Punch cartoon but because they refuse to follow established gender codes or adhere to any nationalist agenda. This refusal, in turn, grants them a unique ability to thrive in a newly mechanized and depersonalized, increasingly democratized and feminized world that threatens traditional British values. In addition to exploring the cultural dissemination of the Yellow Peril through Rohmer’s and Burke’s characters, this entry attempts to challenge the assumption that the literary feminization or de-sexualization of Chinese men acts as a means of disempowerment meant to counterbalance the threat of the Yellow Peril with intimations of the inadequacy of Chinese masculinity. I suggest that for both Rohmer and Burke, the Chinaman and his interactions with his white counterparts act out class-specific problems in the reconfiguration of masculinity that were central to the negotiation of British national and individual identity in the early-twentieth-century. The Yellow Peril, therefore, was far more than a self-enclosed polarization of racial difference.[13] Rohmer’s Fu-Manchu mysteries and Burke’s fiction use the sexually ambiguous Chinaman as a means of highlighting pervasive problems beyond race. By manipulating new models of masculinity for the middle and working classes, these stories demonstrate the importance of this racially marked icon to early Modernist restructurings of masculinity and nationhood.

I. The Yellow Peril and the Crisis of Masculinity

In Modernism and Masculinity, Gerald Izenberg identifies the period from 1885-1920 as one characterized by a “social and psychological crisis of masculinity” (2). Tracing this crisis to various causes from the Industrial Revolution’s impact on individual autonomy to the rise of the New Woman in the last decades of the nineteenth-century, Izenberg identifies the late-Victorian to early-Modernist period as one marked by the inadequacy of previous models of masculinity (predominantly based on Christian ideals of autonomy, self-control, and heroic self-sacrifice) to equip men for a newly mechanized, pathologized, and feminist reality. George Mosse similarly describes the turn of the twentieth-century as one in which “the enemies of modern, normative masculinity seemed everywhere on the attack” and cites as contributing factors such forces as class reconfigurations and mounting anxieties about sexual deviance and malfunction indicative of racial degeneration (79). The destabilization of masculine norms affected every social class. While working-class men struggled to overcome economic hardship to seize new opportunities for self-assertion, the roles of gentleman, dandy, priest, prophet, soldier, and professional that James Eli Adams names as “models of identity central to the rhetorical self-fashioning of Victorian intellectual men” became increasingly untenable owing to the dissolution of social stratifications and moral assumptions upon which these nineteenth-century categories of masculinity were constructed and understood (15).

The urgency to define a normative masculinity with regard to these new social forces and ideological frameworks was compelled not only by individuals’ anxieties for locating a stable selfhood but also by a cultural need for solidifying national identity. As Mosse argues, the masculine norm of an historical period is crucial to a nation’s self-conception: “modern masculinity reflected the ideals and hopes of society … [and strengthened] normative society against those who supposedly wanted to destroy its fabric, and who through their looks and comportment made clear their evil intentions” (12). The importance of normative masculinity to the concept of nationhood is exemplified by England’s emphasis on physical strength and a warrior mentality (i.e. muscular Christianity) from the mid-nineteenth-century onward as the nation sought to cement its imperial image.[14] “The heroic virtues of English-British manhood became intimately bound up with the imagining of Empire itself; with, that is, the imagining of imperial identity, in which the Englishman enjoyed a natural, racial superiority over the colonized peoples who had been subordinated to British imperial power.” (Dawson 119). Turn-of-the-century conflicts such as the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) and the Boxer Rebellion amplified insecurities about imperial power and military strength.[15] The sense of national vulnerability that resulted from these events gave further impetus to the idealization of the soldier-hero such that, according to Graham Dawson, “the moral underpinnings of imperialism, originally derived from the Christian imaginary, became subsumed into an all-embracing concept of service in the imperial mission” (148). The valorization of physical fitness and mental aggression that dominated early twentieth-century masculine ideals both affirmed Victorian values of muscular manhood and symptomized their instability.

One manifestation of the anxieties surrounding the reinforcement of a new national agenda was increased suspicion of racial minorities who represented threats to national unity on the one hand and on the other offered “countertypes,” to borrow Mosse’s term, against which such unity could be reinforced.[16] Viewed through polarizing lenses, these racial others became, at the turn of the twentieth-century, crucial to the British reconstitution of self and nation. The hostilities that arose against the predominantly male Chinese community of London’s Limehouse (and other port cities) are symptomatic of the contingencies between racial prejudice, masculine definition, and national strengthening. For example, one primary source of racial tension was the expansion of the Chinese work force in England throughout the nineteenth and early-twentieth-centuries as British shipping lines began to employ Chinese sailors and port districts accommodated their needs by establishing Chinese-operated laundries, restaurants, and lodging houses. By 1881, there were 665 Chinese immigrants in British ports, and by 1911, the number had risen to 1,319.[17] While, as J.P. May notes, police reports by and large revealed that “the Chinese represented no threat to public order [and] all reports were noticeably lacking in accounts of any manifestations of hostility to the Chinese from the communities within which they lived” (120), attacks on Chinese laundries in map iconCardiff and London and protests by British seamen against Chinese crews tell a different story.[18] Letters in newspapers of the time also reveal anxieties about the threat not of world domination by powerful Chinese overlords but of displacement by Chinese laborers considered servile. One correspondent wrote to The Times in 1900 about the threat of an “industrial invasion” against which British workers must defend themselves: “It will doubtless be startling to the public when the fact is known that colonies of Chinese are silently forming and working in our very midst,” the writer states, alarmed by the Chinese laundries multiplying through the city. “Our working classes and trade unions at home will probably be … keen to keep them out when they realize the danger is real and threatening.” (14) Humanitarian protests over the importation of Chinese coolies into map iconSouth Africa in the aftermath of the Anglo-Boer War morphed into fears about the threat of cheap Chinese labor in England and yielded concerns such as the following from a correspondent to the East End News in 1908: [19] “We cried aloud in England when the Chinaman was in South Africa. Why should we say nothing when they on our own shores seem to be prospering better than our own?” (qut. in May 114). While laced with objections to Chinese noise, stench, and immorality, these letters also reveal that the Chinaman, seen at other moments as an incomprehensible other, a victim of exploitation, or object of salvation, also projected an image that British men simultaneously desired and hesitated to replicate: a worker equipped to handle new economic and social realities with a physical and mental stamina that England was striving to reinforce in its own working and middle classes. As Lynn Pan writes: “[The Chinese] represented cheap labour, people who accepted any work at any wage. They always seemed to survive, however low the pay, however harsh the conditions, however much work was extracted from them” (90).  Embodying on the one hand the insensate machinery that since the nineteenth-century had been displacing workers and threatening masculine self-sufficiency and on the other exemplifying the stoicism and stamina necessary for survival in a newly industrialized, competitive age, Chinese workers forefronted the vexed ideological and political issues involved in redefining the masculine self in the modern world.

