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Who is Shang-Chi and what are the 10 Rings?

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

If you were among the millions of American kids who took martial arts lessons in the '70s and '80s, inspired by Bruce Lee or The Karate Kid, you were part of the nation's then booming martial arts craze. But few of us who were stepping into the dojo as novice practitioners of Karate or Tae Kwon Do had any hope of mastering one fighting style - let alone basically all fighting styles known to man.

But that same craze birthed cult-classic Marvel Comics character Shang-Chi, who, while originally billed with the moniker 'The Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu,' has mastered almost every fighting art conceivable to become the most unbeatable hand-to-hand combatant in the Marvel Universe.

Marvel's Shang-Chi

(Image credit: Marvel/Disney)

Now getting his due as the next lead character of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, played by Simu Liu in September 3's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Shang-Chi's comic book origins go back to 1973 when Kung-Fu was first sweeping American TV sets and movie theaters - with a complicated comic book history to match his nearly 50 years in the Marvel Universe.

But Shang-Chi and his comic book origins are still a bit of a mystery to many more casual Marvel fans, as are the origins of the Mandarin and his Ten Rings, which will get their own MCU revamp in the film, as seen in the latest trailer for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

Fortunately, Newsarama has the rundown of everything you need to know before Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings hits theaters, so tie-on your white belt, bow to your sensei, and prepare to learn the fighting ways of Marvel's deadliest combatant.

Shang-Chi's comic book history

Shang-Chi made his debut in 1973's Special Marvel Edition #15. Created by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin (who created Thanos, btw), Shang-Chi was inspired by the Chinese-American character Kwai Chang Caine from the TV show Kung Fu – which Marvel previously sought to license. Originally envisioned as the heroic son of now-archaic pulp villain Fu-Manchu (who was licensed by Marvel Comics at the time), this original incarnation of Shang-Chi was an unparalleled hand-to-hand fighter who fought his father's global criminal machinations as part of Britain espionage agency MI-6.

Shang-Chi quickly achieved popularity in the comic book Bronze Age (roughly 1970-1984), and after his initial appearance, Special Marvel Edition was retitled The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu and Shang-Chi was also given a regular feature in Marvel's black-and-white anthology series The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu. And, he regularly crossed paths with other contemporary Marvel street-level favorites like Iron Fist and the Daughters of the Dragon.

But in the '80s, the Kung Fu craze died down, and with it, Shang-Chi's popularity - eventually relegating the character to occasional guest appearances and a few references here and there. 

Meanwhile, Fu-Manchu - originally created by author Sax Rohmer as the villain of a series of pulp novels and, sadly, less of an actual character than a handful of racist east Asian stereotypes through an early 20th-century lens – stopped appearing in the Marvel Universe when the publisher dropped the character's license, making it difficult if not impossible to reprint the bulk of Shang-Chi's classic stories.

All of this added up to a Shang-Chi-sized hole in the Marvel Universe - with even the character's contemporaries like the Heroes for Hire (a team Shang-Chi later joined) falling off the radar.

But, Shang-Chi never left the Marvel consciousness – he was even one of the original characters included in Marvel's pitch for the building blocks of Marvel Cinematic Universe (and it wasn't the first time he was considered – Stan Lee himself considered pushing for a Shang-Chi movie starring Brandon Lee in the 1980s). And roundabout the time Tony Stark was breaking a new superhero barrier on film, Shang-Chi made his way back to the Marvel spotlight as part of a squad of 2010's Secret Avengers helmed by acclaimed Captain America writer Ed Brubaker.

(Image credit: Mike Deodato Jr. / Marvel Comics)

Brubaker took the opportunity not just to revise Shang-Chi's position as the greatest fighter in the Marvel Universe but his origins as well – substituting "Fu Manchu" for Zheng Zu, an ancient immortal wizard. Shang-Chi also got a power upgrade, gaining the ability to create duplicates of himself and carrying various pieces of Stark-built tech. He even made it to the core Avengers team before Secret Wars, which rebuilt the Marvel Universe.

More recently, Shang-Chi was been a core member of the new Agents of Atlas, who went head-to-head with Namor in Marvel's revival of the comic book event Atlantis Attacks.

And never one to miss a marketing opportunity, Marvel is engaged in somewhat of a Shang-Chi revival in anticipation of his MCU debut. 

He recently starred in a five-issue limited series steeped in his family history, as he winds up taking control of his father Zheng Zu's evil Five Weapons Society and meets half-siblings he never knew he had. 

Of course, staying true to his character Shang-Chi does become the Supreme Commander of the Five Weapons Society but vows to transform it into a force for good. 

Following up on the events of that series he'll debut in a new ongoing series in May the first story arc of which will pit him against Spider-Man and other Marvel icons as Shang-Chi's takeover of the Five Weapons Society is misunderstood by his fellow heroes. 

Shang-Chi in the MCU

When it comes to bringing Shang-Chi to the MCU, there's one key component that's bound to differ from any version of the character we've seen yet – his parentage.

Following widespread speculation that the Mandarin – the villain of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and, in comic books, the owner of the titular physical ten rings of power – would take the place of Fu Manchu/Zheng Zu as Shang-Chi's father, the connection was confirmed in the first Shang-Chi trailer. But the connection between Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings doesn't start there – and the comic book roots of their connection may hint at the plot of the film.

In comic books, the Ten Rings are usually depicted as ten actual rings of alien origin that grant the wearer ten powers – one for each ring. But in the alt-universe tale Secret Wars (remember we mentioned that?), the Ten Rings are ten martial arts techniques pioneered by that world's version of the Mandarin – of which that world's Shang-Chi had mastered nine.

As for the Mandarin himself, actor Tony Leung will portray the 'real' Mandarin, or, in other words, the more comic book accurate version of the classic Marvel supervillain, following the somewhat controversial imposter version played by Ben Kingsley in Iron Man 3.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is due out in theaters September 3, 2021.

Ahead of Shang-Chi, why not catch up with our guide on How to watch the Marvel movies in order?

I've been Newsarama's resident Marvel Comics expert and general comic book historian since 2011. I've also been the on-site reporter at most major comic conventions such as Comic-Con International: San Diego, New York Comic Con, and C2E2. Outside of comic journalism, I am the artist of many weird pictures, and the guitarist of many heavy riffs. (They/Them)