Mark Twain in China
Selina Lai-Henderson



Adventure is a path. Real adventure—self-determined, self-motivated, often risky—forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind—and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.

—Mark Jenkins, A Man’s Life: Dispatches from Dangerous Places

In the midst of writing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Mark Twain remarked that “my tank has run dry; it was empty; the stock of materials was exhausted; the story could not go on.”1 Little did he imagine that this novel and its sequel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), would become one of his most remembered and still studied texts today. By the time he passed away on April 21, 1910, he had published an overwhelming body of work that has continued to inform and enrich the literary scene in America and elsewhere. Apart from over thirty books and pamphlets and easily three to four thousand newspaper and magazine articles, he also wrote hundreds of thousands of words in letters and other documents that he did not publish. In libraries and private collections around the world, there are at least nine thousand personal and business letters of his—a fifth of the approximately fifty thousand letters he penned—and new ones are still being found every week.2 In 2010, a century after his death, this American writer was again making headlines with the release of his autobiography. Twain had stipulated that the unpublished parts of this memoir not be released until 2010. At that time Robert H. Hirst, curator of the Mark Twain Project at the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, remarked that “more than half of it has still never appeared in print.”3 As of this writing, the first two volumes have been published, in 2010 and 2013, respectively, and the remaining volume is expected to be released in 2015.

Mark Twain is ubiquitous; his work can be found in many bookstores and his name is familiar to people in many corners of the world. Yet while much has been said about this great American writer, much has still been left unsaid. While a simple Google search on the name “Mark Twain” easily generates an impressive 69,000,000 results—with topics ranging from The Complete Works of Mark Twain, the Mark Twain Award, the Mark Twain Circle of America, Halley’s Comet (which was visible at the time of Twain’s birth and death), Hal Holbrook’s one-man show Mark Twain Tonight, Val Kilmer’s recent performance of Citizen Twain in Los Angeles, the Mark Twain Cave Complex (in Hannibal, Missouri), Mark Twain’s New York Walking Tour, an essay called “Mark Twain and the Art of Swearing,” and Mark Twain classroom activities from PBS to even Mark Twain’s Insurance Services (in Stockton and Angels Camp, California), and Mark Twain’s Pizza (in Metairie, Louisiana)—none of the results detail his lifelong interest in and relationship with the Chinese. Just as his countrymen have long claimed him as the “quintessential American writer,” many others across the Pacific have embraced him as a brave American author who spoke up on many occasions on behalf of the Chinese.4

Lu Xun (鲁迅), widely regarded as the father of modern Chinese literature, writes in his preface to the 1931 Chinese translation of Twain’s Eve’s Diary:

Twain became a humorist in order to live, but he imbued humor with bitterness and sarcasm in order to show that he was not satisfied with that kind of life. This little bit of revolt, however, is enough to make the children of New Land [the Soviet Union] laugh and claim: Mark Twain is ours.5

Lao She (老舍), the first Chinese writer to be selected for the Nobel Prize in literature (in 1968), commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of Twain’s death by highlighting Twain’s bravery in speaking up against American imperialism: “Twain always stood on the side of the American people and the people of the world as well. As we are commemorating him today, we feel as if he were still standing among us, struggling side by side with us against the imperialists headed by the United States.”6 Twain is widely studied and discussed in Chinese classrooms and scholarship, and Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are among the foreign works most frequently translated into Chinese. Huckleberry Finn alone has been translated into Chinese no fewer than ninety times. Including the reprints of some of the translations would bring the number to over a hundred different editions traversing China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. It is certainly hard to imagine the number of translations of this one work of Twain’s coming close to such a staggering figure anywhere else in the world.

