The Odd Couple: On Political Dissent and the Remarkable Similarities Between Mark Twain and Yu Hua

By Jeffrey WasserstromAugust 21, 2015

The Odd Couple: On Political Dissent and the Remarkable Similarities Between Mark Twain and Yu Hua
WHAT IF YU HUA had become the first Chinese author, still based in China, to win a Nobel Prize for Literature?

And, secondly, was Mark Twain a dissident?

I’ve been pondering this pair of questions about two of my favorite authors since November 2012. That was when news broke that Mo Yan had been elevated to the status of literary laureate, sparking a passionate debate on the pros and cons of the Nobel Committee’s choice to which not only specialists in Chinese literature but also very different sorts of figures, including Salman Rushdie and Pankaj Mishra, contributed.

One camp was angered by the committee’s choice. These commentators, Rushdie among them, decried the award going to a man they see as a loyal servant of a vile authoritarian state. This group cited the new laureate’s role as co-chairman of the official Writers Association as “proof” that Mo Yan (a pen name: he was born Guan Moye) was a government stooge and thus by definition a bad choice for the award.

A second camp argued that, to the contrary, Mo Yan was a worthy recipient of the honor. They see him as talented and also “subtly” but “profoundly subversive,” as literary scholar Sabina Knight put it in an essay for the National Interest. Some of Mo Yan’s books have run afoul of the state’s censorship system, she stresses, and it is unfair to make him "a scapegoat for the sins of the regime in which he must survive.” Such defenders of the Nobel nod draw attention to the author’s portrayals of the hardships of ordinary people and his satirizing of corrupt local officials. Mo Yan challenges the political status quo, Knight insists, through his magical realism and his heroes’ “almost-libertarian allegiance to personal freedom.”

There are still others, including Mishra, who have steered clear of both damning the Nobel selectors and celebrating the Chinese author, preferring to muse instead on a political litmus test. We tend to focus largely or exclusively on the quality of a laureate’s writings when the author in question is from Western Europe or North America, Mishra and company emphasize, rather than on whether he or she has subservient or subversive leanings.


Members of this third camp could have buttressed their case by bringing up Mark Twain. He never won a Nobel, but had he gotten one during the short period when he was alive and they were being handed out, he could have been presented as an establishment writer who counted presidents among his friends. He could also, though, have been presented as an antiestablishment firebrand whose criticisms of imperialism, as Selina Lai-Henderson notes in her fascinating new book, Mark Twain in China, led one newspaper to describe him as the United States’ “most dreaded critic of the sacrosanct person in the White House.” And yet, because he was American and was not seen as working within an authoritarian setting, it seems unlikely there would have been a debate over whether he was best seen as a subversive or a stooge.

If, however, the 2012 Nobel had gone not to Mo Yan but to Yu Hua, a Chinese writer I have come to think of as having many things in common with Twain, this very likely would have occurred. Politically, Yu Hua is a much more daring figure than Mo Yan, but he too is neither a dissident nor a sellout. Yet, had he won, the same kinds of moves to brand him as one or the other that took place with the actual winner in November 2012 would surely have been made.

I was probably the only one to think of both Mark Twain and Yu Hua when Mo Yan won his prize, due largely to the fact that both have come to occupy similar places in my personal pantheon of exalted literary figures. I’ll get back to the question of the subversive versus stooge dichotomy and its problems below, but first, here’s a brief recap of how my admiration for Twain and Yu took hold.


My appreciation for Twain goes back to my reading him as a teenager in the 1970s, though I knew his name and those of many of his characters even earlier, thanks to a childhood that included exposure to television shows and films based on novels such as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and visits to Disneyland that were never complete without a stop at Tom Sawyer’s Island. It took a college class devoted to the author, though, to transform me from a casual to an ardent fan.

Prior to taking the class, I thought of Twain as a skillful author of humorous novels. He is, of course, much more than that. He wrote great parables, such as his career-launching one about a jumping frog; memoirs, such as Life on the Mississippi, which is also a history of steamboat piloting before the Civil War; books that present embellished versions of real life travels, such as The Innocents Abroad, which remained his best-selling book throughout his lifetime; and trenchant essays, such as “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” a powerful condemnation of the often barbaric side of Western efforts to bring “civilization” to other parts of the world. Ever since taking that course more than three decades ago, if asked to name my favorite American author, I’ve had a ready answer: the man born Samuel Clemens.