Interracial relations between Chinese men and British women provoked further anxieties about emasculation and sexual deviance. Such relations were not uncommon owing to the vast disproportion of Chinese men to women (81 according to Pan), but alarm was aroused by the suspicion that a number of the British women involved in these relations were under the legal age of consent (i.e. 16). A provocative report in 1907 about interracial relations in map iconLiverpool showed that “the Chinese appear to much prefer having intercourse with young girls, more especially those of undue precocity. … The evidence of seduction of girls by Chinamen is conclusive” (qut. in May 114). Such fears fed into the White Slave Panic, which was based on beliefs that “English women were at risk of being drugged or seduced into prostitution by hoards of foreign procurers” (McLaren 17). Other official reports attempted to quell anxieties, and an investigation in 1910-11 into reports of suspect interracial relations in London yielded the conclusion that: “however undesirable [racial intermarriage] may be from an English point of view there is nothing criminal about it” (qut. in May 114). Further inquiry into the case and interviews with the British wives in question revealed that “the Chinaman if he becomes intimate with an English girl does not lead her to prostitution but prefers to marry her and treat her well” (qut. in May 119). Ironically, investigations spurred by the desire to save white women from immoral Chinese men indicated that the women in question often preferred sober, industrious, considerate Chinese husbands to abusive, drunken British ones. While these consolatory reports might have subdued fears about sexual abuse, prostitution, and other nefarious activities, they also highlighted disquieting contrasts between Chinese and British men, suggesting that the former, despite their supposedly nocuous drug habits and poor hygiene, held more attraction—not to mention greater economic viability—than their British counterparts. Fear of miscegenation further extended immediate apprehensions to anxieties about racial degeneration and national decline: “As a rule the son of Chinese and English parents is very low down in the scale of morality,” read one commentary in the Liverpool Courier of 1906. “Such a degraded type should not be allowed to grow up in our midst to be a source of contamination and further degradation for generations ahead” (Clegg 110). The specific reference to mixed-race sons indicates the strong association between patrilineage and national identity: the integration of Chinese and mixed-race men into the population is tantamount to national pollution. While the Yellow Peril might have spread through sensationalized images of Chinese world domination, actual interactions between the Chinese and British in England reveal subtler threats to British self-definition on both individual and national levels. If Chinese men were not a threat to the British women they married, they certainly became a source of anxiety for the British men they displaced and the national image they represented.

II. Fu-Manchu and the Sadomasochistic Imperative[20]

In their depictions of Chinese men, Rohmer and Burke not only provoked British fears of Chinese imperial expansion and sexual predation but evoked deep-seated anxieties about emasculation and national weakening heightened by the growing presence of the Chinese in England. A staunch Loyalist who would serve England’s Military Intelligence in the First and Second World Wars, Rohmer was keenly attuned to these issues. Though born of Irish parents, Rohmer never set foot in his motherland.[21] He spent his late-Victorian childhood reading about the adventures of explorer and Orientalist Sir Richard Burton and internalizing the stories of H. Rider Haggard and Rudyard Kipling, two prominent spokesmen of nineteenth-century imperialism and muscular manhood. His dreams of representing the British colonial government abandoned after he failed to pass the necessary Civil Service exams, for which his spotty education had ill prepared him, Rohmer embarked on a series of office jobs whose depressive effects he offset with freelance fiction writing and journalism, membership of occult societies, and a carefree lifestyle, spent in the company of three other bachelors, all of whom agreed they would not “consent to sell the greater part of their lives into slavery for the price of a few annual weeks of freedom” (Van Ash and Sax Rohmer 32). Attempting to reconcile ideals of muscular manhood that promoted personal freedom and autonomy with financial necessities that threatened to make him another cog in the machine of industrial progress, Rohmer’s life before the entry of Fu-Manchu exemplifies the impracticalities and cognitive dissonance resulting from the social and psychological discrepancies between Victorian values and early-twentieth-century realities.

The first three Fu-Manchu novels are rooted in Rohmer’s renegotiation of his ideals in a destabilized social, political, and economic context. The novels all follow a similar premise: Nayland Smith, a British commissioner of map iconBurma, and his associate Dr. Petrie, the novels’ narrator, are charged with the task of thwarting a Chinese world take-over, of which Fu-Manchu is the chief operative, responsible for staging covert operations in England and assassinating all who suspect the plot. The stories bear undeniable resemblances to the adventure and detective stories that Rohmer read as a boy, with Nayland Smith a hybrid of Allan Quatermain, Sherlock Holmes, and Richard Burton, and Petrie his straight-laced, Watsonesque sidekick-cum-narrator whose middle-class conventionality highlights his companion’s extraordinary knowledge and talents. But Rohmer’s identification with these nineteenth-century literary models is balanced with market-savvy and sensitivity to his own historical moment. “Conditions for launching a Chinese villain on the market were ideal,” Rohmer recalls in his biography. “The Boxer Rebellion had started off rumors of a Yellow Peril which had not yet died down. Recent events in Limehouse had again drawn public attention eastwards” (qut. in Van Ash 75). The “recent events” to which Rohmer refers were undoubtedly the investigations into opium distribution, miscegenation, and anti-Chinese riots. But although these issues might have provided the impetus for the Fu novels, they supply only atmospheric background for narratives that are far more concerned with exploiting British insecurities than demonizing Chinese immigrants.

One cultural anxiety to which Rohmer was especially attuned and that provides a thematic core for the first Fu novels was the inoperability of Victorian, middle-class masculine ideals in his own time. The manipulation of the heroic rescue scene, a recurrent trope in the novels, emphasizes and rhetorically acts out this central problem. Reminiscent of the chivalric romance in which the “idealized platonic love of a noble lady … was supposed to spiritualize knighthood” (Mosse 19), the rescue scene became a commonplace of late-nineteenth-century colonial adventure narratives, with the salvation of a woman (frequently a native) by a British man acting, as LeeAnne Richardson notes, “to engender a woman’s compliance with gender norms or a native’s adherence to British rule” and indicating the interdependency of “patriarchal and imperial logic” (119, 123). Rohmer, however, repeatedly stages the rescue scene only to challenge its implicit racial and sexual power dynamics: in the Fu novels, the white, male savior is repeatedly chastened and undercut by the supposedly inferior female (and nonwhite) object of salvation. Thus, at a critical moment in The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu, Karamaneh, Fu’s alluring, Egyptian slave, begs Petrie to rescue her from her Chinese master: “‘[I]f you will carry me off’ —she clutched me nervously—‘so that I am helpless, lock me up so that I cannot escape, beat me, if you like, I will tell you all I do know. While he is my master I will never betray him. Tear me from him— by force, do you understand, by force, and my lips will be sealed no longer’” (77). Despite his desire for information about the “Devil Doctor” and his sexual attraction to Karamaneh, Petrie declines her invitation, preferring to call the police to his aid rather than act on his own initiative. This encounter—re-enacted in numerous variants throughout the novels—exemplifies Rohmer’s sensitivity to the self-defeating potential of Victorian heroic strategies. On the one hand, Petrie’s refusal to use violence to secure his desires conforms to the Victorian ideal of masculine self-discipline amplified to what Adams has called an “eroticized masochism”: in sparing Karamaneh the abuse she desires, Petrie takes upon himself the pain of personal disappointment and the failure of his mission to capture Fu (112). On the other hand, his self-sacrificial gesture also refuses the assertive, male role Karamaneh offers him and leaves him paralyzed and ineffective. The Victorian composite of gentlemanly restraint, heroic self-sacrifice, and soldierly aggression here disintegrates into self-contradiction against two new modern forces embodied in Karamaneh: the authoritative woman whose submissive posture only serves as a vehicle for manipulation and the racial other who exposes the illusory cohesion of British imperial values and assumptions.