The continuing popularity of Twain in China has much to do with an interesting connection that he had with the country and its people throughout his life. Although he never visited China, he played a vital role in speaking up for the Chinese in America and abroad. Twain’s relationship with China is intriguing not only because it is little known to the public, but also because it reveals a significant transition that he underwent in his attitude toward the Chinese as a result of his global travels. At the age of seventeen, when the young Samuel Langhorne Clemens left his home in Hannibal, Missouri, he described the Chinese that he saw for the first time in New York as “human vermin.”7 About a decade later, in 1864, while working as a journalist in San Francisco, he can often be found commenting on racism toward the Chinese in America. The oppression of the Chinese people by the police and by Irish workers that he was regularly witnessing in San Francisco led him to question attitudes involving race that ran counter to the founding ideals of his country.

Upon returning home in 1900 from his trip around the world and longtime stay in Europe, Twain experienced yet another major shift in his racial attitudes, this time inflected by his disgust with Western imperialism. Announcing himself as an anti-imperialist and a Chinese Boxer against American and European imperialism, he also became vice president of the American Anti-Imperialist League. In one of his anti-imperialist writings, “The United States of Lyncherdom” (1901), he urged American missionaries to leave China, for they should “come home and convert these Christians!”8 From ridiculing the American oppression of Chinese immigrant workers in his early writings, such as “What Have the Police Been Doing?” (1866) and “Goldsmith’s Friend Abroad again” (1870), to strongly denouncing European and American aggression in the Far East, Twain showed sustained attention to the social conditions of the Chinese diaspora.

While most Chinese scholars and readers tend to neglect Twain’s early perception of and prejudice toward the Chinese, this book calls attention to the important correlation between the writer’s moral journey and the posthumous impact of his work in China, and also emphasizes the necessity to consider this transition as we examine the reasons for Twain’s lasting popularity there. Indeed, should Clemens have never left the South, it is unlikely that he would have felt the need to write about his country’s unfair treatment of the Chinese in the West, let alone speaking up for them and against America’s aggression in the Far East upon returning home from his decade-long sojourn in Europe. Rather than being viewed largely as a humorist, as he is in the United States, Twain is seen in China as a courageous anti-imperialist and a dear friend; this salient image continues to appear frequently in Chinese scholarship and prefaces to his translated works.

Half a century after the appearance of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), at a banquet held by the International Mark Twain Society on November 30, 1935, to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of Twain’s birth, F. Scott Fitzgerald enthused:

Huckleberry Finn took the first journey back. He was the first to look back at the republic from the perspective of the west. His eyes were the first eyes that ever looked at us objectively that were not eyes from overseas. There were mountains at the frontier but he wanted more than mountains to look at with his restless eyes—he wanted to find out about men and how they lived together. And because he turned back we have him forever.9

Fitzgerald’s remark about Huck’s journey, crossing the American frontier then looking back at St. Petersburg, is evocative as it invites important discussions of how Huck’s travels influence the ways he looks at where he comes from. When Fitzgerald wrote “the perspective of the west,” he was essentially referring to the perspective Twain adopted, as Huck has never been to the West in the novel. Nevertheless, Huck’s travel across state borders from St. Petersburg, Missouri (which is based on Hannibal, Missouri, where Twain grew up), to Pikesville, Arkansas, and his moral adventure of helping Jim attain freedom reflect a similar journey that involves a few transitions that Clemens himself went through regarding race and slavery. As William Dean Howells, Twain’s good friend, remarks in “Mark Twain: An Inquiry” (1901), “one of the most notably Southern traits of Mark Twain’s humor is its power of seeing the fun of Southern seriousness, but this vision did not come to him till after his liberation from neighborhood in the vaster far West.”10 While going West helped Clemens begin to view his Southern hometown with more objectivity, going abroad allowed him to look back at America with a more critical eye.

Tellingly, and contrary to what most people believe, Twain’s first writings against American racism dealt with the oppression of the Chinese rather than that of black Americans. Growing up in an environment where people of Anglo-Saxon descent were assumed to be superior and black people were believed to be natural servants, Clemens understandably had “no aversion to slavery.” His immediate family owned slaves, and so did his uncle, of whom he spoke highly as a person. His mother, too, however kind-hearted and compassionate, as he later recalled in his autobiography, “was not conscious that slavery was a bald, grotesque, and unwarrantable usurpation.”11 In other words, if the racism that he witnessed in California had targeted black people instead of Chinese, it is indeed unlikely that he would have undergone the same level of transformation that he did; the familiar racial dynamics might not have elicited such a strong epiphany in the first place.