The Chinese writer I paid most attention to in college was not Yu Hua, who hadn’t yet begun to publish, but Lu Xun (18811936). For many years, if asked to name my favorite Chinese author, I would say the name of this figure who, as I learned from Lai-Henderson’s book, greatly admired the way that Huck Finn’s creator “imbued humor with bitterness and sarcasm” in his writings. Lu Xun (born Zhou Shuren) is best known for his short stories, including “Diary of a Madman,” a searing and surreal indictment of Confucianism, and the darkly comic novella The True Story of Ah Q. He also wrote compelling essays about politics, language, folklore, and many other topics. When in the 1980s and 1990s I told people who were from China or familiar with the country that Lu Xun was my favorite Chinese writer, they would simply nod, as if it were an expected thing for me to say, as he is widely viewed as the country’s most significant modern literary figure.

My discovery of Yu came later, well after this one-time dentist, who first made his mark with surrealistic short stories published in the mid-1980s, had become known. By the time I began to read him, he had two late 20th-century novels under his belt that had each earned critical raves. The first of these, To Live, was made into an acclaimed film directed by Zhang Yimou, while the second, Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, was hailed by many as one of the best novels published in China in the 1990s.

Still not a household name in the West, Yu has recently become better known to anglophone readers, thanks to four books coming out in translation in the first years of the 21st century. These are Brothers, a sprawling novel set largely during the Cultural Revolution; China in Ten Words, a work of nonfiction; the short story collection Boy in the Twilight (the tales in which appeared in Chinese in 1999 but not in English until 2014); and the novella The Seventh Day (the English language edition of which was published earlier this year). Adding further to Yu’s international reputation have been the often wickedly funny, sometimes moving, and always insightful commentaries on contemporary issues, from censorship and historical commemoration to food safety scares and Chinese images of the United States, which he has been contributing to venues such as The New York Times and Britain’s Prospect magazine.

I’ve yet to tackle some of Yu’s fictional works, including Brothers, which was published in China in 2005 and translated into English by the talented team of Eileen Cheng-yin Chow and Carlos Rojas in 2009, but I have liked all the short stories and novels I’ve read. I am equally fond of his nonfiction, especially Ten Words, Yu’s 2012 collection of memoir-infused reflections on key terms that benefits from a brisk and wonderfully effective translation by Allan H. Barr, who also rendered Boy in the Twilight and Seventh Day into English. When people ask me to suggest a novel dealing with the rise and rule of China’s Communist Party, I point them toward To Live, which is available in a lively translation by Michael Berry and presents pivotal stages of revolutionary history from the perspective of everyman characters, or Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, which has similar virtues and a slightly larger quotient of humor; it was translated into English by the talented Andrew F. Jones, who also contributes a thoughtful introduction on Yu’s career and style. To those who say they are looking for a highly readable work by a Chinese author that provides an illuminating perspective on the country today, I say they can’t do better than Ten Words.

As for Lu Xun, whose deep influence on Yu is clear (he even devotes an entire chapter in Ten Words to him, something he does for no other individual), I definitely still rate him highly. I continue to be struck by the power of his essays, the emotional wallop of stories like the elegiac “Hometown,” and the way that The True Story of Ah Q captures significant features of the 1911 Revolution’s failure to change fundamental aspects of Chinese society. I just find I get a more satisfying mixture of pleasure and food for thought now from reading Yu.


When I first realized that Yu was replacing Lu Xun as the Chinese figure whose place in my personal pantheon was most comparable to Twain’s, I believed that little beyond that quirk of individual preference linked the old American author to the present-day Chinese one. I had never seen them compared in print or online. Nor had I seen any mention of Yu’s thoughts on Twain — though he surely would have come across his work, given the positive reputation the American author has enjoyed in China from the Republican era (19121949) through the Mao years (19491976) and beyond. (Lai-Henderson provides many interesting details on Chinese translations of Twain, beginning with an obscure short story translated in 1904, and includes quotes praising the American author by not only Lu Xun but also Lao She, another towering literary figure, but Yu Hua is not mentioned in her book.) I’ve now come to believe, though, that Yu and Twain deserve to be seen as kindred spirits.

Consider the kinds of things that a roomful of educated Americans might say when asked to describe Twain. He was a novelist, one might answer; a satirist, a second might chime in; someone who wrote short stories, which often included absurd events, a third person might add.

