Shang-Chi Won’t Fix Iron Fist’s Racist Origins

So here I am again, talking about Iron Fist, only this time with much less righteous fury and much more frustrated reluctance.

The first time around, when I reported on the Finn Jones casting news, I received strong opposition on my personal Facebook and Twitter. One commentor told me I needed to “check [my] privilege” because “not everything is racist.”

As a writer you have to prepare yourself for these things, the potential of a few moderately snarky or outright aggressive comments. There’s always that fear, however, that these comments could quickly turn into a storm of full blown online harassment. I, channeling this fear, closed down my Twitter for a week and turned off all notifications on my Facebook. I was tired, exhausted even, of dealing with the same repeated arguments made by fans seemingly refusing to listen to fans of color—specifically Asian American fans—on the various, and thoroughly outlined, reasons why casting Finn Jones, a white man, as Danny Rand was upsetting and problematic.

The argument breaks down to this: since all Shang-Chi is is an indiscriminate Asian man who does martial arts, he and Iron Fist would be interchangeable if they were both Asian men who do martial arts.

A favourite arguing point for some fans is the fact that the Marvel comics already have an Asian martial artist—Shang-Chi. Shang-Chi’s very existence meant that Danny Rand should remain white. Rumors (now apparently disproven) of Shang-Chi appearing in Iron Fist seemed to offer further support to these fans. To them, Iron Fist has to be white because he’s an outsider, and besides there’s already a pre-existing Asian kung-fu character within Marvel Comics.

The argument breaks down to this: since all Shang-Chi is is an indiscriminate Asian man who does martial arts, he and Iron Fist would be interchangeable if they were both Asian men who do martial arts. Even though Danny Rand chose to become an Iron Fist, while Shang-Chi was forcibly raised to be a martial artist by his crimelord father. Even though Shang-Chi was forced to become an assassin, subjected to various forms of magics to enhance his skills, and eventually broke away from his father’s influence. Even though Shang-Chi survived brainwashing at the hands of someone he trusted, and actively made the choice to stop being a killer for hire and instead became a hero for hire. Even though he has more in common with Bucky Barnes than Danny Rand or the Iron Fist mythology, his Asian heritage somehow negates all the arguments for an Asian American Iron Fist.

Cover by: Mike Mignola, and Ron Wilson

Shang-Chi and Iron Fist aren’t interchangeable characters that can be swapped out for one another. The similarities between them are shallow at best, and carry an undertone of racism at worst. An Asian American Iron Fist, and Shang-Chi can exist within the same universe, but apparently the thought of having two Asian men in one franchise is too much for some people.

Lets reiterate, Shang-Chi and Iron Fist are not interchangeable. They both use martial arts to fight, they were both developed during the kung-fu/blaxploitation movie era, and they have shared space on various teams (Heroes for Hire, Avengers). That is, more or less, where their basic similarities begin and end. Shang-Chi shouldn’t be treated as a quick and easy “get out of racism jail” free card. His existence does not change the more problematic aspects of Iron Fist. Suggesting that does a disservice to him as a character.

Furthermore, interchanging one “Asian” nationality for another showcases ignorance about the vast differences between various cultures and people that reside in Asia. When Westerners think of “Asia” they think, Chinese, Japanese, Korean—maybe Filipino and Taiwanese—and typically people that look like Daniel Dae Kim, John Cho, Michelle Yeoh, and Tao Okamoto. We as a predominantly western audience think of anime, manga, Naruto, K-Pop, Jackie Chan, and Bruce Lee when the conversation of what is “Asian” arises. We also think of exotic places, dragons, geisha’s, samurai, kung-fu, opium, and other stereotypical elements of East Asian culture. There’s no real means of differentiation, and very little representation of other Asian cultures and peoples.

The more I think about how fans have repeatedly brought up Shang-Chi in defense of casting a white Iron Fist, the more I realize what another wasted opportunity Marvel and Netflix this was.