Through Karamaneh’s sadomasochistic fantasies, Rohmer dramatizes in order to critique the racial and sexual assumptions implicit in Petrie’s chivalric ideal of rescue. In doing so, he demonstrates Anne McClintock’s argument that S/M can operate as a “theater of conversion [that] reverses and transforms the social meanings it borrows” (143). Thus, while her desire to be rescued ostensibly imitates those of native heroines like Nyleptha of Allan Quatermain (1887) to be taken from their barbaric situations, it is also a rhetorical act that locates Petrie in the roles both of rescuer and sadist. The conflation of these seemingly contradictory positions disenables the romanticization of heroic salvation as a selfless act of honor by suggesting its exploitive underpinnings in Petrie’s desire for information from Karamaneh and his sexual attraction to her. Karamaneh’s request, in other words, makes Petrie’s putative rescue and the heroic model it purports to enact inextricable from self-serving goals of possession, control, and “superiority through abasement of the masochist / other” that Lynn Chancer attributes to the sadist (47-8). That Petrie’s refusal to play the sadist role simultaneously denies his potential as heroic savior suggests that his weakness lies not only in his reluctance to assume the aggressive stance requisite to the satisfaction of his personal and professional desires but also in his refusal to question the assumptions upon which rests his own claims to moral authority. “‘Slavery is put down, you imagine, perhaps?’” Karamaneh sneers in response to Petrie’s unquestioning faith in British integrity and freedom. “‘You do not believe that to-day—to-day—twenty-five English sovereigns will buy a Galla girl, who is brown, and … two hundred and fifty a Circassian, who is white…. Ah! but you do not understand, with your ‘proper authorities’—your police! …  You have hands and arms … and yet you let me go’” (Insidious 76-77).  Karamaneh suggests here that Petrie’s allegiance to his country’s outdated codes of honor and his misguided trust in its bureaucratic righteousness can only result in failure and self-defeat in a world that refuses to conform to British codes of law and morality. As if to confirm Karamaneh’s point, Nayland Smith remarks to Petrie after allowing Karamaneh to escape unharmed: “‘We shall never really excel at this business. … We are far too sentimental. I knew what it meant to us, Petrie, what it meant to the world, but I hadn’t the heart”’ (40). Such an admission of ineffectuality from the hero of the series is unsettling in its suggestion that self-restraint and honor—key terms of Victorian masculinity—no longer testify to dignity and autonomy but rather signify a dangerous naivete of one’s own and others’ motives. As Con Coroneos has observed, one primary characteristic of modernism is its “heartlessness” and the “necessity of [the heart’s] prohibition to a concept of a truth” (132). Modeled after the heroes of Victorian adventure and detective fiction and burdened by concerns of the heart, Smith and Petrie strive to preserve outdated values and behavioral codes that color their chivalry with a tinge of the ridiculous.

Smith’s and Petrie’s patriotism, honor, and sentimentality appear most fatuous when juxtaposed with the heartlessness and autonomy of Fu, who seems occupied primarily with developing abstruse techniques for murder and mind control. Though we’re told the Chinese doctor operates under command of a higher authority in China (identified as the secret society of the Si-Fan in the third novel), his actions seem solely self-directed. (Indeed, in the course of the third novel, it is revealed that the Si-Fan members are actually Fu’s dupes). Ironically, Fu’s continual success in thwarting—and capturing—Petrie and Smith owes largely to his dissociation from the country he is supposed to represent as the leader of the “Yellow Movement”: not only is he geographically removed from China in all three novels and politically alienated from the Chinese government but, as various critics have noted, even Fu’s ethnicity is uncertain. Tina Chen, for instance, has remarked that all descriptions of Fu point to a mixed-race ancestry:

Fu Manchu cannot be purely Chinese…  His height (over 6 feet), his eye-color (green) and his hair (which is described as ‘sparse and neutral colored’) make it clear that Fu Manchu claims partial Caucasian ancestry. Fu Manchu is obviously a product of racial mixing but significantly, none of the characters in the series, despite repeated and closely detailed physical descriptions … ever sees him as anything other than purely Chinese. (46-7)[22]

For Chen, the internal contradictions in Fu’s portrayal (as both iconically Chinese and ethnically mixed) establishes a critical discrepancy between Rohmer and his narrator that critiques the Orientalist mind-frame of Petrie and his associates, who insist on reinforcing racial binarisms even and especially when evidence challenges such compartmentalized thinking.

But beyond merely critiquing the binary racial thinking characteristic of Orientalism, the novels’ stubborn refusal to acknowledge Fu’s racial hybridity posits this archetypal Chinese villain as transcending race altogether. For Petrie’s and Smith’s insistence that Fu serves Chinese national interests blinds them to the most potent aspect of Fu’s character: his disconnection from any national agenda. As Fu himself announces in the third book, he is a man “who knows no law other than his own and that of those associated with him” (Hand 62). In sharp contrast to Petrie’s and Smith’s insistence that their actions serve the interests of the nation and the “entire white race,” Fu’s statement of his independence from any community challenges what Leo Braudy terms “the organically intertwined identities of men and nations” cemented by late-nineteenth-century ideology and suggests that the political and racial allegiances from which Petrie and Smith derive their authority do not validate heroic action but rather limit personal autonomy and cloud individual perception (314). Thus, not only do Petrie’s and Smith’s sentimentality and righteousness prove the impotence of the Victorian adventure hero in a ruthless, self-serving modern world, but their inability to see beyond the values and assumptions they seek to protect also proves their ineffectuality as detectives, whose success, as Peter Thoms and others have argued, necessarily depends on their self-detachment.

The images of Fu as a powerful, discompassionate, and autonomous agent who successfully kills or tortures his opponents while repeatedly evading capture are problematized by the novels’ continual juxtapositions of his feminine appearance and mannerisms against the decisively masculine characteristics of his Caucasian counterparts. For instance, while the novels’ British heroes are often hirsute or “clean-shaven,” Fu has a “smooth, hairless countenance,” as though he lacked enough testosterone to grow the facial hair that Smith and his companions must control with their razors (Insidious 36). His voice is repeatedly described as a combination soft feminine with harsh masculine intonations. He is invariably draped in a long yellow robe, as if existing in a perpetual state of languid half-dress reminiscent of the dandies in a Wilde drama. Finally, while Rohmer’s British heroes all harbor some romantic interest or history,[23] Fu is identified with rather than enamored of his seductive female agents: Karamaneh, for instance, often appears to Smith and Petrie in place of Fu himself and exerts the same hypnotic effect on Petrie as her master. Most critics have interpreted Fu’s effeminacy as another element of Rohmer’s racist rhetoric that simultaneously accentuates and defuses Fu’s villainy.[24] I suggest, however, that it is not Fu’s power or masculinity that is called into question by these juxtapositions but rather the masculine conventions of Smith, Petrie, and their associates. Just as Fu’s racial ambiguity challenges the association between nationhood and individual identity, so his sexual ambiguity undermines the binarism that opposes masculinity to femininity.[25] The challenge to this seemingly stable opposition underlies Fu’s most creative assaults. For the most powerful weaponry at his command do not take human life (like the phallic knives and guns wielded by Smith, Petrie and their associates) but deprive his victims of the autonomy and self-control that are fundamental to the traditional concept of masculinity and transform them—like Karamaneh—into reluctant slaves, obedient to his will. Thus, in the first novel, an American inventor appropriately named West is drugged by Fu and becomes a “pliant instrument which he bent to his own ends” (135), and in a subsequent episode, Fu’s exotic drugs transform members of the British police into “maniacs” who have lost control of their minds and bodies and are seen jerking about madly like marionettes controlled by Fu’s hands (Insidious [167]). The threat posed by Fu’s schemes to his victims’ masculinity is clarified in a nightmare wherein Petrie imagines himself in Fu’s powers, being strangled by the red slippers that are a permanent part of Karamaneh’s wardrobe: “[Fu-Manchu’s] green eyes showed filmy through the fog. An intense pain shot through my lower limbs, and, catching my breath, I looked down. As I did so, the points of the red slippers which I dreamed that I wore increased in length, curled sinuously upward, twined about my throat and choked the breath from my body!” (Insidious 82). That Petrie’s fear of Fu should manifest in a vision of transvestitism identifying him with a character perceived as the essence of womanhood suggests that for his British opponents, Fu-Manchu represents both the fear of emasculation in a world where traditional masculine codes are no longer effective as well as the possibility of appropriating feminine strategies (e.g. artifice, passive-aggression, sexual seduction) as instruments of masculine self-assertion.[26]