Of course, it would be preposterous to say that US racism toward the Chinese played a stronger role than racism toward black Americans in Clemens’s writing and his racial views; after all, his most famous work, Huckleberry Finn, and a number of his newspaper and magazine articles deal specifically with relations between blacks and whites in the United States. Nevertheless, the fact that the oppression of the Chinese in California prompted him to write satires that were, in effect, a rehearsal for his satires focused on racism toward African Americans lays before us a fruitful perspective from which to examine his intricate relationship with the Chinese.12 Furthermore, looking at the Chinese translations of Twain’s writings can give us insight into both the writings themselves and the social and cultural history of modern China. My work then fills this important gap in Twain scholarship, American literature, and transnational studies by pointing to the repercussions of the work of a most influential American author across a global theater. As early as 1913, H. L. Mencken hailed Twain as the “true father of our national heritage, the first genuinely American artist of the blood royal.”13 In 1935, Ernest Hemingway famously concurred: “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”14 Two decades later, in 1955, William Faulkner revered Twain as “the first truly American writer, and all of us since are his heirs.”15 Given the importance of Twain in America and American letters, as well as the continuous interest in this writer and his works around the world, a discussion of the relationship between Twain and China should inspire more engaging dialogues on Twain as a global figure.

Over the past two decades, articles by Twain scholars such as Hsuan L. Hsu, Xilao Li, Hsin-yun Ou, Martin Zehr, and Darren Chiang-Schultheiss have offered us insightful perspectives on Twain’s connection with the Chinese.16 Chinese-language scholarship, too, despite its much shorter discussions, has initiated some refreshing conversations on the topic. Scholars such as Li Xinchao, Zhang Lin, Chen Mei, Wang Xiaojie, and Shi Weiming have published articles that look at Twain’s representation of the Chinese and the Chinese translations of his works.17 These articles, understandably, tend to focus on specific works by Twain during a particular period or to present a chronological overview of the Chinese translations of Huckleberry Finn; they do not look at Twain’s connection with the Chinese during his lifetime. My work expands on these discussions by exploring the adventures of Clemens in Chinese communities in the United States, his response to events involving the Chinese in China, and China’s response to him as Mark Twain in his posthumous voyage across the Pacific.

In 2010, Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Work insightfully examined Twain as a global figure by putting together essays on him by writers around the world. This collection opened important ways for future Twain scholars to take a transnational approach to this writer; indeed, this is where my work departs from existing discussions on Twain. Combining English-language and Chinese-language scholarship, I look at how Twain and his works are perceived in both the United States and China, and how readers’ different socio-political, historical, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds shape their understanding of Twain and his achievement. To understand Twain more fully, it is crucial to situate him not only in his own country, but also beyond national borders, and to look at scholarship not just in English, but also in the languages in which he is being studied and read around the world. It would be illuminating to ask, for instance, why “Running for Governor” is more often taught in high schools in China and “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” is more often taught in US schools, and why Huckleberry Finn is banned from American libraries from time to time, while China has had no problem with translating, publishing, and teaching it since its first translation.

