Iron Man's Mandarin born of America's embarrassing 'Yellow Peril'

By Andrew A. Smith

Scripps Howard News Service


Iron Man 3 brings us The Mandarin, once the Armored Avenger’s greatest foe in the comics. But The Mandarin on the screen is considerably different than his comic-book counterpart, which I think even most comics fans will agree is a good thing.


The Mandarin first appeared in 1964, a mysterious figure in the mountains of China who was feared even by the Chinese government. Iron Man was dispatched by the U.S. military to gather information on this threat, because in those days anti-Communism was a major part of the strip, and Iron Man was very much a Cold Warrior. The Mandarin, it turned out, had 10 rings, each with a different super-power (which seemed to change with plot necessities), that were later explained to have come from a crashed alien spaceship. He could also, implausibly, shatter steel (and occasionally Iron Man’s armor) with karate chops!


A charitable reading of this character is that co-creators Stan Lee and Don Heck were going for a contrast with Tony Stark. You know, East vs. West, Asian martial arts vs. American technology, Tony Stark’s thin David Niven mustache vs. The Mandarin’s long Charlie Chan-style face fuzz.


Less charitably, The Mandarin’s roots are planted deep in ugly American bigotry, nativism and xenophobia. He was, in 1964, simply the latest iteration of a phenomenon known as “The Yellow Peril,” a Western hysteria with a long pop culture history snaking back through comics and pulp fiction to novels and stories of the 19th century.


TheYellow Peril more or less began in the late 1800s, with an influx of Chinese, Korean and Japanese immigrants on the West Coast. In those days, of course, the superiority of the white man was a given in Western culture, and racism against non-whites was common and casual. But the fear of “yellow” people had some unique aspects: The huge populations of China and Japan gave rise to worries about Asians overwhelming Western powers by sheer numbers; the men were often depicted as sexual deviants, while the women were irresistible sirens; and the mysterious East was depicted as full of strange gods and decadent drugs that would undermine the West’s Christian morality.


This wasn’t fringe-y stuff. The U.S. Congress passed a number of laws from the late 1800s through the 1920s to limit or hobble Asian immigration, such as the “Chinese Exclusion Act” of 1882. Jack London – yes, “Call of the Wild” Jack London – wrote “The Unparalleled Invasion” in 1914, a science fiction story set in 1976 where the West wipes out the entire population of China with biological warfare (anthrax, Black Plague, etc.), and that is considered a triumph. Buck Rogers began in 1928 as a strip about resistance to America’s cruel Chinese overlords in the year 2419. Other big names, ranging from Robert Heinlein to H.P. Lovecraft, spun horror stories about Asian cultures conquering the world. British writer M.P. Shiel began a series of novels in 1898 that was actually titled “The Yellow Peril.”


This sort of thing probably hit its high point with Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu stories, a series that began in 1913 and produced not only novels but a host of movies. Fu Manchu, the “devil doctor,” was the epitome of Western fears. He was brilliant, fusing science, sorcery and bizarre medicine. He was physically unsettling, having “feline grace” but the “face of Satan” – and a mustache that will forever bear his name. He had an army of ninja-like assassins called Si-Fan who would throw their lives away heedless for their master, for whom human life meant nothing. Only the relentless efforts of the British secret service kept the insidious Eastern menace for completing his awful, complicated schemes!


Fu Manchu, with his sibilant speech, eponymous mustache and long fingernails, is so well-known that he is essentially the model for all subsequent “Yellow Peril” characters. And there have been many in various media, including Flash Gordon’s Ming the Merciless, Jonny Quest’s Dr. Zin and James Bond’s Dr. No. A running gag in “Get Smart” was that the villain named “The Claw” had such a thick Chinese accent that everyone thought his name was “The Craw.”


But nowhere are Fu Manchu wannabes as thick on the ground as they are in comics. They include Sen Yoi, who appeared on the cover of DC’s “Detective Comics” #1 in 1937, a magazine which gave us the actual Fu Manchu in issue #17 (and where Batman debuted in issue #27). Another “The Claw” – who could grow to gigantic height and shoot lightning from his hands – debuted in Lev Gleason’s “Silver Streak” comics, and became the arch-nemesis of the original Daredevil, who predated the one at Marvel Comics. Speaking of Marvel, that publisher introduced the Yellow Claw in the 1950s, but also – perhaps indicating changing times – heroic Asian-American FBI agent Jimmy Woo. Marvel also established the original Fu Manchu as the father of superhero Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu, until they lost the Sax Rohmer license, and now Shang-Chi’s father is simply “The Doctor.” 


And Marvel gave us The Mandarin. A Chinese mastermind with long fingernails and longer mustache, he was just another Fu Manchu clone for years. Marvel has tried updating him now and again to excise the racism element (and make him more relevant), but since that’s the core of the character, it never really works.