Those most intimately familiar with Twain’s oeuvre — due, for example, to having taken a course on him — might offer more details. They might point out that Twain liked to experiment with styles and genres (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, for example, has been classified as a work of science fiction as well as of historical fiction); that he wrote nonfiction books as well as novels, excelling as a pointed, often amusing cultural and political critic; that he often drew heavily on his experiences growing up outside major metropolitan areas during a tumultuous period; and that, as an adult, he lived through and chronicled a “gilded age” (a term he helped popularize in a co-authored eponymous book), during which the country of his birth rose rapidly in international prominence. In addition, some of his more censorious peers thought his work unsafe for general consumption, and editors and publishers sometimes objected to his handling of hot-button issues.

All but one of the attributes also applies to Yu. The sole exception is that he has not, at least so far, helped popularize the name of an era. (This could change: the chapter devoted to “disparity” in Ten Words does such a good job of capturing contemporary inequities that one could imagine the phrase “Age of Disparity” someday gaining traction for this period, which is already sometimes called China’s “Gilded Age.”)

Yu’s oeuvre includes not only the books alluded to so far but also a collection of early short stories, The Past and the Punishments, elegantly translated by Jones, who did so well by Yu in rendering Chronicle of a Blood Merchant into English. In those early tales, we find Yu trying his hand at everything from a martial arts story to surrealist narratives.

Yu has written an impressive body of short works of criticism. Some of these became, in expanded form, chapters in China in Ten Words.

In terms of subject matter, in both his nonfiction and his fiction, Yu often draws on memories of growing up in a provincial setting during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution era. Some of his most effective writing, both in novels — from the early To Live to the recent The Seventh Day — and in China in Ten Words, focuses on the experiences of boys and young men.

The parallels between the two writers aren’t exact, of course, and there are many contrasts between them to note. For example, throughout his career, Twain wrote travel books. Yu, by contrast, has gone to other countries but generally sticks to domestic settings in his writing. And though Yu can be a lively and funny speaker, he does not, as Twain did, earn a significant amount of his money on the lecture circuit.

Another difference relates to censorship. Twain had periodic run-ins with censors, including spats with newspaper editors who objected to his scathing indictment of the treatment of Chinese immigrants, which the editors worried might alienate readers from ethnic groups he pilloried for holding these unfair prejudices. These did not play as central a part in his writing life, though, as censorship issues do in those of many contemporary Chinese writers, including Yu, who regularly writes things that he knows can’t be published on the Chinese mainland, including anything that treats a taboo topic such as 1989’s June 4th Massacre. Typically, his fiction is approved for publication in all parts of Greater China, while his nonfiction appears only in translation and in Hong Kong and Taiwan complex-character Chinese-language editions.

Yet another contrast has to do with sensibility. Twain was deeply pessimistic. Yu, by contrast, despite writing at times about deeply tragic events (in The Seventh Day, nearly every character has suffered a tragedy), tends to be more of an optimist, even though his circumstances could easily lead to a sense of total despair in a writer. When he was asked at a talk I attended at Pomona College if he was distressed that some of his work couldn’t be sold in bookstores in Beijing, the city he calls home, he said he did not like the situation but saw grounds for hope. He noted that even his “banned” writings make their way into the country via underground channels, and he said that he was sure that the day would come when Ten Words, still now too hot for Beijing bookstores to handle, would be sold openly in China’s capital.

There is a final difference that strikes me as particularly revealing and brings us back to the debate discussed at the start of this essay. When I mention Yu at public talks, I’m sometimes asked if he’s a “dissident” or to explain why, if he is as edgy a writer as I suggest, he isn’t in jail or in exile. This just isn’t the sort of question I imagine people posed about Twain in his day; he was careful not to ally himself with political movements. And yet I do see political as well as literary parallels between the two authors.

Twain often spoke out on issues of his day. He tended to champion the interests of the powerless against the powerful and to mock hypocritical actions by elites. He periodically played, long into his life, the role of an aging enfant terrible, yet did not set himself in direct opposition to the political order.

Interestingly, Twain’s work stayed in favor in Mao’s China, mainly because of the gimlet eye he turned on domestic politics in the United States in stories such as “Running for Governor,” whose enduring popularity across the Pacific was addressed by Amy Qin in a 2014 essay for The New York Times. Twain of course was a trenchant critic of American imperialism and what he saw as the immoral and unchristian things said and done by many American missionaries. (Had he been born in China, he famously said in 1900, he would have joined the anti-Christian Boxer movement.)


