Have you seen this one? A young man is trained from birth at a secret martial arts colony in China. The young man’s teachers push him far beyond the physical boundaries of normal men and train him in traditional Chinese medicine, philosophy and mysticism. His father, a rich and powerful man who has created this sanctuary of secret Chinese knowledge, needs an ally who is the ultimate master of kung fu to help him on his professed mission to save mankind.. On his first mission to help his father, though, the young man discovers his father is not a benevolent leader of men but the world’s most nefarious criminal. Rebelling against everything he has known, the man enters the modern world to try to right the wrongs perpetrated by his father. Can’t quite place that title? It wasn’t a movie (well, it hasn’t been released as a movie yet); it is the story of the Marvel comic book character Shang Chi, the son of Fu Manchu.
In the early 1970s Marvel found itself with the comic book rights to the universe of Sax Rohmer’s Chinese arch criminal Fu Manchu and the Kung Fu television series. They combined a few concepts (and, frankly, stole Enter the Dragon’s whole badass martial monk working for British intelligence idea), drew on the Sax Rohmer characters and created Shang Chi. The character starred in his own title, The Hands Of Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu for about a decade. He was also a main feature in the 33 issues of the black and white Deadly Hands of Kung Fu magazine. This title, from Marvel’s Curtis Magazines, was a mix of interviews with martial artists and actors and martial arts themed comics. It featured other Marvel martial artists such as Iron Fist and the Daughters of the Dragon. Shang Chi can still be found in the Marvel universe, although they have lost the rights to the original Fu Manchu characters and glossed over the matter of Shang Chi’s parentage.
Of course, during the kung fu craze of the 1970s martial arts were everywhere, including comic books. Even today you’ll find martial arts all over comics and it makes sense. Superheroes are warriors, albeit fictional ones, and even with their powers they need the skills of warriors. Both DC and Marvel have loads of characters with black belts and hours of mat time. For example, many of today’s DC heroes, including Batman, have received training from ex-boxing champion (and master of several other martial arts) Wildcat. Shang Chi, though, is probably the greatest example of the kung fu craze, and its misconceptions, invading comics.
Like so many other American attempts to cash in on the so-called “chop-socky” craze, Shang Chi is more like chop suey: a mix of many things to make something that passes as Chinese. First of all, Shang Chi is drawn from older characters that are accepted as Asian but are not. Yellow Peril icon Fu Manchu was created by British author Sax Rohmer in 1912 in a series of short stories that were later collected as a novel. The fiendish Dr. Fu Manchu would go on to appear in comic strips, film, radio and television. In the late 1960s five films were produced (with Christopher Lee starring as Fu Manchu and Bond Girl Tsai Chin as his daughter) which were probably still making the drive in rounds when Shang Chi premiered. The character is typical (arguably prototypical) of the Yellow Peril era, which also gave us villains such as Ming the Merciless and the Han armies fought by Buck Rogers in his original stories. Most of these stories were penned by authors who knew little to nothing of Asia and it is common to see completely made up “Chinese sounding” names, confusion of cultures and flat out racism in these works. As World War II approached the distrust of Asians in general waned as the Japanese became the focus of Western fears. Kato, the faithful assistant of Green Hornet, is a prime example of the changing tides of Western perceptions of the East. He has been portrayed as Japanese, Filipino, Chinese and/or a mix of the previous choices (such as Japanese posing as a Filipino) since his creation in 1936!
Unfortunately, the supposedly more enlightened 1970s didn’t treat Asian characters much better. Martial arts, cultures and history were again jumbled together as karate, judo and kung fu were mashed together. In fact, the original Chinese Connection posters and lobby cards even describe Bruce Lee as “the master of karate/kung fu!” Shang Chi, with his dubious pulp fiction parentage, was not immune from misconceptions about martial arts and Asian culture. A quick look at the original drawings of the character show someone wearing something closer to an escrimador’s costume than a Chinese martial artist. Recurring character (and Shang Chi’s love interest) Leiko Wu is a Hong Kong born British agent but “Leiko” is a Japanese word. As martial arts films in the US market merged with black exploitation films, Shang Chi gains sidekick Rufus “Super Midnight” Carter, a streetwise, eye patch wearing kickboxer turned antique dealer and CIA agent. All in all, though, Shang Chi is no worse than the badly dubbed kung fu movies of the time that routinely threw out phrases such as “Shaolin hapkido” and “Chinese judo.” In fact, for all its faults The Hands of Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu has the distinct advantage of having most of its run written by comic book legend Doug Moench.
Shang Chi can still be found among the pages of Marvel Comics. His origin has changed slightly, thanks to Marvel losing the rights to the Sax Rohmer characters, and he rocks a more modern outfit (and often more of a Bruce Lee facial structure). According to IMDB, Woo-Ping Yuen is attached to a Hands of Shang Chi movie. The project has been kicked around for a few years, though, without a firm release date (reports say everything from 2011 to 2015) or star attached. Worse yet, it is attached to Dreamworks, rivals of Marvel’s new owners at Disney. Still, if it were to be made, a Hong Kong action style version of Shang Chi might be a fitting fate for a character spawned by Yellow Peril characters and need to cash in on the chop socky craze.
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