Given that K’un-Lun is located in the Himalayas, which is home to various different cultures, this could have been a chance to showcase different Asian cultures, and not through the eyes of a white man but through the eyes of another Asian person. Marvel could be telling a story about an Asian American character, if they wanted to keep the outsider aspects of Danny Rand, connecting with their and other Asian cultures and people. Iron Fist could have been a showcase of the diversity that exists within Asia, through the specific lens of a character that is of Asian descent. Or Danny could have been a young son of a second-generation Chinese immigrant who left K’un-Lun due to being kicked out by his jealous evil brother—which is what happened to Danny’s father, a white man, who was kicked out of K’un-Lun by his foster brother Nu-An.

Yellow Peril written by Richard Jaccoma (1980)

The racist implications of an evil Asian man banishing the heroic white man out of jealousy and spite aren’t lost on me. Having Shang-Chi exist, in or out of Iron Fist, doesn’t change any of these elements within Danny Rand’s overall story. His father will still be a white man adopted by Tu-An the leader of K’un-Lun, raised in the city and treated with care and praise, while Nu-An falls into the Yellow Peril stereotype and becomes the antagonist. His son, Danny Rand, will eventually defeat all the other Asian men that practice at K’un-Lun and earn the title of Iron Fist. He’ll be one more white man who travels to an Asian country, and not only adapts to their culture, but excels beyond the native people at its martial arts. Danny Rand will follow the same patterns as Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, Snake Eyes (played by white British actor Ray Park) from G.I. Joe. Rise of Cobra, Woody Allen in Bananas, the many incarnations of Tarzan, and The Man Who Would Be King (starring Sean Connery, Michael Caine and Christopher Plummer as white men who become the Kings of Kafiristan a south Asian country), along with many others.

Shang-Chi existing, or even being included in Netflix’s Iron Fist, changes none of this. Shang-Chi doesn’t exist to erase the racist origins of Iron Fist, nor does he negate the racist history that Iron Fist continues to embody. Shang-Chi shouldn’t be used as a means to defend or justify the lack of further Asian representation in our media. Shang-Chi should exist alongside with an Asian Iron Fist. Not as a justification of a white Iron Fist. Strangely enough, media can and should have more than one Asian character in their lineup. Asians should be leads of their own stories, especially those that heavily involve or embody Asian culture.

Stop using Shang-Chi as justification for why it’s okay to have a white Iron Fist. Shang-Chi deserves better than that as a character. Asian fans deserve better than to have one of the few Asian characters in Marvel comics be trotted out only to justify the lack of inclusion and further marginalization of their cultures. Shang-Chi doesn’t exist to make a white Iron Fist acceptable.

The Immortal Iron Fist #22, cover by Patrick Zircher

As I write this I wonder if I’m setting myself up for further frustration and exhaustion. For more passive aggressiveness, condescension, or worse. After all, what’s the point of even discussing this subject anymore? Iron Fist is cast. It’s done. All we can do as fans is choose not to watch or further support the show.

But I feel that we can also continue to discuss the situation beyond the initial controversy. That we as fans, especially fans of color, can and will continue to discuss Iron Fist, cultural appropriation, whitewashing, and other related media issues even after the hashtags fade our of relevancy.

I’ll probably be staying off my Facebook for a while after this, but I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to continue discussing the overall issue with Iron Fist. Nor miss the chance to discuss how disparaging it is for defenders of white Iron Fist to use Shang-Chi as a justification of upholding media that is racist in origin, and contributes to racist tropes and media practices.

Shang-Chi is Shang-Chi, Iron Fist is Iron Fist, they aren’t interchangeable. Characters of color and people of color aren’t interchangeable. Shang-Chi is more than a convenient Asian kung-fu character to pull out when one wants to defend white Iron Fist. We could have had both. We could have had two different Asian characters to further Asian representation within the Marvel universe alongside Cambodian actress Elodie Yung (who plays Elektra). If Elektra can be played by a mixed-raced Asian woman, why can’t Iron Fist be played by an Asian American actor? Why can’t we have both an Asian Iron Fist, and Shang-Chi in one universe?