If, by some chance, Yu is awarded a Nobel Prize and his works gain many new Western readers, I believe those suddenly discovering him as an author would split into the “think of him as a dissident” and the “he’s too far from a dissident to deserve acclaim” camps.

Just look, the first group might argue, at how powerfully some chapters in Ten Words expose as shams the stories China’s current leaders like to tell. They claim to head a party that has always served the “people,” yet in the book’s chapter on that term, Yu says the word only began to feel meaningful to him during the uprising of 1989, as a sense of community emerged out of feelings of common purpose generated by the year’s protests. In other chapters, the same people might stress, Yu mocks tales the government tells of its alleged commitment to promoting equality.

Critics of this imagined Yu Hua Nobel nod might counter that most of his short stories, including those in Boy in the Twilight, lack overt political content. For an author in an authoritarian setting to be taken seriously, some assume, his or her writings need to challenge the system. Yu’s collections of short fiction, including Boy in the Twilight, though, give us tales of love affairs gone sour, of shifts in the balance of power within couples over time, of a boy’s response to being bullied and teased about his dog, and the like.

These detractors might even describe a favorite story of mine from Boy in the Twilight as something that should count against rather than for Yu when it comes to assessing his Nobel worthiness. This tale, “Appendix,” is about two brothers who are enthralled by a story their surgeon father tells about a doctor far from a hospital and all alone who is struck by appendicitis — yet survives by using a mirror and a knife to perform an appendectomy on his own body.

Not long after the brothers hear the story, their father’s own appendix grows inflamed and the only ones who are nearby and able to help him get to a hospital were the two boys. Realizing that this is the only chance they will ever get to see if their father can live up to the superhero status they had accorded the doctor in the story, they ignore his plea to rush him to the hospital or fetch a doctor and instead go out in search of a mirror and surgical tools. Their father, wracked by pain, begins weeping and implores them to get their mother. They finally do this, and he is rushed to the hospital, where he barely survives a last-minute appendectomy. The tale ends with him muttering to his wife that children, like appendixes, are things you must deal with but who are also annoying entities that could threaten your life. This story is one that could have been written by a vexed parent in any setting; there is no skewering of the political status quo, overt or veiled, to be found in any of its sentences.

Readers previously unfamiliar with Yu might wonder whether the same person could have written the politically charged Ten Words and the stories in Boy in the Twilight. The disjuncture wouldn’t seem so strange, however, if they happened to be familiar with Twain’s range, with his deftness at switching between genres and alternating between telling tales of boyhood pranks and offering penetrating critiques of the use those in power make of structures they control and how they try to conceal these actions by using fancy words. Twain’s oeuvre, like Yu’s, is filled with works that demonstrate their author’s keen eye for the small dramas of everyday life and keen ear for linguistic hypocrisy, rooted in Bible-thumping moralism and American jingoism in the one case and Chinese Communist Party sophistry in the other, relating to the big issues of the time. Twain seemed equally at home, after all, when offering a humorous account of a boy tricking his friends into whitewashing a wall for him, and when crafting dark essays, such as “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” that include attacks on the political pieties of his day that bring to mind Yu’s searing nonfiction commentaries on the China he lives in now. And as for that short story about the doctor with mischievous sons, well, it’s easy to pretend the two youths who almost killed the surgeon were pals instead of brothers and that their first names were Huck and Tom.


Editors note: In the version of this essay originally published, the author described the father of the boys in the story “Appendix” performing surgery on himself rather than going to the hospital. The story can be read online here.


Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine.

LARB Contributor

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. His most recent book is Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink (Columbia Global Reports, 2020). He is also the author of books such as Eight Juxtapositions: China Through Imperfect Analogies from Mark Twain to Manchukuo (Penguin, 2016), co-author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford, 2018, third edition), and the editor or co-editor of several titles. He is the advising editor on China for LARB, a member of the editorial board of Dissent Magazineand a co-founder of UCI’s Forum for the Academy and Public Life. He has written reviews and commentaries for newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, as well as for a wide range of magazines, journals of opinion, and literary reviews, including TLS and The Atlantic. He is an adviser to the Hong Kong International Literary Festival and has been a featured speaker at Internazionale’s Ferrara Festival. Find him on Twitter at @jwassers.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!