That Fu himself can move so easily from the personas of savage villain to cultivated gentleman and can shift abruptly from expounding rational scientific and political discourse to raving in hysterical outbursts point to an essentially performative nature that allows him to question the social meanings and cultural assumptions that Smith and Petrie take for granted. With his character primarily established through a series of carefully staged appearances and disappearances, Fu is nothing if not theatrical. More than half of the first novel, for instance, is spent anticipating Fu’s appearance before he appears and speaks, while subsequent stories revolve around the Chinese doctor’s reappearance after his supposed death or departure. In the brief scenes when Petrie directly confronts Fu, the latter’s face is invariably described as mask-like, as if he is continually performing a version of himself and lacked any substantive identity beyond these roles. Finally, the much-cited descriptions of Fu as “having the brow of Shakespeare and the face of Satan” seem to identify him as both the author of his own dramas as well as their most charismatic actor (Insiduous 13). If Smith’s and Petrie’s characters are hopelessly inscribed within the rigid conventions of adventure and detective fiction, Fu demonstrates a liberating malleability that recognizes the essential constructedness of identity. Equipped with “equal facility in any of the civilized languages, and in most of the barbaric” (12), capable of adapting to any number of intellectual and social contexts, and, having “no compunction in harnessing whatever cultural elements …  he can use” (Chen 49), Fu is not only the archetypal Chinese villain but also the versatile modern hero for whom even the role of arch-villain is only one in a cast of possible personas.

Fu’s ultimate threat lies, then, neither in his precipitation of Chinese world domination nor in his emasculation of his opponents but in his exposure of gender, race, and nationality as inessential components of identity that both serve and disguise individuals’ quest for power and authority. This element of Fu’s menace is most clearly demonstrated in his effect on Petrie, who is forced to acknowledge the fragility of his seemingly stable identity, steadfast values, and secure assumptions of what constitutes reality. For not only does the pursuit of their enemy necessitate disguises that produce in Petrie disorienting feelings of self-estrangement but, ironically, his interactions with Fu invariably distance him from the racial and national foundations of identity that he is attempting to secure through Fu’s destruction, thereby negating the central points of opposition between himself and his opponent. Fu’s success in exposing the insubstantiality of Petrie’s (and Smith’s) identities as well as the elusiveness of their patriotic mission is evidenced in Petrie’s increasing cognizance of the fact as he progresses from an uncomfortable realization in the first novel that he is “an actor in a Fu-Manchu drama” (Insidious 102) to a self-detached appreciation of his own part in “the fascinating pageant of the Fu drama” (Hand 125) in the third installment. Petrie’s increasing interest in and willingness to assume his part in Fu’s script owes not only to his seduction by Fu’s genius, courage, charisma and “sheer Force unlike any I had witnessed” (Hand 61) but to the potential for knowledge and power that Fu promises to grant him should he resign his “humdrum suburban life” (Insidious 3) and become Fu’s assistant in revolutionizing chemistry (170) and “establishing that intellectual control which is destined to be the new World Force” (Return 108). Despite Petrie’s horror upon learning of Fu’s plans for him, his admiration for the Chinese doctor suggests at least some attraction to the plan. “‘You can never devote your whole mind to these studies which I have planned for you whilst such distractions exist,’” Fu states to Petrie (Insidious 170). While the “distractions” from which Fu promises to remove Petrie refer specifically to Karamaneh and her seductive hold over him, Fu’s plan of removing Petrie from England also suggests a liberation from the racial, national, and cultural agendas upon which Petrie has centered his identity and which, as we’ve seen, repeatedly limit his mind and actions. Fu’s threat of destabilizing all the categories of Petrie’s self-definition promise to come to fruition in Petrie’s literal removal from England—a prospect that, for the British doctor, seems horrific precisely because of its attractiveness.

In Fu-Manchu’s relationship to Petrie, Rohmer envisions the Yellow Peril not only as an external threat of Chinese political takeover but the internal threat of individuals’ sublimated desires for power, possession, and control. While Petrie might insist that he is only an “ordinary, middle-class practitioner” and cling to outdated notions of patriotism and honor, Fu and his associates repeatedly force him to admit—and to act upon—the sadistic desires disguised beneath the standards of race, gender, and nationality (Hand 67). Such skepticism toward Victorian ideals undoubtedly stems from Rohmer’s own experience in the course and aftermath of World War I, which broke out as he was writing the second novel. Destroying the ideas of an honorable war and integrity in conflict that had been central to the cultivation of nineteenth-century masculinity, the realities of trench warfare make Petrie’s and Smith’s nationalism and sentimentality appear impossibly naïve. Though, as Cay Van Ash and Elizabeth Rohmer state, the second and third Fu books were back-dated to before the disruption of the war, Rohmer’s own disillusionment with his heroes is clear: “There is such a divine simplicity in the English mind that one may lay one’s plans with mathematical precision, and rely upon the Nayland Smiths and Dr. Petries to play their allotted parts”’, Fu sneers in the second novel, regarding his national pride and gentlemanly values for which Smith and Petrie are willing to risk their lives as illusions that facilitate his control over them (Return 164). Rohmer’s skepticism toward the ideas of national and individual honor is even more clearly revealed in the transformation in Petrie’s character as the unassuming physician is exposed as harboring a sadistic side. “I fastened the strip of fabric over the girl’s mouth and tied it behind, experiencing a pang half pleasurable and half fearful as I found my hands in contact with the foamy luxuriance of her hair,” Petrie admits in the second novel, when he is persuaded to fake an attack on Karamaneh in order to disguise her attempt to rescue him, once again, from Fu’s clutches (Return 116). Delivering the punishment that Fu would himself inflict upon his slave should he suspect her treachery, Petrie here assumes Fu’s position, which allows him to reveal a sadistic delight in cruelty that he cannot admit into his character as Smith’s loyal sidekick and upstanding, middle-class doctor. By the end of the third novel, when Karamaneh has been transformed from the enigmatic and fiery servant of Fu to Petrie’s docile, silent fiancée, Petrie freely admits his satisfaction in having Karamaneh in his power: “It made my blood course faster to watch this lovely Eastern girl conquering the barbaric impulses that sometimes flamed up within her, because I willed it; indeed this was a miracle that I never tired of witnessing” (Hand 144). The domestication and disempowerment of the native woman that is a feature of the colonial adventure story here carries an implication that marriage itself might be the realization of suppressed sadistic fantasies disguised beneath the veil of a socially accepted institution. With his desires for control and power both realized and contained by marriage to Fu’s former slave, Petrie essentially accepts Fu’s gift, if in an altered form. If, as Rohmer states in his biography, “‘I made my name on Fu Manchu because I know nothing about the Chinese!’” then Fu might very well be a product of the fears and fantasies of Rohmer and his British audience: a figure whose horror rests in his realization of the possibility that the most powerful self might lie in fracturing the very boundaries he has worked so hard to defend (Van Ash 72).

