Mark Twain in China. By Selina Lai-Henderson. Stanford University Press, 2015. Pp. 164. Hardbound. 6"x 9" ISBN 978-0-8047-9475-6. $45.00.

Amazon sales commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project,
University of California, Berkeley, CA.

The following review appeared 29 June 2015 on the Mark Twain Forum.

Copyright © 2015 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Martin Zehr

In Mark Twain in China Selina Lai-Henderson provides a broad overview that underscores Twain's iconic status as an American and international celebrity, as well as an acute observer of racially-based behavior on a worldwide stage. Mark Twain never visited China and his cumulative writings on the subject of the Chinese and anti-imperialism have flown under the radar of all but the most determined Twain scholars. Lai-Henderson joins the focused efforts of a cadre of Twain scholars during the last two decades to bring these concerns to greater awareness.

Jim Zwick's Mark Twain's Weapons of Satire: Anti-Imperialist Writings on the Philippine-American War broke the ground in 1992. Subsequent studies include Tsuyoshi Ishihara's Mark Twain in Japan (2005), Susan Harris's God's Arbiters: Americans and the Philippines, 1898-1902 (2011) and Hsuan L. Hsu's Sitting in Darkness: Mark Twain's Asia and Comparative Racialization. In 2010, the republication of "The Treaty with China: Its Provisions Explained," appeared in the Journal of Transnational American Studies. First published in 1868, this essay provides cogent evidence that concerns over racism and anti-imperialism with an Asian focus were evident very early in Mark Twain's career.

Implicit in Mark Twain in China is the assumption that the reader is already conversant with Twain's writings on the subject of race relations with respect to African Americans in the United States during the slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras. In her introduction, Lai-Henderson asserts "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" (p. 5). Twain scholars would readily acknowledge the possibility of a "fruitful perspective," but the notion that Twain's writings about the Chinese served a "rehearsal" function is questionable. During the period in which he observed the predations on Chinese immigrants which he wrote about, Twain had written a satire of hecklers watching blacks march in a Fourth of July parade in 1865 in Virginia City. Prior to writing the three pieces with Chinese themes for the 1870 edition of The Galaxy discussed by Lai-Henderson, he wrote "Only a Nigger" for an August 1869 issue of the Buffalo Express. That essay is a vicious satirical attack on southern gentility, inspired by a "mistaken" lynching. In "The Treaty with China: Its Provisions Explained" (1868), Twain makes very explicit comparisons of racism toward the Chinese and African Americans and acknowledges his heretofore opposition to "the idea of making negroes citizens of the United States" as a prelude to changing his opinion on the same subject with respect to Chinese in the United States. It is at least arguable that Twain's growing empathy with the plight of African-Americans in his country served a "rehearsal" function with respect to his "Chinese/China" writings.

Lai-Henderson traces Twain's literary legacy with respect to "Chinese" subjects back to his early journalism in Virginia City and California, while writing for the Territorial Enterprise and the San Francisco Call. She notes Twain's ambivalence in his early pieces about Chinese American immigrants, based partly on his lack of familiarity with the customs and culture of these new arrivals, and on the pressures to temper his opinions in deference to a readership not generally in sympathy with Twain's relative openness. Lai-Henderson discusses the evidence that the printed media of the era "and even journals that prided themselves on their honest reportage" (p. 21) were replete with negative portrayals of the Chinese, creating grotesque stereotypes that unquestioning readers adopted and which served as a powerful impetus for the federal Chinese Exclusion Act, adopted in 1882. That this early exposure to the Chinese immigrants and their travails, often due to legal persecution, had a lasting impact on Twain is clearly conveyed in three early sketches: "Disgraceful Persecution of a Boy," "John Chinaman in New York," and "Goldsmith's Friend Abroad Again," published in 1870 issues of The Galaxy. Lai-Henderson discusses these three early examples of Twain's maturing racial attitudes in the context of a populace alarmed by the prospect of Chinese "cheap labor," popular depictions of the new immigrants as subhuman, and Twain's "educating his audience, however subtly, on the fallacy of these images" (p. 23).

Lai-Henderson includes a brief discussion of "The Treaty with China: Its Provisions Explained (1868)." This is perhaps the seminal statement by which all Twain's subsequent "Chinese" writings should be analyzed. The issues which are the basis for the three Galaxy pieces, published two years subsequent to "The Treaty," are based on Twain's direct observations of the Chinese in the West and the history of Chinese-American relations imparted to him by his friend, mentor, and diplomat, Anson Burlingame, an emissary of the Chinese delegation in the United States. Lai Henderson provides a history of Twain's association with Burlingame, whom he met in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) in 1866, as a figure who had a significant impact on Twain's maturing attitudes regarding race and imperialism, and especially his attitudes toward the Chinese and China.

