One hundred years ago, a character made his first appearance in the world of literature who was to enter the bloodstream of 20th-century popular culture, and in his day became as well known as Count Dracula or Sherlock Holmes: the evil genius Dr Fu Manchu, otherwise known as ‘the yellow peril incarnate in one man’.
Why did the idea that the Chinese were a threat to Western civilization develop at precisely the time when that country was in chaos, divided against itself, a victim of successive famines and utterly incapable of being a `peril’ to anyone even if it had wanted to be?
How did it become so firmly rooted that, in the 21st century, stereotypes of bugs put in computers, pollution released into the atmosphere and unfair currency manipulations continue to distort our image of people who, even the author of the Dr Fu Manchu novels, Sax Rohmer, acknowledged, `as a nation possess that elusive thing, poise’.
And what do the Chinese themselves make of all this? Is it any wonder that they remember what we have carelessly forgotten of the opium wars; the `unfair treaties’ that ceded Hong Kong and the New Territories; the slash-and-burn behaviour of troops as `punishment’ for the Boxer Rebellion; and the stereotyping of Chinese people in allegedly `factual’ studies?
In a book that will prove as influential as the Orientalism of Edward Said, if we want to understand our deepest desires and fears.