On the iconic American writer’s avowed anti-imperialism.
After residing for almost a decade in Europe, Mark Twain sailed back to the United States in October 1900. He had not only combated financial losses from his untimely investment in the Paige typesetter, but he had also made a name for himself on both sides of the Atlantic. The sixty-four-year-old writer had become a national hero and a celebrity figure, one whose homecoming was a much-anticipated event across the country. Newspapers lauded his success in overcoming bankruptcy and achieving fame and popularity in Europe, hailing him as “the bravest author in literature.” Harper’s Weekly heralded him as the “the most advertised man in the world.”
While in the United States, Twain is largely viewed as a humorist, in China his principal reputation is that of an anti-imperial polemicist and a cherished advocate.
While writers and reporters were expecting the humorist to delight the American audience with funny stories or the wonders of his travels, Twain took them by surprise with a decidedly pointed political declaration almost immediately after he landed; he remarked to a New York Herald reporter on October 16: “I am an anti-imperialist, I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.”
Twain would follow up on his unequivocal verdict a month later, speaking up against the foreign occupation in Manchuria and in support of the anti-imperialist uprising in China known as the Boxer Rebellion. “I am a Boxer, too” he announced to a standing room at the Berkeley Lyceum in New York City. The following year, Twain assumed the vice presidency of the American Anti-Imperialist League, an organization which he helped found and included such prominent members as Jane Addams, Ambrose Bierce, and Andrew Carnegie; Twain served in this post until the end of his life.
For someone growing up in a pre-Civil War, slave-holding town imbued with conservatism and white supremacist ideas, Twain had come a long way by the time he denounced American imperial missions abroad. Young Sam Clemens first left Hannibal, Missouri at the age of seventeen to work as an itinerant printer and a journalist in St. Louis, New York, and Philadelphia. In 1853, writing to his mother of his life in New York, he remarked, “[n]iggers, mulattoes, quadroons, Chinese, and some the Lord no doubt originally intended to be white, but the dirt on whose faces leaves one uncertain as to that fact, block up the little, narrow street”; “to wade through this mass of human vermin,” he went on, “would raise the ire of the most patient person that ever lived.” Confronted by the diversity of the different human races, Clemens did not quite know how to place himself in a non-white community, which he apparently still viewed through the eyes of a white Southerner.
Once he moved west, Clemens encountered a strong Chinese presence in San Francisco; seeing there for the first time their oppression at the hands of the police and the Irish laborers compelled him to reflect upon the tension between republicanism and racism. How could a country that was founded on democratic ideals manifest its principles when it was plagued by racism? The everyday violence toward the Chinese and the banality with which it was regarded sent shock waves through the young Clemens—as is particularly evident from his impassioned 1870 editorial on the stoning of a “Chinaman” in the streets of San Francisco. It prompted him to reevaluate the nature and complexity of racism, which was now no longer confined to the simple context of black and white in Missouri but also affected other races in the United States, and eventually the world.
Before returning home from his decade-long sojourn in Europe, Twain had traveled to Fiji, Australasia, Ceylon, India, and South Africa to deliver an international lecture series in 1895 and 1896. These tours coincided with the continuing British colonization of the West Indies, India, and the Antipodes, as well as French, Belgian, German, and Dutch colonialism in Africa and the Far East. Twain’s overseas travels had opened his eyes to the large-scale imperial conquest going on in the Far East, and allowed him to reexamine the problems of hegemony and what it meant to be an American with a more critical and globally informed perspective. Twain was most disillusioned when the United States obtained colonial control over Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines upon its victory in the Spanish-American War (1898), and when it participated in the Eight-Nation Alliance that sent international troops to China to suppress the Boxers.
By saying he was a Boxer, Twain did not mean that he literally partook in the Boxer rebellion, nor that he was a pugilist. In fact, he did not know more about the Boxers than what was reported in the papers outside China. Nevertheless, what was admirable about Twain’s advocacy was the ethos behind it; much like his celebrated Huck Finn character, who follows his “sound heart” rather than a “deformed conscience” when he helps the runaway slave, Jim, attain his freedom, it was Twain’s “sound heart” that prompted him to decry American racism at home, and interventionism abroad. His stance won deep respect from scholars and readers all over China. Just as his countrymen have long claimed him as the “quintessential American writer,” many others across the Pacific have embraced him as a courageous American author who spoke up on many occasions on behalf of the Chinese.
Thus, while in the United States, Twain is largely viewed as a humorist, in China his principal reputation is that of an anti-imperial polemicist and a cherished advocate; this salient image continues to appear frequently in Chinese scholarship and prefaces to his translated works.
Lu Xun (魯迅), 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.” 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.”
If Twain were still alive, he may well be surprised by how frequently his works have been translated in China. Adventures of 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. Twain’s popularity in China, as unexpected and anomalistic as it may seem, ultimately speaks to his expansive worldview—one that transcended the American literary theater sending ripple effects across a global stage.