Mark Twain Connects with China
Mark Twain connects with readers in China in a way he doesn't usually connect with readers in the USA. Running for Governor, one of three stories in Twain Illustrated, stands out as the best example of why this is so: The Chinese adore Twain as a satirist, while Americans have largely ignored this aspect of his wit.
More than a century after his death American readers still hold Twain the author in the highest esteem. He is widely viewed as the preeminent American humorist and most critics credit him as the founder of the American voice in literature. He is iconic, and has been all along.
You will likely get no argument about any of this from anyone in China. Almost everyone there is well acquainted with Mark Twain. His Huckleberry Finn—offered in more than ninety Chinese translations—is a favorite. But Running for Governor is also a favorite, and it’s an important reason why Chinese adore Twain as a satirist. For more than forty years after their revolution in 1949, Running for Governor was assigned reading for middle-school students. Thus, millions of Chinese were introduced at an early age to Twain’s humorous and essentially fair critique of American democracy and capitalism.
Similarly, an important reason Americans ignore Twain as a satirist is because he fairly critiqued American democracy and capitalism, not only in Running for Governor but in other works as well. I suppose it is natural for citizens of a nation to shun humor that exposes the political and economic systems in which they participate and often cherish. And so for the sake of comfort, why not ignore Twain’s satire, particularly since his critiques still ring true.
Of course, today’s Chinese system of government would not escape Twain’s criticism either if he were alive today. He would shred totalitarianism to pieces with his wit and, revered as Twain is in China, it wouldn’t take many of his cuts before Chinese authorities would see that he was right. But would they acknowledge it? It's hard to imagine why they would. Twain’s comprehensive critiques of American life included much material documenting his absolute disdain for imperialism. Would US authorities at long last leap up and admit their preponderance of military bases in foreign countries (now numbering eighty-five – China has none) constitutes imperialism and a desire for hegemony?
It would take an almost unimaginable mutual awakening to the need for world peace by both China and the U.S.A., followed by a willingness to admit each of their systems has flaws, for these countries to merit Mark Twain’s blessing. Wouldn’t it be nice if representatives from both countries met on the banks of some river to read and discuss Twain? Since both civilizations admire him, might not Twain be a path to peace?