Reading Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer Under a New Light      


 Written By You-Sheng Li ( June 2012)

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(1)   Introduction

            In spite of vast differences between Western and Chinese cultural traditions, the history of their fiction writing as a distinctive art went along similar evolutionary pathways. Paul S. Ropp gives a detailed comparison of Western and Chinese fiction. [1] He says, “As fiction became more sophisticated and self-conscious in both cultures it also evolved from an earlier tendency to endorse wholeheartedly the society’s common values and moved instead to a more ironic stance that questioned or criticized the dominant values of the civilization… The most strikingly are the parallels from the sixteenth through the early nineteenth centuries when the novel in both cultures became increasingly autobiographical and increasing serious in the exploration of social, moral, and philosophical problems.” The word “autobiographical” is understood as drawing directly from the author’s own experience, and his characters are usually real people he knew in his life.

            Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer has all those newly developed characteristics: 1) autobiographical, 2) criticizing the dominant values of the civilization, and 3) exploring psychological and philosophical dilemmas in our life with an ironic humorous tone. Furthermore, this novel created for the first time in literature a hero who was a pariah or outcast and rebelled against the prevailing traditions.  

Tom Sawyer describes family life in a village from a juvenile view. Villages, families, and children are all relatively close to human nature or the primary society. It will be interesting to compare this novel with similar Chinese novels and compare Twain’s town with the town where I lived in the 1950s under the new light of the genetically coded primary society and the man-made secondary society. Western society even in an isolated village was much more secondary while the Chinese village as well as urban societies was more primary as a society, since Mediterranean civilizations started with secondary societies and Chinese civilization started with primary societies. [7,8]

            History records what can be described in words, and only literature opens a window allowing us to peep into the unspoken part of history, the psychological soul of man. The creation and popularity of a novel during a particular time tells what occupies the collective conscious mind, if we divide our consciousness or mind into socially shared part and individually private part. This essay thus forms an essential part of putting the history of Confucianism in a new perspective.

            Western civilization originated in ancient Greece that developed under the influence of Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations. So was the American culture that branched from Europe. In a way, the United States before the Civil War was more similar to ancient Greece in slavery and cultural homogeneity than Europe. Both United States and China are independent large countries while Europe is consisted of various nations of different languages and cultures. In conclusion, the comparison of Chinese literature with American instead of European one is well justified. This essay concentrates on Tom Sawyer but also refers to its sequel, Huckleberry Fin, from time to time.


(2)   Primary and Secondary Societies and Their Differences


            All human societies can be divided into the genetically coded primary society and the man-made secondary society. The definition of and the distinction between the primary society and the secondary society can be refined by examining the way in which they are contrary to each other: One was man-made, the other, hereditary. It is thus not difficult at all delineating the major differences between the two by deduction from the definition with reference to ancient tribal and modern societies.

            Those differences include: 1) the former primary society is based on genetics, and human nature and instinct are enough to keep it harmonious and functional while the latter secondary society is man-made to serve its goal, and has an ideology or value system with a social structure to support that goal. 2) Dictated by genetics, the former has only one type while the latter has limitless possible types. Social stratification and institutionalized violence such as police and army are often necessary to keep the latter stable in its present type and restrain its members from seeking other types of society. As a result, the former does not need a forceful authority while the latter does. 3) The former is a psychological/emotional whole because of the subconscious social bond related to face-to-face interaction while the latter relies on a uniform ideology and goal. The religious culture is animism and remains part of the former society while the latter often has organized religions with different belief systems. 4) Language is mainly for psychological/emotional exchange and carries aesthetic value in the former while language is mainly for communication or exchange of information, insights, opinion, and so on in the latter. 5) Subjective consciousness is present in both but only the latter allows its members to become men of their own making. 6) The philosophy of life or world view is different: The former is able to view the physical world, the social world, and the inner world of human minds from a relaxed mind while dictated by the social ideology; the latter has a focused view. In fact, war and competition forced people to focus on each other. European visual artists created only human figures until the 17th and 18th centuries when Holland and Britain developed paintings of scenery and landscape. [2] Navigation enabled them to escape from the grip of the continental military powers and therefore gave them a relaxed mind to see more of the world.

            Such a list can be easily extended.

            Unlike other classifications of human societies that focus on cumulative gradual changes other than human nature, the division of human societies into two levels, genetically coded and man-made, focuses on the underlying transformation or a jump, which fits well into the multi-level operation of the universe (Table 1).


Table 1. The Universal Evolutionary Pathways



1. Physical World

2. Life

2. Culture

4. Consciousness

Level 1





Level 2





Level 3

Elementary particles




Level 4

Atoms and electrons




Level 5





Level 6

Matters and objects




Level 7

Stars and planets




Level 8


Organs and limbs



Level 9





Level 10


Primary society


Subconscious or aesthetic

Level 11


Secondary society


Conscious: rational thinking systems and spirituality


            There are impassable gaps between those levels in Table 1. In a way, tissues are the primary society of cells and organs are the secondary society of cells. Normally, cells cannot leave their tissues to reach the organ level. Although humans build secondary societies, our history also suggests an impassable gap between the two levels of society.

