Book review: The Yellow Peril by Christopher Frayling

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 November, 2014, 11:11pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 November, 2014, 8:36pm

The Yellow Peril: Dr Fu Manchu & the Rise of Chinaphobia
by Christopher Frayling
Thames & Hudson

The extent of China's global ambition is a hot topic liable to spark anxiety. In his new chronicle which riffs on that emotion, cultural historian Christopher Frayling collates some memorably toxic anti-Chinese rants delivered by a bevy of scaremongers.

One of Frayling's most noxious sources must be British novelist Sax Rohmer, who dreamed up Dr Fu Manchu and some even worse bit-part characters. Take this freak from the first novel in the series, The Mystery of Dr Fu Manchu (1913). "From behind a curtain heavily brocaded with filth a little Chinaman appeared, dressed in a loose smock, black trousers and thick-soled slippers, and, advancing, shook his head vigorously. 'No shavee - no shavee,' he chattered, simian fashion, squinting from one to the other of us with his twinkling eyes."

The Rohmer content Frayling highlights seems as ugly as anti-Jewish propaganda the Nazis concocted. Yet in Rohmer's day, China posed no threat - divided against itself it was also dogged by constant famine, Frayling notes. Why Chinaphobia took root then is a mystery he fails to explain.

Still, Frayling, who has previously addressed every subject from vampires to spaghetti westerns, covers some intriguing ground. Besides exploring 19th-century opium dens with Charles Dickens, he analyses music hall culture and pulp literature tracts including Dr No. En route, in real life, Frayling meets some notable potentates, not least theorist Edward Said and Hong Kong's last governor, Chris Patten.

For the first time in two dire centuries, China has the feel-good factor - a sense of national pride, Patten says, adding the Chinese hold Britain responsible for their past decline. "I have slightly more sympathy with their point of view now - now I know more about how appallingly we behaved. You can't defend it in terms of current morality - but even by the standards of the time it was repellent."

Another Frayling coup is his interview with Rohmer's widow, Elizabeth. Again, like Patten, her husband sounds all right: she describes him as "full of Irish charm and old-world chivalry".

The iffy literary icon the charmer created became as popular as Sherlock Holmes and Count Dracula and crossed into cinema. Fu Manchu's epic influence fuelled the belief that Asians were silly and sly.

One niggle is that Frayling leans too heavily on Rohmer. Other cited sinophobes, including missionary and author of The Asiatic in England (1873) Joseph Salter, seem nowhere near as toxic.

Irrespective, as China grows ever more potent, Frayling's address of racist undercurrents that may shape your perception seems salient.