While the announcement over the weekend of Marvel's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was largely well-received, like the rest of the studio's Phase Four slate, a significant number of users on China's leading social media platform Weibo are notably less enthusiastic about the film.
As reported by Quartzy, many users have decried the kung fu superhero as little more than a cheap pastiche of East Asian culture capitalizing on America's burgeoning interest in martial arts cinema in the 1970s, led by a wave of films starring Bruce Lee. Introduced by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin in 1973's Marvel Special Edition #15, Shang-Chi was originally planned as an adaptation of the popular television series Kung Fu, starring David Carradine. Denied the license, Marvel Comics instead acquired the rights to pulp literary villain Fu Manchu and decided to create the new superhero to be his son, who rebels against his father's evil legacy.
The success of Shang-Chi's debut led to the character starring in his own solo series, and the introduction of more martial arts superheroes, including Iron Fist and Colleen Wing. After Marvel's license for Fu Manchu expired, the adversarial legacy of the character was largely dropped from Shang-Chi's stories.
An offensive caricature of East Asian figures, Fu Manchu served as the poster boy for the "yellow peril," a xenophobic hysteria targeting Asians arriving in the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Fu Manchu was traditionally portrayed as less than human, with long fingernails and facial hair, with a pale or visibly yellowed complexion, as he plotted to eradicate Caucasian men and steal their women for his own nefarious purposes. The character has since largely been decried by Asian-American communities as a wholly offensive stereotype and dropped from mainstream popular culture.
Weibo users note the film's plans to pit Shang-Chi against the Mandarin instead of Fu Manchu swaps out one offensive Chinese stereotype for another. The Mandarin was similarly depicted as an East Asian caricature representing the communist Chinese menace when he originally appeared as an Iron Man villain. This complaint is compounded by Weibo users observing that popular Hong Kong actor Tony Leung has been cast as the Mandarin, while Shang-Chi actor Simu Liu is Canadian, rather than a Chinese citizen.
While Shang-Chi is certainly a product of his time, created during the North American martial arts craze to take advantage of Marvel's Fu Manchu license, the character has been updated to better reflect modern sensibilities and a growing awareness of offensive stereotypes. Originally depicted with a bright golden coloration due to his Chinese-English heritage, later illustrators gave Shang-Chi a more natural complexion; more stereotypical tendencies of the character's cultural background were downplayed as further respect was paid to his Chinese roots.
As for Fu Manchu, writer Ed Brubaker later retconned Shang-Chi's father as Zheng Zhu, who used the earlier moniker to further conceal his identity. As an additional means to end Marvel's association with the racist character, Brubaker had the Avengers and Moon Knight confront Zheng Zhu and his allies in the Shadow Council to destroy Shang-Chi's father seemingly for good. With that, the superhero was finally able to move beyond his father's fiendish legacy.
Shang-Chi has complicated origins, obviously. Originally a cash-in on the popularity of martial arts films, with a villainous father who was the literal embodiment of the yellow peril, the character led a new wave of comic book heroes even as he beyond those stereotypical early depictions. While concerns about the film expressed on Chinese social media are certainly well-founded, hopefully Marvel Studios will observe hard-learned lessons from insensitive cultural portrayals in the character's past to give the MCU's first Asian superhero on the big screen the respect Chinese culture deserves.
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings stars Simu Liu as Shang-Chi, Tony Leung as the Mandarin and Awkwafina. The film arrives Feb. 12, 2021.