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5 Ways to Make a Shang-Chi Movie Less Racist

Late last year it was revealed that Marvel Studios is "fast-tracking" a movie about Shang-Chi and making the first Marvel movie to have a lead Asian character. It's pretty awesome and could change the face of Asian representation in American films.

The only problem is that Shang-Chi is racist. Very racist. So racist that Chinese people are already talking about boycotting the film. I'm a huge fan of the character but there are some improvements that would make him even better.

First, I'll talk about the history of Shang-Chi. Then I'll talk about how Shang-Chi was born out of the "yellow peril" era. Finally, I'll talk about what Marvel needs to do to make a movie that can honor the comic books without passing on the cultural legacies and stereotypes. All it takes is a few tweaks to his background.

Who is Shang-Chi?

Shang-Chi is known as the "master of Kung-Fu" and the Marvel Universe's greatest open-handed fighter. He first appears in the 1970s and debuted in 1973's Special Marvel Edition #15. He was created by the legendary Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin who also created Thanos.

Back in the 70s martial arts were incredibly popular and everyone was kung-fu fighting. Marvel approached Warner Bros about making a comic adaptation of the wildly popular martial arts television series Kung Fu. The deal fell apart probably because Warner also owned a comic book company named DC Comics which is Marvel's biggest rival ("Hey, Pepsi. Coke here. Can I make a soda based on Diet Pepsi and compete against you?" "...No.")

Not willing to give up on all that sweet martial arts money they decided to go a different route and by the rights to an old pulp novel villain known as Dr. Fu Manchu. They got the rights to several characters from the Sax Rohmer estate and made Shang-Chi his never-revealed son.

Manchu genetically selected a white American woman to bear him a son. He raised Shang-Chi in isolation to become a master assassin.

Later Shang-Chi would learn his father was the evilest man on the planet and devoted himself to stop his plans for world domination.

The character's popularity exploded and he quickly became the most popular Asian character in Marvel history. Shang-Chi would later work for the British spy agency MI-6, join Misty Knight in her "Heroes for Hire" team and become an Avenger. He's a master of unarmed combat but decades later gets the ability to create limitless duplicates of himself.

All pretty awesome but here's where the problems come in.

1. The Problem with Fu Manchu

How to Fix It: Get Rid of Fu Manchu.

Marvel chose to use Fu Manchu and that's a huge problem. First appearing in the 1913 novel The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu he's literally the face of the Asian stereotype. The book covers are where we got the name "Fu Manchu mustache". The inscrutable Chinese menace with plans to rule the world was the basis for things like the Japanese Internment camps. Nicknamed the "Yellow Peril" Rohmer rode the popularity of the idea that Asian people were out to destroy all white people.

The 1930s movies starring a white actor were so culturally insensitive that the Chinese embassy wrote a letter of protest. Still, the popularity of Fun Manchu remained and countless characters are based on him. In fact, Marvel's villain The Mandarin is based on Fu Manchu and they wisely got rid of the Asian influences for Iron Man 3.

South China American Post ran an article with the title "Marvel ‘insults China’ by making its first Asian superhero film about Shang-Chi, a son of Fu Manchu". It quoted several Weibo users complaining about the character strictly on the basis of his connection to Dr. Fu Manchu.

"You used Fu Manchu to insult China back in the day, now you are using Fu’s son to earn Chinese people’s money, how smart," one user quipped. "It’s common in American comics that a superhero is the son or daughter of an evil villain, but the problem is Fu Manchu has already become a symbol of discrimination against the Chinese. There are many other Asian characters they could choose from but they had to choose this, it’s no wonder they are being criticised [sic]," another said.

After Marvel lost the rights to Fu Manchu and the characters they retconned Shang-Chi's father to be an ancient Emporer named Zheng Zhu. In 2010's Secret Avengers #6-10 by Ed Brubaker, they discovered Fu Manchu was just an alias and uncovered his real name.

This is what Marvel needs to do right from the start. Don't mention Fu Manchu and get rid of the mustache. Made Shang-Chi's father a new character that sheds the inherent racism of the character.

I'm not implying that Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin intentionally created Shang-Chi to be racist. But they, unfortunately, got caught up in the institutional racism of the time.

Variety says that the writer Dave Callaham is "writing the script that will ultimately modernize the Shang-Chi story and character arc". Hopefully, that includes getting rid of Fu Manchu.

Update: Done. They've changed Shang-Chi's father to the Mandarin

2. He's a Kung-Fu Master

How to Fix It: Focus on his superpowers

Shang-Chi is Chinese. So, of course, he knows kung fu. The stereotype of the martial arts master is deeply ingrained in Asian portrayals in the media. Most of the time when there's a fight scene the Asians use karate even if no one else does.

Marvel decides to create a movie focusing on their first Asian superhero and, BINGO! He's a kung-fu master! It's hard to make up a story like that.

It's kind of like if Black Panther, the first Marvel movie focussed on a black man, was about a South Central gangbanger who gets his powers from eating fried chicken. Or if Marvel's first lead Latina actor was a superpowered maid. Or if the first Jewish superhero was a lawyer who also did the accounting. It's inherently racist.

They could have avoided this by using one of their other great Asian superheroes I listed like Sunfire or Ms. Marvel. But here we are. So what to do about it?

Let's look at Fox's portrayal of Blob (Kevin Durand) in X-Men Origins: Wolverine as an example. My brother, Nigel, pointed out Blob's power in the comics is that he's fat. So fat that he can't be moved and his super-fatness keeps him from being hurt. To avoid "fat-shaming" they changed it. First, they showed Fred Dukes' superpowers of strength and invulnerability. Then, they show that he turned really fat.