My book comprises five chapters: the first three chapters focus on Twain’s lifelong connection with China and his writings about the Chinese in America; the last two chapters explore the posthumous influence and popularity of Twain and his work in China. Chapter 1, “Sam Clemens the Missourian: Early Acquaintances with ‘Chinamen,’” begins with Clemens’s adventures in the American West in the 1860s. What Clemens witnessed in the frontier territory would contradict the founding ideals that he once learned as a child in Missouri. The everyday scenes of the oppression of the Chinese by the police and the Irish in the streets of San Francisco compelled him to reflect upon a country that was founded on democratic ideals but was also, ironically, plagued by racism. In 1870, the thirty-four-year-old Twain married and settled down with Olivia Langdon in New York. The Langdon family, especially the father-in-law, Jervis Langdon, with their abolitionist views, played an important role in influencing Twain’s attitude toward race and slavery. Around the same time, an important influence on Twain regarding the use of Chinese protagonists in his work was Bret Harte, and the two collaborated on the play Ah Sin (1877). After long neglect and a paucity of discussion of this work, there has been a recent revival of interest in it in both English and Chinese Twain scholarship, I devote the last section of this chapter to exploring this joint venture of two of America’s most influential writers of their time. I consider why it failed, and what significance it had in representing Chinese immigrants in America. Looking at both the American and the Chinese reception of the play, I argue that works of scholarship that denigrate the play as racist, and thus undermine the idea that Twain was taking the Chinese seriously, tend to be works that neglect Twain’s anti-imperialism.

Chapter 2, “From the Mississippi to the Big Sea: Voyages Across the Pacific,” examines the impact of two Pacific voyages that Twain undertook on his attitude toward the racial other, particularly the Chinese. On his first voyage Twain was sent by a newspaper, the Sacramento Union, as a correspondent to the Sandwich Islands (the Hawaiian Islands) in 1866, and at that time he viewed US annexation of the islands as necessary, and was convinced that the importation of Chinese “coolie” labor to the island plantations would lift American workers out of the “drudgery which all white men abhor and are glad to escape from.”18 It was on this trip that Twain became friends with Anson Burlingame, then US Minister to China (1861–1867). Although Burlingame himself was a supporter of US annexation, he was also a strong advocate for the rights of Chinese immigrant workers. He certainly helped to deepen Twain’s understanding of and acquaintance with the Chinese. By the time Twain revisited the Sandwich Islands, thirty years later in 1895 as part of his lecture tour along the equator, he had become increasingly skeptical of first European and then American colonization by means of economic dominance and missionary involvement in foreign territories. The two trips he took across the Pacific underpin a significant transition that he experienced in his attitudes toward the Chinese. While some of Twain’s life events discussed in Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 overlap one another in terms of chronology, the first chapter focuses on Twain’s relationship with the Chinese on the American mainland, whereas the second chapter delineates the cultural and ethnic diversity Twain encountered beyond the American shore that complicated the racial assumptions he grew up with in the slave-holding South.

Chapter 3, “Mark Twain the Chinese Boxer: Reflections and Reformation of a Red-Hot Anti-Imperialist,” discusses Twain’s anti-imperialist position and his involvement with the American Anti-Imperialist League at the time he returned from his longtime residence in Europe in 1900 (he was sixty-four). Twain was infuriated by what he realized was happening globally as imperial powers, including the United States, were taking land by force, not only from the Chinese, but also from Filipinos, Cubans, and other people of color through wars of aggression rather than liberation. This period would mark a major transformation in Twain’s racial views in ways that he probably never expected. Those he once perceived as “human vermin” turned out to be more noble than many of the so-called “civilized” people. Admitting to once being a “red-hot imperialist,” he returned home not only denouncing Anglo-Saxon imperialism, but also publicly lending his support to the Chinese. This chapter discusses a few important anti-imperialist pieces that he wrote, such as “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” “To My Missionary Critics,” and “The United States of Lyncherdom,” and examines the factors that led Clemens to take issue with the Reverend William Ament and the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). It ends with an analysis of Twain’s rarely discussed piece “The Fable of the Yellow Terror” and some of the Chinese responses to Twain and his work.