III. “Chinks” and “Welterweights” of Limehouse

In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-centuries, the Victorian concept of muscular manhood expanded from a physical and moral standard promoted for the upper and middle-classes to an ideal of physical fitness for the working classes, who were encouraged to cultivate bodily strength both for personal improvement and as part of an ongoing campaign for “raising the standard of the [white] race” (Mosse 137). The founding of the lower-middle and working-class League of Health and Strength League in 1906 is indicative of the new emphasis on development of the masculine physique in the general population. Circulating its Annual to 90,000 boys a week by 1910, the League urged its members to “pledge themselves to the cause of physical culture” (Bourke 42-3). This focus on physicality made the masculine ideal more accessible to the lower classes because it departed considerably from the model of the physically balanced Classical Greek athlete that had dominated Victorian upper-class standards of manliness: “Beauty [as seen by the League] seems confounded with strength and the developing of one’s muscles rather than with attaining a harmoniously proportioned body,” notes Mosse (137). Together with aesthetics and moderation, the new cult of physical fitness also left by the wayside the intellectual achievement and moral integrity that had accompanied the masculine ideal in the high Victorian age, with its emphasis on the “well-knit body as [a] model for the well-formed mind” (Haley 4). After the Wilde trials, however, “[b]eing cultured was just a step away from being effeminate,” and the emphasis on male physicality in the early-twentieth-century was part of an effort to distance men from the intellectual culture associated with male effeminacy (Braudy 396). The resulting disconnect between mind and body made the masculine ideal more accessible for the working classes, who did not have access to the educational opportunities of their social superiors but “whose masculinity was reaffirmed by manual labour, suffused as it was with ideas of potency and heroism” (Bourke 130). The ideal of masculinity emerging at the turn of the century thus reflected an increasing social democratization and extended an opportunity for men of all classes to represent their nation through control over their own bodies.

However, the newly available ideal of masculinity for the working classes was curtailed by the threat of unemployment, back-breaking labor, inadequate pay, limited access to nutrition that made a tall stature and muscular build difficult to attain, and the shame associated with not being able to support one’s family, all of which threatened to snuff the pride of masculine strength gained from “manly” physical labor. This tension between the new, working-class ideal of manhood and the practical realities that prevented working men from realizing this ideal is a central focus of Thomas Burke’s writings. Born to a middle-class, South London home where “economic anxiety was always present,” Burke displays in his writings a ready sympathy with the struggles of the city’s working poor to cling to shreds of dignity even while their self-respect and autonomy are eroded by the most basic demands of earning a living wage (Sons 24). For Burke, whose liminal class identity enabled him to sympathize as well as critique the experiences of both middle and working classes, the new focus on external life was a false ideal that deprived working-class men of their true potential for self-realization through spiritual and intellectual improvement. While Victorian ideals of masculinity had operated on the principle of mens sana in corpore sano, Burke perceived the modern emphasis on physical culture and material acquisition as promoting a body devoid of mind and spirit. In his posthumously published autobiography, Son of London, Burke reflects with disdain on the “standardised and sterilised life” of the working man who regarded “external activity as a basic law of being” (177) and ignored the true foundation of life in the intellect and imagination:

I seemed to be bound for ever to a treadmill where work, work for its own sake, however purposeless, was exalted into a virtue, and where doing nothing was called Wasting Time and was condemned as a sin. …  The accepted idea that the active man is virtuous and the indolent man a sinner is a fallacy. …  It is the active and energetic for whom Satan finds mischievous employment; those who are incapable of Being and must for ever be Doing. (160)

For Burke, the cultivation of physical culture was inextricable from a general focus on external reward and a neglect of the spiritual and intellectual life that was at the root of man’s “realisation of dignity and godship” (202). For Burke, the cult of work and external culture were ideals descended down from the upper classes who had no understanding for the circumstances of the poor. As he states in his fictional autobiography, The Wind and the Rain, in which he envisions himself a working-class orphan: “Always it was the defenceless, voiceless poor who were the victims of the whims and theories of the educated” (27).

Burke’s sensitivity to the problems of adapting ideals of muscular manhood to the situation of the working classes is reflected in his descriptions of Hardcress School, a fictional version of his own experience at the map iconLondon Orphan Asylum. The descriptions are comparable to the muscular Christianity promoted in the Victorian classic Tom Brown’s School Days (1857) and in which Burke himself was indoctrinated in his youthful reading of the Boy’s Own Papers proliferating in the early-twentieth-century. However, as his narrator states in The Wind and the Rain, the ideals promoted by such readings were untenable for boys of the working class: “Going away to school had a ring about it that connected me with the heroes of the stories in the halfpenny and penny boys’ papers, which, though written for boys of our class, dealt entirely with the doings of boys at schools of the map iconRugby and Winchester type” (59). The inappropriateness of such ideals for working-class boys is revealed in Burke’s skepticism toward Hardcress routines: “[E]very minute of the day they anticipated us and employed machinery to save us the trouble of thinking of things for ourselves. We were like private soldiers, whose whole lives are spent in public” (71). Particularly irksome to the fictional Thomas are the drills that the boys are made to undergo:

On Saturday and Wednesday afternoons we exercised our bodies and felt our life in every limb at the word of command. We played football or cricket boy orders. We paraded in the field. The monitors, on the word, chose their elevens, and marched them to their pitches; and on another word the games began. After the matches, we feel in again, and marched back to the yard. …  Round and round the yard we marched under August suns or January rain, forming fours, taking open order, dressing by the right; dong the same set antics twenty times over until I wanted to yell. …  In my dreams I formed fours right and left. I doubled. I took open order. I deployed. I went on marvellous journeys into strange countries; but I could not walk or run; I could only form fours or mark time, bringing the knee sharply up to the level of the stomach, hands down, thumbs close to the seam of the trousers, neck pressed back, chin drawn in. (75-6)

