This is an extremely loose thematic adaptation of “The Dancing Men” (a criminal past issuing threats via coded drawings), with a touch of The Valley of Fear (the book cipher and secret gang tattoos) and a possible case for echoes of The Sign of Four (climbing murderers, stolen foreign treasures, Watson distracted by a love interest). Importantly, all three stories offer some version of a particularly British fear of the racial or cultural other – threats from outside are respectively Chicago gangs, American Freemasons and Indian convicts employing an Andaman islander with a blowpipe – which has been translated, in Stephen Thompson’s rather problematical hands, into the heavily stereotyped threat – exotic, inscrutable, Oriental, criminally degenerate – of the Chinese Tong.
The generic intertexts of this episode are firmly in the field of melodrama, and I am irresistibly reminded of the very specific melodrama represented by early 20th-century pulp literature and popular film focusing on Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu character. The insidious Fu Manchu was a long-running villain, a Chinese mastermind behind every kind of crime associated in the popular imagination with Limehouse and its Chinese population. Against the threat of secret societies peopled by “lesser” races is placed the stalwart Western detective figure of Nayland Smith, thwarting the underworld denizens through bravery and brawn.
Apart from their rampant melodrama these novels were associated with the most stereotypical and reductionist images of Chinese culture – as you can see from the covers above, shadow puppetry, dragons and monsters are accompanied by objectified female figures in exotic clothes, and by signifiers of “Chineseness” such as Fu Manchu’s long fingernails, moustache and soaring eyebrows. In the TV series intro, below, a similar reductionism is seen in musical cues (gongs, non-Western tonal qualities) as well as visual elements such as the Chinese pottery, elaborate head-dresses and faux-Oriental font.
More modern versions of Fu Manchu, in terms of the stereotype he represents, still exist; good examples are Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon (left, below) and the Mandarin, most recently seen in the third Iron Man film (right, below. Marvel’s contemporary version of the comic-book Mandarin at least has the grace to self-consciously deconstruct an extremely outdated concept). You can see the visual echoes between the three versions of Chinese villain – all three have the high-collar tunic and beard, and Ming entirely adopts Fu Manchu’s beard, moustache and winged eyebrows.
This kind of representation can be usefully understood through the lens of Edward Said’s critical work on Orientalism, which is an important early thread in postcolonial studies. (Useful primers can be found here and here. Said’s writing conceptualises Orientalism as a constellation of particular assumptions about the East made from within Western culture, but more importantly constructed in contrast to Western culture – that is, the East is seen as not only essentially different (other, exotic) but also necessarily inferior (degenerate, criminal, primitive, uncultured, superstitious, etc). In addition to these stereotypes, Orientalist viewpoints tend to homogenise Eastern cultures and treat them as a single, undifferentiated, “Eastern” culture.
All this is relevant to Thompson’s script for “The Blind Banker” because, frankly, his evil Tong hordes, Chinese circus, acrobatic Chinese cat-burglar and priceless jade hair-pin are howling stereotypes which may just as well have come straight out of Fu Manchu. You’ll note that the sabre-wielding intruder who Sherlock battles early in the episode is some indeterminate “other” race – Indian or Arabic? it’s unclear – which conforms to Said’s notion of the homogeneity of “other” cultures under the orientalist gaze. (Origami will also be identified as Japanese rather than Chinese by the average Western viewer, and the lotus design seems more Japanese than Chinese). The character of Soo Lin Yao is also an embodiment of the silhouetted, exotic female of the Fu Manchu covers; while she doesn’t dance, she is associated with the ancient Chinese teapots she tends, and is in fact described in the script as a “China doll” – like her teapots, she is “made to be touched”, an object rather than a subjectivity. I am also interested in the re-imagining of the dancing men code as graffiti, which has all of the connotations of criminality which Said identifies in the Orientalist gaze.
The episode is self-consciously melodramatic, and the infusion of melodrama into the modern Sherlock universe is entertaining; it serves as a nice contrast with the more cerebral aspect of Sherlock himself at the same time as it seems consonant with his drama-queen aspects. The thread of melodrama is of course highly visual; Doyle’s own stories are seldom quite this melodramatic, Freemason villains notwithstanding, and his non-British villains, while often stereotypical, are not drawn in quite such exaggerated terms. It is thus a pity that the Orientalist elements of this episode should be quite so uncritically deployed, an instance where the “updated” Sherlock is actually regressive. A hundred years later we should really be better than that.