Lai-Henderson's discussion of the 1877 collaboration between Twain and Bret Harte, the ill-fated play Ah Sin, follows the detailed analysis of this work provided by Hsu in Sitting in Darkness: Mark Twain's Asia and Comparative Racialization. Like Hsu, Lai-Henderson sees the play as a condemnation of the legal discrimination imposed on Chinese immigrants, who could not testify against white citizens in California courts, juxtaposed against the ingenuity of the title character, who manages to get the evidence he possesses into a court proceeding to ensure the conviction of a murderer and simultaneously spare the falsely accused. Whether contemporary audiences, whose reception assured the early demise of this production, understood its political underpinnings, is uncertain, but this newly minted perspective of this hitherto neglected work has the promise of reviving interest among Twain scholars. Lai-Henderson contrasts the reception of Ah Sin with the poem by Bret Harte popularly known as "The Heathen Chinee" with its satire of attitudes toward the Chinese immigrant. Its satire was largely missed by its readers, all too willing to take his cataloguing of Chinese stereotypical characteristics seriously.

Chapter 4, the most important section of Lai-Henderson's book, is titled "Lighting Out for the Pacific: Mark Twain's Posthumous Journey Across China." It provides the reader with a history of Twain's publication, reception and interpretation in China. His first introduction to Chinese readers appeared in 1905 with the publication of his photograph in the journal Xin Xiao Shuo (the title translates to New Fiction), founded by Liang Qichao, one of the leaders of a "reform" movement in Chinese literature in the early twentieth century. The survey provided in Lai-Henderson's book makes it clear that Twain's reception among modern Chinese writers and readers is based on many of the same qualities that made him popular with their western counterparts. Twain's acceptance in China by early adherents like Liang Qichao was based on the idea that "political fiction should have the most impact on society amid the social progress and political change that China was experiencing" (p. 80). Other Chinese writers appreciated Twain's use of the vernacular in his writing. Lai-Henderson traces the Chinese translations of Twain's works of Eve's Diary, by Lu Xun, in 1931, and the first Chinese translation of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Zhang Duosheng, in 1942.

A separate chapter devoted to the difficulties of translation associated with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn makes clear the problems, particularly in dealing with sarcasm and irony, that have plagued attempts to convey the more subtle aspects of Twain's writing, even extending to translation of "the 'N' word," as Lai-Henderson puts it, which is problematic because "Chinese as a language is generally euphemistic" (p. 118). Although China's population is classified as over 90 percent Han Chinese, there are over fifty-five additional ethnic groups scattered in border areas. Thus, there are continuing problems with racism in China that warrant the deliberate focus provided in works like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Lai-Henderson points out the popularity of The Gilded Age (1873) in China, which "spoke to a lot of Chinese because it reflects human greed and the evils of capitalism" (p. 88). Cultural and political differences are also underscored by her observation that "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," likely Twain's most popular short story in the U.S., is largely unfamiliar to Chinese readers, while the sketch "Running for Governor," originally published in The Galaxy and the Buffalo Express in 1870, is common in the curricula of schools in China as because of its focus on "the hypocrisy of a capitalist country that shouts false slogans of democracy" (p. 89).

Lai-Henderson's book is generally accurate but does have proofreading errors and inaccuracies. A discussion of Twain's "The United States of Lyncherdom," for example, asserts that "Perhaps the most appalling gesture made by Twain in this work is not merely raising the subject of lynching but going so far as to invite China to witness the lynching activities in his southern hometown" (p. 72). It would certainly have been "appalling" for Twain to have gone "so far," but no such invitation to China is contained in the piece, although Twain discusses his plan to bring back American missionaries from China and "send them into the lynching field." There are no recorded lynchings in Twain's hometown, Hannibal, Missouri. For the most part, lynchings in Missouri, including the incident that inspired Twain's "The United States of Lyncherdom," took place in southern Missouri towns, e.g., Sikeston, Joplin and Springfield.

Elsewhere, Lai-Henderson attributes, in part, Twain's declination, in February 1868, of the possibility of succeeding his mentor and friend Anson Burlingame in a diplomatic post with China to the fact that "he wanted to settle down with his then future wife, Olivia (Livy) Langdon" (p. 41). Although Twain and Livy met in New York City in December 1867, their courtship would not begin until September 1868, following Twain's first visit to the Langdon family's home in Elmira, New York. Also misdated is the first publication of "The Treaty with China," in the New York Tribune. It was first printed in the August 4, 1868 edition, not August 28.

In addition to the Introduction and the primary text (130 pages), this book includes a section of notes (18 pages), a bibliography (10 pages) and an Index (6 pages). Primary Chinese sources are listed in both English and original Chinese characters, and the author indicates that translations are her own. With one exception, the black-and-white illustrations are from Chinese-language publications of Twain's works, including the cover of the first mainland China translation of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1942).

Mark Twain in China provides a concise history of Twain's preoccupations with China and the issues of race, politics and culture that were directly analogous to those evident in his writings regarding anti-imperialism and racial discrimination in his own country. This new addition to Twain critical literature also provides a window to his reception by readers in an Asian culture who found in his writings affirmation of universal humanitarian values. As such, Selina Lai-Henderson's Mark Twain in China can be seen as a natural product of this increasing interest, another nail, if needed, in the coffin of the "mere humorist" appellation.

Selina Lai-Henderson is Research Assistant Professor of American Studies at The University of Hong Kong.


About the Reviewer: Martin Zehr is a psychologist in private practice in Kansas City, Missouri. He presented "Mark Twain's Chinese Connection: Empathy, Politics & Race" for "The Trouble Begins at Eight" series of the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies in 2014 and republished the complete text of Twain's August 4,1868 New York Tribune article, "The Treaty With China: Its Provisions Explained," in 2010.