Chapter 4, “Lighting Out for the Pacific: Mark Twain’s Posthumous Journey Across China,” explores the Chinese socio-historical and political background into which Twain was first introduced, what his work meant to the Chinese when it first appeared, and why it appealed to them. Twain’s work came to China at a time when the nation was undergoing a series of westernization reforms due to its multiple defeats by foreign powers throughout the nineteenth century. Thus Twain and his works were introduced to the Chinese at a phenomenally critical moment, and his work indispensably contributed to the early process of bringing transnationalism into the Chinese literary community, across China, Japan, and the United States. Early Chinese translations of Twain were, in fact, based on Japanese versions instead of the original English versions. Notably, Liang Qichao, one of the Chinese reformers who introduced Twain to Chinese readers, did so when he was living in exile in Japan following his unsuccessful reform effort in late Qing China. This chapter looks at how Huckleberry Finn, in particular, was used to reform literature, language, and society in early twentieth-century China and as a political tool during the Cold War era. It also examines the travels of Huck Finn from the Chinese mainland to Hong Kong and Taiwan during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), suggesting that translating Twain’s work in these latter places functioned in part, for the translators involved, as a means of distancing themselves from communism and Chinese civilization as it was being constructed in Mainland China at the time.

Chapter 5, “Translation, Appropriation, and Continuation: Huck Finn’s Chinese Adventures in the late Twentieth Century and Beyond,” continues the discussion in Chapter 4 by examining specific passages from Huck Finn and exploring how Chinese translators are approaching Twain’s work in the late twentieth century and beyond—how they convey appropriate contexts and elucidate elements that are unfamiliar to Chinese readers. Given the sheer quantity of Chinese translations of Huckleberry Finn, it is simply impossible to go through each and every one of them. Drawing on a few representative works from different periods, I explore some of the challenges that Chinese translators have been confronted with when it comes to translating the language of a fourteen-year-old boy, Pap Finn’s expressions of his racist attitude, and Jim’s black vernacular. I look at how Twain’s work was used to portray America in different spatial and historical moments. I focus mainly on Huck Finn because it is the novel by Twain that most interested Chinese scholars and readers. Most of all, it allows us to see how American race relations are being transposed into other cultural contexts, and whether the critiques of racism embodied in Twain’s work are being passed on to readers in China.

In the final chapter of Huckleberry Finn, Huck concludes that he has “got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”19 On the surface, it may seem that Huck simply does not want to be confined by the rules and customs of the adult world, but perhaps there is more to what civilization means here. Huck’s refusal to be “sivilized,” underlined by his inability to spell the word right, is suggestive of his—or rather, Twain’s own—skepticism about white Americans’ construction of the term. My epilogue will present a somewhat different picture of what “sivilization” means when Huck Finn is put into various Chinese contexts—Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and border states such as Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Tibet. It offers an overview of the history and nature of Chinese culture as it relates to views about minorities and about frontiers where different others may be particularly encountered, and examines how these views are similar to or different from those in the United States, and how they influence the understanding of Huck Finn in China. This analysis suggests that, however ironic, the brilliance and lasting popularity of Twain’s work lies in its being effectively used to suit different political implications, especially in regions whose political and national values conflict with those of the People’s Republic of China.


1. Milton Meltzer, Mark Twain Himself: A Pictorial Biography (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002), 150.

2. “Mark Twain Papers & History: A Brief History,” Mark Twain Project On-line, accessed July 19, 2012,

3. Guy Adams, “After Keeping Us Waiting for a Century, Mark Twain Will Finally Reveal All,” The Independent, May 23, 2010, accessed July 19, 2012,

4. The debate over whether Twain should be labeled a “quintessential American” writer is discussed at length in Jonathan Arac, Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target: The Functions of Criticism in Our Time (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997).

5. Lu Xun, “A Short Introduction to ‘Eve’s Diary,’” by Mark Twain, trans. Gongzhao Li, in The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Work, ed. Shelley Fisher Fishkin (New York: Library of America, 2010), 174; Lu’s comments about Twain will be discussed in greater detail in Chapter 4.