Burke’s descriptions of games and physical life in Hardcress deliberately satirize the joyous physical world of Hughes’s Rugby. If the goal of games at such public schools was to train boys into a concept of their superiority,[27] its effect on working-class boys was to degrade them and force them to accept the submissiveness demanded of their social class. While Hughes associates such physical games as football, rugby, and hare-and-hound chases to the cultivation of a distinctly British masculinity that transformed a boy into a “brave, helpful, truth-telling Englishman, and a gentleman, and a Christian” (School Days 73), Burke sees physical labor as pointless by emphasizing the uselessness and dehumanization of the drills he and his fellow students are forced to endure. The narrator’s account of his spoiled dreams not only indicates how such regimentation kills the dreams of adventure he entertains but, more broadly, how the ideals of masculinity and derring-do promoted for upper-class boys cannot transfer to the working classes. Burke’s writing makes clear that such sports and the Rugby experience were meant to strengthen boys’ sense of nationhood, reinforcing their identities as British men, exemplifying what Bourke and others have argued is the appropriation of the “nation” and national identity by the middle and upper classes (Bourke 171). However, for Burke, the working class identified much more readily with community rather than the more grandiose stage of nationhood. As Bourke writes, working-class people’s “experience locally was essentially their experience of national politics, institutions, and structures. People did not experience the ‘Education System’, they experienced neighborhood primary schools: they did not experience the ‘Health Service’, but local clinics” (166). The primary discrepancy between Rugby and Hardcress is that the exercises meant to build national identity for students in the former seem useless for pauper boys, barred from this broader context by class limitations.

Burke’s most successful work, Limehouse Nights (1916), explores this sensitivity to working-class problems of manhood and its relation to national pride by contrasting the benighted, claustrophobic world of white, working-class men with the imagined spiritual freedom of Chinese men. While Rohmer’s characters are repeatedly removed from the realities of their social and national contexts to show the elusiveness and impermanence of these aspects to personal identity, Burke’s characters are inescapably trapped in their social and economic situations. They dwell in places of “wasted life and toil and decay” (8) and “savagely masculine character” (17) where people live “all their days in physical contact with the brutality of things” (62); where women long for “respite from the eternal grief of things” (18) and men are forced to perform manliness in ways that caricature the codes of muscular masculinity, proving that the emphasis on physical culture when transferred to the wrong context may very well be the gateway to mindless violence and uncontrolled brutality. Indeed, Burke’s Limehouse stories exhibit the confusion against which Hughes himself had cautioned between the “muscular Christian” who could serve God through bodily strength and vigor and the “muscleman” who has:

no belief whatever as to the purposes for which his body has been given him, except some hazy idea that it is to go up and down the world with him, belabouring men and captivating women for his benefit or pleasure, at once the servant and fomenter of fierce and brutal passions which he seems to think it a necessity, and rather a fine thing than otherwise, to indulge and obey. (Tom Brown at Oxford 118-9)

In Limehouse Nights, Burke shows that without the cultivation of spiritual and intellectual resources, physical culture may very well turn into brutality.

The most vivid example of this trend is Burke’s most famous story “The Chink and the Child,” in which “a wandering yellow man named Cheng Huan” (8) takes pity upon and temporarily shelters a 12-year-old girl, Lucy, who is subject to continual abuse by her father, Battling Burrows, “the lightning welterweight of Shadwell, the box o’ tricks, the Tetrarch of the ring, who enters first … the pride of Ratcliff, Poplar and Limehouse” (7). Suspecting “unnacherel” relations between his daughter and Cheng, Battling Burrows beats his daughter to death with a dog whip. Simple in its plot, the story performs a trenchant, multi-layered critique of working-class masculinity. This critique is uniquely expressed by Battling Burrows’ profession as a boxer, which both parodies the image of the chivalric knight and points to the discrepancies between Victorian and twentieth-century values. While in the mid-Victorian period, boxing was still considered an upper-class sport, often involving the proof of a gentleman’s courage and the defense of his honor, by the twentieth-century, it became associated with lower-class violence, alcoholism, and other nefarious activities.[28] With its definitive rules and game mentality, boxing—which Kath Woodward describes as “all about bodies” (62) and which was seen as a form of body-building for the working-classes (Bourke 42)—might very well be one reinvention of the chivalric duel, but in Burke’s story, it is a perversion of this ideal: boxing does not indoctrinate Battling Burrows in a code of masculine honor but rather contributes to the portrait of his brutality as he uses his daughter as a “relief punch-ball” when he cannot express his anger at his manager (8). The boxer’s celebrated strength and physique are associated not only with thoughtless brutality but with blind nationalism for “Battling did not like men who were not born in the same great country as himself” (13). Nationalism here is a license for abusive action. For Burke, then, the ideal of muscular manhood has resulted in a dangerous disconnect between bodily strength and morality for the twentieth-century working man. Battling’s murder of his daughter is a horrific perversion of the chivalric code that had “emphasized the vulnerable female body as an object for men were ready to fight as part of their defense of civilized virtue” (Baudy 283). Writing his stories at the outset of the war, Burke, like Rohmer, expresses severe doubts about the idea of masculine honor and problematizes the association between masculinity and violence that many had harbored before the outbreak of the war as a means of reinvigorating British vitality. The Limehouse inhabitants Burke sketches invariably show their manliness through destructive use of force, and in their portrayal, Burke displays both his disapproval of such actions and his understanding of the economic situations and violent environments that enforce them.

In contrast to the entrapment of the working-class white men, the Chinese men of Burke’s Limehouse are poets and dreamers who are able to escape mentally from their environment. Their effeminacy indicates a chivalric nostalgia that Braudy has associated with a Victorian age that saw the disappearance (and impossible recovery) of medieval codes of honor and in which apparent childishness represents the innocence of the chivalric knight: a Sir Galahad figure of purity, virginity and self-sacrifice. Such a figure is Cheng Huan, a poet and “masterful lover … with feline movements” who is able to escape from the sordidness of Limehouse through opium smoking and memories of an ambiguous Orient (10). Memories of “little sweet verses of Le Tai-pih, murmuring of plum blossom, ricefield and stream” lend Cheng a tenderness and disconnect from the brutal world of Battling Burrows (9). His own repose allows him to treat Lucy with tenderness and to save her, if temporarily, from her father by removing her to a dream-world of the Orient with silken robes, bead curtains, flowers and healing lotion: “The beauty hidden by neglect and fatigue shone out now more clearly and vividly, and from the head sunning over with curls to the small white feet, now bathed and sandalled, she seemed the living interpretation of a Chinese lyric” (13). As Burke states in Son of London, the artist is the “manifestation of man at his highest and noblest poise and power” (152). In his poetry and tenderness, Cheng Huan exhibits this ideal, his memories, fantasies, and mental life providing the saving grace that Battling and his associates lack in their worship of physical force and aggression.

Even when Chinese men are portrayed as rogues in Burke’s stories, their roguery is associated with an innocent and childish hedonism that seems almost foolish in comparison with the violence of white actions. Thus, Tai Ling, in “The Father of Yoto” “was in love with life, and song, and wind, and warmth, and the beauty of little girls,” but his hedonism is excused because “to be immoral, you must first subscribe to some conventional morality. Tai Ling did not. …  He was just non-moral; and right and wrong were words he did not understand” (19). Certainly, Burke’s descriptions of Chinese men are infantalizing and effeminizing, but like Rohmer, his stories suggest that such models of masculinity are more effective than the alternatives represented by normative male culture. For Burke, the languid, innocent life led by Chinese men provides precisely the antidote to an overactive, violent world, and the childish state that his Chinese men occupy is reminiscent of a peaceful paradise. As he states in Son of London: “If somebody could seduce all these restless creatures into the opium habit the world would be a quieter and happier place for the many who are concerned with other values than those of power and dominion” (160).

