Shang-chi: Racist Stereotype or Legendary Kungfu Superhero?

I did some work on Shang-chi for a project last year, which didn’t materialise due to the pandemic. The filming of the MCU movie was delayed, also due to COVID_19. Now that it’s finally in the can, I’m celebrating its shaqing by reworking the contents of that unfortunate project into an article that looks at pitfalls and potential of Marvel’s cultural representation of a character whose origins were so problematic, and yet whose development through the decades of comics has been so interesting.

There have been a handful of Asian superheroes in the Marvel universe since the Silver Age, when the Comics Code collapsed, and Marvel wanted to make the most out of the cinema craze for kungfu. Back when it began its life in the 1970s, the Shang-Chi comic was indeed a hit precisely because it tapped into this and into blaxploitation – Shang-chi had a side-kick called Midnight, his adopted brother. However, hardly any of Marvel’s Asian heroes were A-listers and they all had massively problematic representation, especially the ones who were Chinese, or connected to a Chinese culture source. There were no Chinese writers or artists, so it was all based on how White America saw China. The much more recently born Marvel Cinematic Universe is something different.

Today, films set in the MCU make an immense amount of money in the Chinese box office, and Iron Man 3 even had alternate scenes featuring a Chinese doctor, to make the audience feel more represented. With the boom in the Chinese film industry, both in terms of filmmaking and consumption – there’s a rising entertainment-seeking middle-class with increasing spending power, Marvel know that it’s beneficial for them to step up their Asian representation. A British-born Chinese kid might go and see Captain America, but is going to go see Shang-Chi twice. And take their mum and dad the second time. Besides, general moves towards improving minority representations in the West have encouraged a lot of main stream media to take active steps to do so.

Still, a Chinese superhero getting his own film is huge.

Some have pointed out that choosing Shang-Chi for this film might be problematic due to the link to Fu Manchu in the original comics. If you just look at that early run, the Sax Rohmer connection is just one of the problems. The casual racism and gratuitous Sinophobia in the language used by the other characters to address and describe our hero….it’s bad. I mean really bad.

Audiences in China may not be aware of the fictional character of Fu Manchu, but they are certainly aware of its impact in modern history. It is due to the pedalling of xenophobic and racist concepts such as “The Yellow Peril” and “The Sick Man of Asia” by the likes of people who created Fu Manchu that justified the occupation of China by the 8-Nation Alliance, the Opium Wars, and the treatment of its German concessions in the Treaty of Versailles, 1919. Sax Rohmer was a popular writer of his time, and Fu Manchu made a household name by the Christopher Lee films, so regular movie goers around the world should be aware that he is a racist stereotype.

Contemporary China is a rapidly changing society which is very strong internationally, and many countries see it as a threat. The way that Western media are reporting on issues concerning human rights and the environment, which China, as a developing nation, is trying to address, is leading to new strains of Sinophobia, which in turn are still drawing heavily from those century-old misperceptions that many people are not even aware stemmed from this awful piece, so anything that brings that back into modern media is an issue.

The highly problematic origins of Shang-Chi’s put me off of reading any of the comics for a very long time. I bit the bullet when news of the new film came out, still the first few issues were painful to get through. It was such a great relief to look at the character’s later representations. When Marvel returned to him in the ’90s, those racist elements were gently swept under the carpet, and a much more rounded character began to take shape.

They’ve had him work as a spy for the British secret service, serve as part of the Avengers, Heroes for Hire, become a scion of K’un-lun, and even train Spiderman in martial arts. Moreover, once you have him as his own character, and not just “the son of Fu Manchu”, you realise that he is one of the few heroes in the Marvel universe without super powers. He is a master of kungfu, but ultimately, he’s just a man, who can fight against super humans, like any master swordsman could do. Shang-chi’s presence in the comics is very much that of a wuxia swordsman, he is measured when using his powers, he goes off to meditate when it all gets too much and he helps disciples overcome their weaknesses – living by the warrior code of honour.As long as the movie handles his origins with proper sensitivity, it could bring this character the attention he deserves.

The film is titled “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”, which of course is the name of the terrorist organisation that kidnapped Tony Stark, and kickstarted the whole MCU, but which also refers to The Mandarin’s mystic rings of power. Yes, the Mandarin is another character who began life as another racial stereotype written by a bunch of white guys embodying a lot of Western fears. He was really a bit of a Fu Manchu clone, but wearing a purple balaclava with a giant M on his chest. He’s been retconned many times, now as an immortal ancient warlord, now an exiled prince, but he’s increasingly moved from being a chop-suey caricature to an extremely suave and charismatic character. I think it’s important in storytelling to have good villains as well as heroes. This new film will certainly give Marvel a chance to rescue the character after Iron Man III. I expressed my views pretty succinctly when Iron Man III came out.

Shang-Chi started as a very culturally-insensitive character, the son of Fu Manchu, only really a hero because he was half-American. He has undergone so much development in the comics though, and considering he is a character who has essentially been transplanted from his homeland to the West but nevertheless remembers his heritage, he occupies a special cultural place for Chinese and other Asian diaspora. I think the film has the potential, after Black Panther, to help redress Marvel’s previous cultural appropriation whilst enhancing diversity, and turn that appropriation into appreciation.

“Shang-chi: Legend of the Ten Rings” will be released on the 9thof July 2021, and before then there’ll be more from me on this legendary character, perhaps a look at the new mini comics series, next year.

 

 


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