6. Lao She, “Mark Twain: Exposer of the ‘Dollar Empire,’” trans. Zhao Yuming and Sui Gang, in The Mark Twain Anthology, 288. In 1968, Lao She was ranked first among the nominees for the Nobel Prize in literature. At this time China was at the summit of the Cultural Revolution. The Swedish Ambassador to China searched for Lao, but was informed that Lao had passed away. The Nobel committee then reassessed the other four nominees, and awarded the prize to a Japanese author, Kawabata Yasunari. For details, see “Lao She and Nobel Prize,” Beijing Attractions, accessed January 30, 2013,

7. Twain to Jane Lampton Clemens, 31 August 1853, in Mark Twain’s Letters, 18531880, Mark Twain Project Online,

8. Mark Twain, “United States of Lyncherdom,” in Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 18911910, ed. Louis J. Budd (New York: Library of America, 1992), 483; this article will be discussed in greater depth in Chapter 2.

9. Matthew J. Bruccoli and Judith S. Baughman, eds., F. Scott Fitzgerald on Authorship (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1966), 122.

10. William Dean Howells, “Mark Twain: An Inquiry,” in Fishkin, The Mark Twain Anthology, 91.

11. Mark Twain, The Autobiography of Mark Twain, ed. Charles Neider (New York: HarperCollins, 1959), 8, 39.

12. Shelley Fisher Fishkin addresses the Chinese influence on Twain’s changing perception of US racism directed toward African Americans in both From Fact to Fiction: Journalism and Imaginative Writing in America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), and her essay “Mark Twain and Race” in A Historical Guide to Mark Twain, ed. Shelley Fisher Fishkin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

13. H. L. Mencken, “Review of Albert Bigelow Paine’s Biography of Mark Twain,” Smart Set (February 1913).

14. Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1935), 22.

15. William Faulkner, Faulkner at Nagano, ed. Robert A. Jelliffe (Tokyo: Kenkyusha Press, 1957), 88.

16. See Hsuan L. Hsu, “Sitting in Darkness: Mark Twain and America’s Asia,” American Literary History 25, no. 1 (January 2013): 69–84, and “A Connecticut Yankee in the Court of Wu Chih Tien: Mark Twain and Wong Chin Foo,” Commonplace: The Interactive Journal of Early American Life 11, no. 1 (October 2010),; Xilao Li, “The Adventures of Mark Twain in China: Translation and Appreciation of More Than a Century,” Mark Twain Annual 6, no. 1 (2008): 65–76; Hsin-yun Ou, “Mark Twain’s Racial Ideologies and His Portrayal of the Chinese,” Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies 36, no. 2 (September 2010): 33–59; Martin Zehr, “Mark Twain, ‘The Treaty with China,’ and the Chinese Connection,” Journal of Transnational American Studies, 2, no. 1 (2010),; and Darren Chiang-Schultheiss, “Representations of the Chinese Other in Mark Twain’s World,” Mark Twain Studies 2 (2006): 158–179.

17. See Li Xinchao and Zhang Lin, “Zhongyi Zhong De Wudu He Wuyi” [The translation and history of Huck Finn in China], Journal of Northwest A&F University (Social Science Edition) 12, no. 6 (November 2008): 116–121; Chen Mei and Wang Xiaojie, “Zhui Meng Ren, Jingzi he Tizuiyang—Qianxi Ma-ke Tuwen Zhonghua Ren Xingxiang” [The dream-seeker, the mirror and the scapegoat—on the Chinese image in Mark Twain’s works], Journal of Beijing International Studies University (Foreign Languages) 2 (2007): 61–65; and Shi Weiming, “Zhonghua Chuanbo De Wudu Yu Tiejin: Lun Ma-ke Tuwen Zuopin Zhong De Huaren Xingxiang Yiyi” [The mis-interpretation and proximity of the dissemination of Chinese culture: a discussion of the portrayal of the Chinese image in the work of Mark Twain], Dongnan Chuanbo 1, no. 53 (2009): 192–194.

18. Mark Twain, Mark Twain’s Letters from Hawaii, ed. A. Grove Day (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1975 [1866]), 272.

19. Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Oxford Mark Twain, ed. Shelley Fisher Fishkin (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996 [1884], 366.