Burke’s story “The Paw” offers perhaps the most disturbing example of the Chinaman’s role in at once provoking white male aggression and emphasizing its futility. Greaser Flanagan, a “weak man, physically and morally flabby” (32), repeatedly beats and rapes his eleven-year-old daughter Myrtle to expend his aggression against the Chinese man for whom his wife has left him and whom Greaser is too cowardly to confront:

Gawd—to think of it! Even now, when Limehouse Church was squeaking one o’ clock, perhaps the Chinky’s lemon hands were upon the skin of his Daffodil! Now, perhaps, he was stripping her, kissing, with his long, wet lips, all the beauty of white arms and breast, and knowing by now, as well as the Greaser, every bit of that shining body that had been his for eleven years, and still was his— his—his! Gawd! It was suffocating to think about! If he was a strong man—if he could get the throat of the lousy Chinky in his hands, and squeeze the wind out of it! But he had seen him fight, he knew the dexterity of his tactics. … So he grabbed the thin blanket that covered Myrtle, flung it off, and, before he was awake, half-a-dozen sharp, light blows had fallen on the exposed little form from a switch. Three gasps of surprise, and then a scream of pain tore through the night. Again and again he whipped her, against her screams and struggles. All about the writhing limbs the fang fell, until screams and appeals sank to moans and a fight for breath …  ‘Someone ought to stick a knife into that bloody Chink’.” (34-5)

This passage operates through a series of substitutions. Greaser’s dual fantasies of revenge and of the erotic interactions between his wife, Daffodil, and her Asian lover are here being acted out upon his daughter Myrtle with the whip that is both a weapon and phallic object falling on the stripped girl as her father chants about penetrating his opponent with a knife. Myrtle’s substitution both for her absent mother and for Phung-tsin, the Chinese man, suggests an equivalence between the three figures and, implicitly, that it is only through effeminizing and infantilizing his opponent that the unmanned Greaser can access the object of his rage: Greaser wants to “stick the knife” into Phung-tsin, but the most he can do is beat—and implicitly rape—his daughter. Such revolting and even exploitative scenes are certainly sensational but they also emphasize the Chinaman’s role in working-class white men’s nightmarish visions of emasculation—a nightmare that finds its realization in the futile violence enacted to combat it.

As evidenced by such recent works as Will Thomas’s mystery novel The Limehouse Text (2006), China and Chinatown continue to appeal to Western fantasies and occupy an important space in Western male self-fashioning. Part of the allure is the “Asian mystique,” which Sheridan Prasso has recently defined as “The fantasy of the exotic, indulging, decadent, sensual Oriental…. It is an easy purchase, this experience of Asia that is fantasy-indulging and, ultimately, ‘remasculating’—engendering feelings of masculinity or dominance which … Western men may have found diminished in their own cultures” (5-6). Sensitive to the masculine insecurities of their own time, Sax Rohmer’s novels and Thomas Burke’s stories appeal to the same fantasies of remasculation that are currently being played out in venues like the sex tourism industry and mail-order, Asian bride networks. But while their works may continue to perpetuate false stereotypes of Chinese effeminacy or malice, they also offer valuable commentaries on the inadequacies of normative codes in their own historical moment and suggest that the inability to see beyond the racial stereotypes they self-consciously reinforce may be precisely what is disenabling the conceptualization of a more efficacious model of masculinity.

published August 2017

Shanyn Fiske is an Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University (Camden), where she specializes in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture and Classical Reception Studies.


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Richardson, LeeAnne M. New Woman and Colonial Adventure Fiction in Victorian Britain: Gender, Genre, and Empire. Florida: UP of Florida, 2006.

Rider Haggard, H. Allan Quatermain. Ann Arbor: T. Nelson, 1960.

Rohmer, Sax. The Hand of Fu-Manchu: Being a New Phase in the Activities of Fu-Manchu, the Devil Doctor. Middlesex: Echo Library, 2007.

———. The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu: Being a Somewhat Detailed Account of the Amazing Adventures of Nayland Smith in his Trailing of the Sinister Chinaman. New York: Dover, 1997.

———. The Return of Dr. Fu-Manchu. New York: Pyramid Books, 1961.

Seshagiri, Urmila. “Modernity’s (Yellow) Perils: Dr. Fu-Manchu and English Race Paranoia.” Cultural Critique 62 (Winter 2006): 162-194.

Sheil, M.P. The Yellow Danger. London: Grant Richards, 1898.

Tenniel, John. “A Legacy of Discord.” Punch 27 June 1900 p.400.

Thomas, Will. The Limehouse Text. New York: Touchstone, 2006.

Thoms, Peter. Detection and its Designs: Narrative and Power in Nineteenth-Century Detective Fiction. Athens: Ohio UP, 1998.

The Times. 20 October 1900.  The Times (Saturday, October 20, 1900) p. 14

Van Ash, Cay and Elizabeth Sax Rohmer. Master of Villainy: A Biography of Sax Rohmer. Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1972.

Woodward, Kath. Boxing, Masculinity and Identity: The “I” of the Tiger. New York: Routledge, 2007.

Further reading

For more on The Boxer Rebellion, see:

Esherick, Joseph W. The Origins of the Boxer Uprising. Berkeley: U of California P, 1987.

Silbey, David. The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China. New York: Hill and Wang, 2013.

For recent work on the history of Chinese-British relations at the turn of the twentieth-century and the Yellow Peril, see:

Auerbach, Sascha. Race, Law, and “The Chinese Puzzle” in Imperial Britain. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Benton, Gregor and E.T. Gomez. The Chinese in Britain, 1800-Present: Economy, Transnationalism, and Identity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Bickers, Robert. The Scramble for China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire 1832-1914. New York: Penguin, 2012.

Forman, Ross. China and the Victorian Imagination. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013.

Frayling, Christopher. The Yellow Peril: Dr Fu Manchu and the Rise of Chinaphobia. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2014.

Mayer, Ruth. Serial Fu Manchu: The Chinese Supervillain and the Spread of Yellow Peril Ideology. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2014.

For statistics on Chinese residents in England in the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries, see:

Seed, John. “Limehouse Blues:  Looking for Chinatown in the London Docklands, 1900-1940.” History Workshop Journal 62 (2006): 58-85.

Waller, P.J. “Immigration into Britain: The Chinese.” History Today September 1985: 8-15.

For a discussion of the Boxer Rebellion’s role in escalating British sinophobia, see:

Case, Shannon. “Lilied Tongues and Yellow Claws: The Invention of London’s Chinatown, 1915—1945.” Challenging Modernism: New Readings in Literature and Culture, 1914-45.

Ed. Stella Deen. Vermont: Ashgate, 2002.

Hobson, J.A. Imperialism. New York: James Pott & Company, 1902.

Kingsbury, Karen. “Yellow Peril, Dark Hero: Fu Manchu and the ‘Gothic Bedevilment’ of Racist Intent.” The Gothic Other: Racial and Social Constructions in the Literary Imagination. Eds. Ruth Bienstock Anolik and Doublas L Howard. North Carolina: McFarland & Co., Inc., 2004.

