Mark Twain is popular in China – and not only (predictably) for Huckleberry Finn, which has more than 90 different translations into Chinese. A lot of his fame comes from an obscure short story called “Running for Governor,” Twain’s imaginative account of his (fictional) 1870 gubernatorial run in New York.
Amy Qin, who calls Twain the “founder of the American voice,” tells the story in the New York Times here, and says that Twain’s tale of American incompetence, greed, sham, corruption, and lies made the piece required reading for middle school students across China, “along with other short stories that were seen to reinforce the anti-Western, anti-capitalist, socialist education agenda.”
According to literary scholar Guiyou Huang on the Library of America website, “ ‘Running for Governor’ was translated and filtered down into the high school textbooks throughout the country as a model piece of critical realism that exposes the so-called false democracy in a capitalist country. In other words, all high school graduates [in China] know who Mark Twain is.”
“In a speech delivered in 1960 in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Twain’s death, the eminent Chinese writer Lao She hailed Twain as an ‘outstanding writer of critical realism in the United States’ and a bracing social critic who had been reduced by Americans to a figure who told jokes.
“That Twain was until recently remembered more as a humorist than as a satirist or social critic in the United States is not inaccurate, said Shelley Fisher Fishkin, an English professor and expert on Twain at Stanford University.
“’In a sense we threw out the baby with the bath water,’ said Professor Fishkin, citing the imperatives of the Cold War as a major reason for the distortion of Twain’s more serious accomplishments. For much the same reasons that China played up Twain’s social commentary and critiques of imperialism, the United States, she said, played them down. … today in the United States, more than a hundred years after Twain’s death, many of his critiques of hypocrisy, ignorance and greed — ‘Running for Governor’ included — still ring true. ‘Twain the social critic who uses satire to skewer his society’s foibles is a Twain that is increasingly of value to us today,’ Professor Fishkin said.”