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Shang-Chi and the fight against yellow peril

Marvel’s latest superhero outing is a breakthrough for Asian representation, but the character’s comic book past has a complicated history

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” starring Simu Liu, is Marvel’s first solo film led by an Asian hero. Featuring a mostly East Asian cast, the movie has already ignited conversation about whether it could equal the cultural significance of “Black Panther.”

But Shang-Chi’s history in the comics is complicated and problematic. The superhero has been plagued by tropes that society still imposes on Asian Americans both in real life and in fiction — yellow peril, kung fu master, etc. These are stereotypes that the movie will have to reclaim from White voices and rewrite in the fight for Asian representation on screen.

Fu Manchu and the Asian ‘threat’

In the new film, Shang-Chi is the son of Xu Wenwu, a.k.a. the villainous Mandarin. But in the original comics, Shang-Chi’s father is the infamous — and problematic — Fu Manchu, a genius magician bent on world domination.

Fu Manchu was created by writer Sax Rohmer and debuted in “The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu” (1913), the first of 13 novels with the character before it was licensed by Marvel. Rohmer’s very first description of the character outright calls him “the yellow peril incarnate in one man.”

Yellow peril and other anti-Asian propaganda stemmed from a long-held fear of East Asia as a threat to Western civilization. Seeing them as simultaneously culturally inferior and dangerously cunning, the press and politicians portrayed Asian immigrants as a menace to the nation. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, for example, prohibited Chinese laborers from immigrating into the U.S. to “steal jobs” from White Americans.

Fu Manchu, with his sinister nature and goal of conquering the world, ticked all the propaganda boxes.

LEFT: "Yellow Terror," an editorial cartoon from 1899. (Wikimedia) RIGHT: The film "The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu" (1929) starred Swedish American Warner Oland in yellowface as Dr. Fu Manchu. (Paramount Pictures)

The film’s creators contended with this problematic history by excising Fu Manchu entirely. Instead, they transposed Fu Manchu’s history with Shang-Chi onto another character, the Mandarin, creating a new composite character for the movie, and humanized him by making him a devoted family man instead of a sinister caricature.

Some critics have pointed out that the name “Mandarin” isn’t less offensive though, and that film still deals with a variety of other stereotypes. For example, there’s the boilerplate assumption that Asian-centric movies must include martial arts and themes of filial piety — tropes that Shang-Chi seems to fill.

Representation on-screen is still lacking and plagued by tropes

Part of what makes Shang-Chi’s casting notable is that Asians overall still get little face time in Hollywood movies. The USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s annual study looking at “Inequality in 1,300 Popular Films” found that, of the top 100 films of 2019, only 7.2 percent of all speaking characters were Asian. In fact, Asian speaking or named characters were entirely missing from more than a third of all 2019 movies.

Majority of both speaking characters and directors are still White

Data based on the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s research of 1,300 movies from 2007 to 2019.

Even when Asian characters do make it on screen, they are often plagued by stereotypes. These can range from the relatively innocuous “Asian girl with a dyed hair streak” to the much more dangerous sexualization of Asian women.

Conversation surrounding the latter reignited after eight people, including six Asian women, were killed in the Atlanta-area spa shootings. The suspected gunman, Robert Aaron Long, said he saw the people who worked in the spas as “temptations” he needed to “eliminate,” signaling that he set out with the intention of attacking Asian women whom he perceived to be selling sex.

LEFT: People participate in a protest in New York City in April against anti-Asian violence. RIGHT: The protest had nearly 3.000 participants, including activists, residents and local politicians. (Photos by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

On Monday, the FBI reported that the number of hate crimes in the United States rose in 2020 to the highest level in 12 years, propelled by increasing assaults targeting Asian and Black people. Attacks on Asians in particular rose 73 percent from 2019. Some civil rights advocates cited former president Donald Trump’s xenophobic language, which harked back to old yellow peril propaganda, as one cause. Trump, for example, stoked anti-Asian hatred during the covid-19 pandemic using phrases like “Chinese virus.”

Recent breakthroughs as Asians begin to claim new space

Though still far from reaching parity, Asians and Asian Americans have begun making notable steps in Hollywood. From “Parasite” and its explosive success, to “Minari” and “The Farewell” landing major acting awards for their casts, more attention is being paid to both increased diversity and fully fleshed-out characters.

LEFT: Bong Joon Ho, left, and Han Jin Won accept the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for "Parasite." (Kevin Winter/Getty Images) RIGHT: Nora Lum, also known as Awkwafina, became the first Asian American woman to win a Golden Globe in any lead actress film category after winning for "The Farewell." (Amy Sussman/Getty Images for Disney)

The creators of the new Shang-Chi film also admitted to being aware and cautious of the potential pitfalls surrounding their movie. Screenwriter David Callaham talked to Inverse about the filmmakers’ list of Fu Manchu stereotypes they “wanted to explode,” and director Destin Daniel Cretton spoke to The Washington Post about fighting against the “kung-fu Asian” trope.

“The primary hope for ‘Shang-Chi’ was to find an actor who would help to break the stereotype of a kung-fu Asian dude,” Cretton said. “We have seen that archetype of that character over time. And particularly in Western cinema, it’s often the butt of a joke. We wanted to create a character that was surprisingly relatable to anybody.”

In the face of continued anti-Asian violence and rhetoric, fighting these tropes in one of the biggest movies of the year might just make Shang-Chi the latest hero for the ages.

About this story

Data on 2019 film representation from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s 2020 report, “Inequality in 1,300 Popular Films.” Rice paper background texture from iStock. Illustrations by Shelly Tan.

Shelly Tan is a graphics reporter and illustrator specializing in pop culture. She designs and develops interactive graphics.