Shang-Chi in Marvel Comics: From Racist Caricature to Honorable Kung Fu Master
America in the 1970s was a time of cultural ferment. In the wake of the Summer of Love, a few years removed from the Civil Rights Act, and smack dab in the middle of the Vietnam War, the country was welcoming new expressive voices through a variety of mediums. One of the hottest trends at the time was Kung Fu.
There was the David Carradine-starring ABC series, Kung Fu. There was, of course, Bruce Lee’s 1973 masterpiece Enter the Dragon. And then there was The Hands of Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu. Anybody remember that one? I thought not. Published from 1974 to 1983, the comic book series was Marvel’s entrance into the kung fu craze sweeping America.
Who Is Shang-Chi in Marvel Comics?
Born in Henan, China, Shang-Chi is a true kung fu protoge. The son of an American mother and a notorious martial arts master, Dr. Fu Manchu, Shang-Chi was literally born to kick ass. The character is a product of the age and ticks every Asian male stereotype of the day. He’s drawn in a mustard yellow, a color that is unrecognizable to actual human beings.
He is a relatively lifeless robot, prancing around the streets, shoeless, mindlessly using his prodigious kung fu skills to do the bidding of others. In Master of Kung Fu, Shang-Chi is the ultimate weapon; a subservient tool with unmatched ability and power. This is about as much depth as Marvel was willing to grant an Asian protagonist in the 1970s.
Unlike Father, Unlike Son
Shang-Chi was the son of Dr. Fu Manchu (also known as Chinese sorcerer Zheng Zu), a notorious villain with his sights set on conquering the world. Shang-Chi lives in the shadow of his father; when he realizes his evil intentions, he becomes set on destroying him.
“The most insidiously evil man on Earth,” is how Shang-Chi himself describes Fu Manchu in Master of Kung Fu, adding: “to honor him would bring nothing but dishonor to the spirit of my name.” Once Shang-Chi divines the true nature and evil of his father, he begins hell-bent on dismantling his criminal network in order to take him down.
To do this, he allies with Sir Denis Nayland Smith. A British secret agent of MI-6, and Fu Manchu’s longtime nemesis. This is how the rest of the series plays out. Shang-Chi, Smith, and several other MI-6 agents spend their days thwarting Fu Manchu. The titular Shang-Chi is almost always in the background, playing second fiddle to a roving cast of more fleshed-out characters.
Shang-Chi in Marvel Comics Returns
After a string of other one-off appearances in the 1970s and 1980s, Shang-Chi was brought back to the comics as a minor character in Secret Avengers, which debuted in 2010. Centered around a black-ops offshoot of the Avengers, the series resurrects several original members of the superhero dream team and adds several others. Captain Steve Rogers leads the squad.
Shang-Chi is featured as a sort of honorary member of the Secret Avengers, recruited to assist in specific missions. Steve Rogers enlists Shang-Chi to help him defeat his father, who is seeking to capture his son in order to fully resurrect his half-living soul. As the sacrifice gets underway, the Secret Avengers rescue Shang-Chi while killing his father once and for all.
In 2020, the character was born again. Written and drawn by Asian-Americans, Shang-Chi in Marvel Comics portrays the kung fu master in a new light. This run of comics – which is still ongoing – puts Shang-Chi front and center, fleshing him out while scrubbing away the Asian stereotypes that dragged the series in its earlier renditions.
Shang-Chi is the Supreme Commander of the Five Weapons Society, a martial arts organization that used to be under the command of his father. Headquartered in New York City’s Chinatown, the Five Weapons Society is now out to rid the world of wrongdoers, and to purge any remaining influence of Zheng Zu (the racist Fu Manchu has rightly been erased from the series).
Writer Gene Lueng Yang pairs Shang-Chi with Spider-Man to take down a cartel led by King Wild Man. The series frames Shang-Chi as an equal to other beloved Marvel heroes, righting the character’s past as a man living in the shadow of “greater” men. The series also continues Shang-Chi’s complex family dynamics, pitting him against his half-sister, Zheng Zhilan.
The Mandarin and the Ten Rings
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has previously toyed with two other Chinese-inspired Marvel comics elements that have little connection to Shang-Chi’s arc: the Mandarin and the Ten Rings. But as both of these have at least a nominal connection to the 2021 film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, they are worth exploring.
First appearing in the 1964 comic Tales of Suspense, the Mandarin is first depicted as a hardscrabble exile, a victim of exploiters and abandonment. But the Mandarin would soon rise to achieve unparalleled power. Hiding in a cave in the forbidden Valley of Spirits, the Mandarin discovers the remains of an alien ship.
Hidden in the aircraft’s engine are ten mysterious rings, each of which contained the energy of epic warriors. The Mandarin makes it his mission to not only possess all ten rings but to master their powers.
Shang-Chi in the MCU
On September 4, Shang-Chi made his MCU debut in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Aside from the titular character’s masterful kung fu ability, and a complicated father-son relationship (though the film’s father has no connection to Zheng Zu), the film is untethered to the comic’s Shang-Chi.
Written and directed by Asian-Americans, and starring an almost entirely Asian cast, the film is designed to re-center Shang-Chi and to completely separate him from the racist tropes that dominate his comics run until recent years. The character’s relatively unknown stature even to Marvel comics fans allows the MCU to start with a blank slate.
What are you most excited about in the film? Did you enjoy the Shang-Chi comics? Let us know in the comments below!