But the makers of Iron Man 3 came up with a unique solution to this dilemma. Will it work? I don’t know, but for my money The Mandarin should be retired.


Because Fu Manchu called, and he wants his mustache back.


Contact Captain Comics at For more on Iron Man 3, GO TO THIS THREAD.


Views: 2118

Comment by Mark S. Ogilvie on May 11, 2013 at 5:28pm
I never thought of Ming as an Asian and I remember the Fu Manchu movies Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee played him, with Myrna Loy as Karloff's daughter. She was always a major part of the stories.

Some villain concepts just don't translate well out of their era. I've been reading the Wonder Woman chronicles and the only villain who I think really transfers well is Dr. Psycho.
Comment by Philip Portelli on May 11, 2013 at 6:44pm

The original Captain Marvel fought Captain Nippo from Nagasaki who was part of the Monster Society of Evil.

Wonder Woman battled Doctor Poison who later became part of Villainy, Incorporated.

As for the Mandarin, I was assembling questions for a "I Was Wondering" Iron Man entry and he was a major part so

"Why would a Chinese warlord known to all wear a mask? And why would he put a big "M" on his chest? And karate chop Iron Man's armor? Really?"

I found it a bit heartening that the Chinese feared their Lord of the Rings.

Still, he was the main villain of Avengers Annual #1, one of my favorites!


Comment by Mark S. Ogilvie on May 11, 2013 at 8:23pm
I missed that, What did he do in that issue?
Comment by Emerkeith Davyjack on May 11, 2013 at 8:25pm

...I thought for a long time that Ra'sA Guhl was meant to be " an Oriental " in thatsense , Chinese - But I don't have my earlier issus anymore  I have also thought that Marvel should have a storyline where , with some COIE-type time/continuity implant , The (Yellow) Claw inserts himself into the role of Shang-Chi's father , leaving basically everyone in the world simly knowing him as Daddy S-C/the evil genius who did what , before , Fu Manchu did - though Shang-Chi himself would remember that his original father was someone else , and that the Claw inserted himself into that role !

Comment by Captain Comics on May 11, 2013 at 9:32pm

Wait, Mark -- you didn't THIS guy was supposed to be Asian? (That's a photo of Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe). I promise you, he's supposed to press the "scary Oriental" button.

As to what Mandarin did in the first Avengers Annual -- one of my favorites as well -- is he played "Master Planner" and gathered many of the Avengers' greatest foes for some complicated scheme to conquer the world using diamonds. Virtually all of the Avengers of the time were assembled, which is was a total of nine. (Ah, the good old days.) They were alerted to the threat by Iron Man, who fought the Living Laser to a standstill and then was basically benched.

Goliath and Wasp battled Power Man (the white one) and Swordsman in South America, Hercules and Scarlet Witch battled Executioner and Enchantress in "Southeast Asia," Thor and Hawkeye battled Ultimo and Living Laser in Africa, while Captain America and Quicksilver bearded The Mandarin in his den (which was a space station). The latter two basically stalled for time while the rest of the team arrived and ganged up on The Mandarin.

And a great time was had by all!

Comment by Kirk G on May 11, 2013 at 11:42pm

I enjoyed your commentary on the Mandarin.  However, I have always found that every time I try to read the first Avengers Annual, it doesn't makes sense to me. (But I've also been told that it was patterned after how DC used to do the JLA stories, so I guess I don't 'get it'.  LOL)

Comment by Commander Benson on May 12, 2013 at 6:50am

"However, I have always found that every time I try to read the first Avengers Annual, it doesn't makes sense to me. (But I've also been told that it was patterned after how DC used to do the JLA stories, so I guess I don't 'get it'.  LOL)


I covered just that very thing a few years back.


You might find it helpful, at least as far as the similarities to the early Fox JLA stories.



Comment by Mark S. Ogilvie on May 12, 2013 at 7:23am
Well I didn't think of it that way when I saw the series Cap, Perhaps I was too young and I just never saw it. Also the actor who played Ming didn't look at all Asian to me and his English was perfect. Not at all like Karloff's Fu Manchu and I hadn't seen Chistopher Lee as Fu Manchu yet.

Reminds me though, Peter Seller's did a nice send up of the Fu Manchu movies before he died.
Comment by Figserello on May 12, 2013 at 7:57am

Ming is from Mongo, not Manchuria, therefore how can he be a derogatory stereotype of any Earth people? LOL

(Mongo/Mongolia. Now I get it)

Comment by Philip Portelli on May 12, 2013 at 8:42am

When DC (and Dan Jurgens) did Flash Gordon in 1988, they altered Ming by giving him grayish skin. It actually made him look more Middle Eastern than Asian. Changing Perils it seems!


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