Witchard, Anne. England’s Yellow Peril: Sinophobia and the Great War. New York: Penguin, 2014.

For discussion of Fu Manchu’s ambiguous sexuality, see:

Chan, Jachinson. Chinese American Masculinities: From Fu Manchu to Bruce Lee. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Chan, Jeffrey Paul, ed. The Big Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature. New York: Meridian, 1991.

Kim, Daniel. Writing Manhood in Black and Yellow: Ralph Ellison, Frank Chin, and the Literary Politics of Identity. California: Stanford UP, 2005.

Kim, Elaine. Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1982.

Lee, Robert G. Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1999.

For “Muscular Masculinity,” see:

Deane, Bradley. Masculinity and the New Imperialism: Rewriting Manhood in British Popular Literature, 1870-1914. Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 2014.

Hall, Donald E., ed. Muscular Christianity: Embodying the Victorian Age. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.

For more on Thomas Burke’s biography and the context of Limehouse, see:

Witchard, Anne. “Thomas Burke, the ‘Laureate of Limehouse’: A New Biographical Outline.” English Literature in Translation 1880-1920 48(2) (2005): 164-187.

———. Thomas Burke’s Dark Chinoiserie: Limehouse Nights and the Queer Spell of Chinatown. Burlington: Ashgate, 2009.

For further discussion of Eurasian hybridity and its implications, see:

Teng, Emma. Eurasian: Mixed Identities in the United States, China, and Hong Kong, 1842- 1943. Berkeley: U of California P, 2013.


[1] A guandao is a weapon, typically used in martial arts, with a blade attached to a long pole.

[2] Punch Vol. 118 (June 27, 1900) 459.

[3] The Boxers began as an ill-organized sect that drew its members primarily from the poor and dispossessed of northern China. Their original goal was to protect native land, commerce, and beliefs from increasing numbers of traders, missionaries, and politicians. They were eventually defeated by the eight allied nations, who demanded heavy reparations from China. Allies against the Boxers included not only British, German, French, Russian, American, Italian, and Austro-Hungarian but also Japanese forces. For more on The Boxer Rebellion, see ‘Further Reading’.

[4] The term was originally coined by Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany to justifying and promote imperial interests in China and spread to other European countries through Germany’s propagation of a battle between yellow and white races. The term was adopted more widely to express the hostility and resentment against the Chinese as they immigrated in the late-nineteenth-century to England, North America, and map iconAustralia and were perceived as displacing native workforces. For recent work on the history of Chinese-British relations at the turn of the twentieth-century and the Yellow Peril, see ‘Further Reading’.

[5] In London, Chinese populations settled mainly in Limehouse Causeway and Pennyfields, located in the boroughs of Poplar and map iconStepney. The Limehouse district was originally named after the Lime Kilns located here and used to burn chalk in the production of lime, a mortar component in building construction. See Lynn Pan for further details.

[6] Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Man with the Twisted Lip” (1891) and Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray (1891) include scenes from Limehouse opium dens. For statistics on Chinese residents in England in the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries, see ‘Further Reading’.

[7] Drug-related deaths together with government crackdowns on drug trading in the early-twentieth-century contributed to the image of Chinese as murderers while alliances between Chinese men (outnumbering Chinese women 8-1) and young English, working-class girls heightened fears of miscegenation (Pan 85-92). For a discussion of the Boxer Rebellion’s role in escalating British sinophobia, see ‘Further Reading’.

[8] For the idea that masculinity is associated with “individuation, mastery of the world, and progress,” see Izenberg (13.)  For the relationship between ideas of masculinity and China in modernity, see Eric Hayot’s The Hypothetical Mandarin: Sympathy, Modernity, and Chinese Pain.

[9] The 1923 British film serial The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu starred Harry Agar Lyons. Since then, various Caucasian men have enacted the role including Warner Oland, Boris Karloff, and Christopher Lee.

[10] The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu: Being a Somewhat Detailed Account of the Amazing Adventures of Nayland Smith in his Trailing of the Sinister Chinaman was known as “The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu” in the original British edition. I retain the dash in Fu-Manchu’s name, which Rohmer removed after the first three novels.

[11] A number of Asian-American critics have noted Fu Manchu’s ambiguous sexuality. See ‘Further Reading’.

[12] The Yellow Danger began as a serial in Short Stories published under the title The Empress of the Earth between February and June of 1898. Shiel wrote the series under commission, and the stories were energized by the political unrest in China at the turn of the century, sometimes borrowing from the headlines of news reports issuing from China at the time. The popularity of the series prompted their consolidation into a novel in July.

[13] Urmila Seshagiri has recently discussed Fu-Manchu’s role in highlighting early-twentieth-century British vulnerabilities.

[14] Charles Kingsley is credited with coining the term “muscular Christianity.”  For further discussion of this idea, see ‘Further Reading’.

[15] See Dawson (148) and Izenberg (9).

[16] See George Mosse, The Image of Man: The Creation of Modern Masculinity, in which he discusses the term in detail.

[17] See Pan (85) and Waller (9).

[18] For accounts of these attacks see Pan (90-1) and Seed (73).

[19] Liberals attacked the Tory government for sanctioning the slave-like conditions of the Chinese coolies in South Africa. However, as Pan notes, humanitarian concerns quickly became mingled with competition for labor both in Africa and in England (90).

[20] The first three Fu-Manchu novels were published in England under the titles The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu, The Devil Doctor, and The Si-Fan Mysteries. My own citations come from the American editions, published in the same years. The hyphen in Fu-Manchu was removed after the first three novels. While Limehouse Nights was not published until 1916, Burke had been working on and trying to sell the stories for several years. By the time the collection was accepted for publication by Grant Richards, the manuscript had been refused by eleven or twelve publishing houses. For more on Thomas Burke’s biography and the context of Limehouse, see ‘Further Reading’.

[21] Rohmer’s biographer Cay Van Ash reports that Rohmer was adamantly against Irish home rule.

[22] For further discussion of Eurasian hybridity and its implications, see ‘Further Reading’.

[23] Even Nayland Smith, who shows no sexual inclinations in the novels and at times seems blatantly misogynistic, has a history of romantic encounters only hinted at by the narrator.

[24] In his study of Chinese-American masculinities, for instance, Jachinson Chan emphasizes that Fu’s masculine identity is continually undermined by those of his white opponents, noting that “at the end of each novel, Sir Nayland Smith is able to sabotage Dr. Fu Manchu’s plans” (45). Chan’s focus on the novels’ conclusions, however, problematically ignores both Fu’s many triumphs over Smith and Petrie in the course of the narratives and Fu’s miraculous recoveries in each succeeding story, which lend him a superhuman quality fully equal to Smith’s own death-defying capabilities.

[25] For the tendency to define masculinity as the opposite of feminine characteristics, see Mosse and Izenberg.

[26] In their biography of Rohmer, Van Ash and Elizabeth Rohmer suggest that Fu’s schemes might offer a “cure for the waste of World War I” (107).

[27] See J. A. Mangan, The Games Ethic and Imperialism: Aspects of the Diffusion of an Ideal.

[28] That said, the late-century church—led by Reverend Arthur Osborne Jay—also endeavored to transform boxing from a violent, bare-knuckle sport into a more structured discipline that might indoctrinate Christian values into the working classes. For more on the history of the sport in England at this time, see Seth Koven.