There’s no such thing as too many characters of color, and by updating characters created during time periods of heavy segregation we can expand our media by updating it to include more diverse characters. We can have the originals (Shang-Chi), update the older (Elektra, Iron Fist), and create new completely characters. There shouldn’t be a limit on diversifying our media, we can do it all.

Desiree Rodriguez

Desiree Rodriguez

Desiree Rodriguez is currently majoring in Converged Communications. She's a writer, geek girl, and proud queer mestiza woman. Desiree is an entertainment writer for The Tempest, and contributor for Nerds of Color. Desiree has written for The Young Folks, The Feminist Wire, and Geeked Out Nation.

4 thoughts on “Shang-Chi Won’t Fix Iron Fist’s Racist Origins

  1. The other factor that really cannot be ignored about Shang-Chi, vis-à-vis racist portrayals of East Asian characters is that his father was, explicitly, Fu Manchu. Yes, THAT Fu Manchu, the Sax Rohmer character who was the standard-bearer and principal model for “Yellow Peril” villains.

    In Shang-Chi’s modern appearances, Marvel has shied away from mentioning that point for legal reasons, but the original, long-running Master of Kung Fu series actually licensed Fu Manchu and his associated characters from Sax Rohmer’s estate and the entire series is predicated on Shang-Chi’s relationships with Fu; Fu’s daughter (Shang-Chi’s half-sister); his organization, the Si Fan; and Fu’s arch-nemesis, Neyland Smith, for whom Shang-Chi worked for much of the series.

    So, the assertion that Shang-Chi’s existence is somehow all the East Asian martial artist representation Marvel needs is particularly shocking. Writer Doug Moench worked very hard throughout the original series to make Shang-Chi himself a complex and nuanced character and to do the same with the book’s female lead, Leiko Wu (an original character not from Rohmer), but Shang-Chi remains inextricably bound to perhaps the single most toweringly racist East Asian character of the 20th century. It’s difficult to get past that, which is a point the character’s Chinese and other Asian readers have been making for literally 40+ years. (The letter columns of the original series make that quite clear.)

  2. <<<Given that K’un-Lun is located in the Himalayas <<<

    Wrong, is in another planet, in another dimension and is inhabited by people of extraterrestrial origin. It's not so hard to research these things.

    <<<He’ll be one more white man who travels to an Asian country<<<

    More like a kid who is raised there and has not the same opportunities, but less, because K'un-Lunians are not just sexist, but racist.

    <<<If Elektra can be played by a mixed-raced Asian woman, why can’t Iron Fist be played by an Asian American actor?<<<

    Because Elektra's background and characterization never was tied to her ethnicity, she only needed to be a woman. Not every character has to be from an specific race, but some do.

  3. Hello, Desiree.

    Unfortunately, White and Asian, for some reason, are interchangeable. I recall several years ago an Asian actress on a soap opera, One Life to Live, was replaced with a white woman. I think that reflects a general consensus for the lighter hued part of our racial spectrum in the US.

    White male supremacy as you mentioned in your article is typical in works of power fantasy. Who is the most powerful black man between the Big Two? Luke Cage? That’s not very strong despite the increase in power over the years. I did not include the Blue Marvel or Icon because they were created by African American men.

    At the heart of cultural appropriation and limitation is racism. I think that it is at such a deep level that many would not concede that is, in fact, racism. I could also talk about women here as well, but I won’t at this time.

    As far as the feedback you will receive, I hope you can weather it and continue to speak o this and any other issues related to comics no matter how much some may disagree.


  4. It really shouldn’t come as a surprise that people would be stupid in this way, that having both Shang-Chi and Iron Fist is “redundant” somehow. Remember when Jessica Jones came out? People were similarly idiots in saying that now that it had come out, there was no need for the Supergirl show.

    Though yes, it doesn’t sting any less.

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