They can do the same thing with Shang-Chi. First, show that he has mastered his emotions to give him superhuman control of them. Then add that he has the ability to create duplicates of himself. Finally, show that he learns martial arts to harness his natural abilities and powers. It takes the focus away from his superpower of being really, really Chinese.

3. Shang-Chi's Not Chinese

How to Fix it: Make his parents Chinese

Shang-Chi's character embraces his Chinese heritage and is very proud to be Asian. The early comics focus on the hatred of the Chinese that lingered after World War II and Shang-Chi always fought to change that. But people called him every chop-socky name in the book. Even his best friend Black Jack Tarr called him a "chinaman" and it wasn't until the mid-2010s that Shang-Chi told him to stop calling him that.

So, yes. It's a step in the right direction that Shang-Chi is going to portray the cultural heritage of China, but it's also a problem because he's not Chinese.

First off, he's the son of a Chinese man and a white American. So he's half Chinese. I'm not going to imply that someone is only Asian if they're pureblood. But it does make a difference.

Imagine if Marvel's first black superhero movie starred an American who was half white. Would people have a problem with it? You bet. And rightfully so. There's a real intention to bring the African experience to the movie. Biracial actress Amandla Stenberg (The Hate You Give) dropped out of the Balck Panther movie. She felt it would be wrong to have a bi-racial light-skinned woman in the role and felt there are spaces she "should not take up". 

Plus, in the comics, Shang-Chi is raised in a palace designed to emulate ancient China. But he's still a native-born American. So if Marvel did a literal translation from the comics Shang-Chi would be a biracial Chinese-American. Again, I'm not knocking Asians for not being born in Asia, but it would be more impactful if Shang-Chi were.

But Marvel could go the other way and make him a man born of two Chinese parents who is born in China and emigrates to America.

Director Destin Daniel Cretton is half-white and half-Japanese, but he can find a way to balance the portrayal of Shang-Chi.

4. The White Savior Trope

How to Fix It: Make Shang-Chi Chinese and not dependant on white people

In many, many films  (too many to name) focusing on ethnic people, there's a white man (or woman) that helps them reach their potential. It's so common that the term "White Savior" was coined. The biggest criticism of Iron Fist is that it was another example.

A white man, Danny Rand (Finn Jones), travels into the world of Asian people and becomes the greatest martial artist of all. Yes, it's based on comic books. but the comics were an attempt to capitalize on young white kids that ran around with plastic nunchucks dreaming of becoming a master kung fu artist.

Fans begged Marvel to change it and create a new narrative for the character. Instead, they made it worse by having Danny "mansplain" Asian culture and heritage to an Asian martial arts teacher named Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick). It didn't help that Jones took to Twitter to explain the "socially progressive story" that appeared to support people's complaints about white privilege.

Doctor Strange is another example since he's a white man who becomes a master sorcerer after learning the secrets from ancient Tibetan monks.

Not even talking about portrayals of Asians by white men like David Carradine (Kung Fu) there's a real feeling that white people won't accept a story that focuses on an ethnic character. Black Panther proved that narrative false. But the reality is that Shang-Chi is a half-white character. People could rightfully argue it's another example of the trope. The whole topic is emotionally charged and complex and Shang-Chi doesn't need the discussion to distract from the film. Here's how to fix it.

Going back to my last point: make Shang-Chi fully Chinese. Not only that but make sure he's not surrounded by white characters helping him succeed. Have him win or lose based on his own merits.

5. Shang-Chi's Subservient

How to Fix It: Make him a rebellious loner
In the early stories of Shang-Chi, he is dependant on those around him to navigate the world. That's because he had never been in the real world before. He needed guides. But there is also the stereotype of the submission Asian. In fights, he would dominate, but he always bowed to others in social situations.

This was a common stereotype of orientals until Bruce Lee came along. He was a strong, sexy leading man and no one had ever seen anything like him. Behind the scenes, he fought against the media stereotypes and intentionally only took roles that challenged perceptions.

Star Trek's Mr. Sulu (George Takei) was another character that broke boundaries. When Sulu went crazy he didn't start karate chopping people. He picked up a sword and started fencing. Today movies like Crazy, Rich Asians and shows like Fresh Off the Boat are changing perceptions of Asian culture.

What about the Marvel Cinematic Universe? There are Asian characters but, aside from Agent May on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., most play a secondary role. Wong in Doctor Strange is basically a servant for the white man. It's getting better but has a long way to go.

More recent portrayals of Shang-Chi make him more rebellious and less dependent on others. Most recently the Avengers rely on his ninja skills to make him a covert operative and a loner. That's the way Marvel should go. Break the mold and make him a loner not dependant on anyone. It worked for Captain Marvel.

Plus, his back story is rich for internal conflict. Early stories show him struggling with his love and hatred of his father. He was raised by this man to be a killer against his will. play on that and show him angry at the world but determined to make things right.

What if Marvel Doesn't Get Shang-Chi Right? 

China is a huge market for Hollywood. If they offend that market they can kiss blockbuster status goodbye. Plus, Marvel's status as a diversity trend-setting studio with movies like Black Panther and Captain Marvel will fade away.

So Marvel, please get Shang-Chi right. Get rid of Fu Manchu, don't focus on his martial arts and make him a tough loner. He deserves it.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)

About Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)

Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
"Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" stars Awkwafina, Simu Liu, Tony Chiu-Wai Leung
"Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" is scheduled for release February 12, 2021 (United States)
Check back with the Geek Twins for more Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings movie news and hype!

What do you think? Is Shang-Chi a racist character? Can the movie show Shang-Chi without being culturally incentive? Let us know in the comments below!
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