From the unearthed skeletons, one may see how healthy the ancient people were by measuring their heights and the numbers of teeth they had lost. A study shows a clear decreasing trend of human health in history: On average, adults lost 2.2 teeth in 30,000 BC, 3.5 teeth in 6,500 BC, and 6.6 teeth during the Roman Period. The average height of adult males was 177 cm thirty thousand years ago, 165 cm ten thousand years ago, and 175 cm for American males in the 1960s. [3] According to Chen (1979), the Chinese population suddenly dropped more than half for at least ten times between 221 BC and 1911 when the secondary society was established. [4] There was no single such drop recorded from 2200 BC to 476 BC when the ancient Chinese super state of primary societies was in place.


(3)   The American Town in Comparison with the Chinese Town


            Twain’s hometown Hannibal started with a population of 30 and reached 2020 in 1830. Twain was born in 1835 and lived there until he was a teenager. Therefore both the author and his characters lived there as juveniles. Hannibal was beside a river and a railway. My hometown was beside a river and a highway but thirty miles from a railway, and had some 3000 residents in the 1950s. Thus Hannibal and my hometown were similar and comparable. A rural lifestyle prevailed in both. In this discussion they represent the American towns and the Chinese towns in general, so they are referred to as the American or the Chinese Town respectively. No distinction is made between Hannibal and Tom Sawyer’s village St. Petersburg.

            From Twain’s novel, we can see all its characters have different surnames unless they are from the same family. In contrast, my hometown consisted of various areas or neighbourhoods that were peopled by different clans. For example, my clan of 300 members had the same surname and lived in an area that has its own village name. Those clans were essentially nearly or quasi-primary societies until the late 1950s. Members of the same clan interacted with each other face-to-face on a daily basis. As there is no forceful authority in a primary society, there were only occasional meetings of the whole clan, at most once a year. To attend such a meeting, each family usually sent their representative, an adult male or female or even a child. If all members were encouraged to attend, the meeting had to provide free food and drink. The whole American Town was motivated to search when both Tom and Becky went missing for days, and the whole town awoke at midnight when the two juveniles were found. In the Chinese Town, such initiatives were not undertaken by anyone beyond the clan or the primary society. There was no general meeting for my hometown except festivals, where people came only for their enjoyment just as festivals in the West today. Chinese peasants from the same town only got together for the sake of private friendships and personal relationships. In the American Town, there was a weekly Christian service for all members to attend. The basic society above families was the clan in China but the small town in the West. Only Communists were able to change the Chinese traditions.

            The Chinese communists collectivised all peasants in 1956. My hometown formed a so-called agricultural cooperation with more than a dozen teams. It literally meant that the Communists were then able to motivate the whole town for a simple purpose like the American Town. It took a long time to accomplish this. To move peasants from their primary societies up to the level of the secondary society where law or authority rules, it needs a fundamental transformation. This transformation is so dramatic, and it is often associated with violence and death. I still remember today that in late 1957 and early 1958, the whole town was ordered to dig a ditch, which was divided into many segments for each team to work on. When I went to the site, I saw only children and women with a single elderly male as the temporary leader. I did not work hard at all but I was hated and criticized nonstop for working too hard. At noon, the whole town was ordered to a gathering at a nearby graveyard. From a town of 3000, only two or three dozen attended the meeting there to listen to a new leader, who was not a local but from far away, since his job was to break the local clans into free individuals and make them obey authority. To my knowledge it was the first meeting of the town. A peasant was dragged in with both of his arms tied behind. This leader announced his crime as being lazy. He was called the pariah to his face. Then the leader shouted a slogan, “Down with this lazy pariah!” He then motivated all the participants to follow him. Only a few murmured something I could not hear clearly. After this meeting, this lazy peasant was led by two guards walking ten miles to reach the county prison. Corporal punishment was soon introduced. My uncle was once so severely whipped that he broke out of the so-called bull-shed or temporary prison at night and crawled to his home but was only able to move some fifty meters in a whole night. He was dragged back when he was only half way home the next day. My uncle’s crime was eating raw corn to relieve his hunger. Death did occur after such beatings. It is not indeed an easy job to let those who used to live entirely in a quasi-primary society to get used to a secondary society. Those overdone punishments were deemed necessary to teach the illiterate peasants some basic disciplines. A chaotic countryside was eventually resulted, and it led to million deaths of starvation.

            Instead of clans, the American Town had the concept of blood or race. Tom Sawyer has many remarks that will be labelled as racism today. For example, it is always a negative tone when it comes to black people. For example, it says, niggers always lie. The only antihero in this book was Injun Joe who killed five citizens from the village alone. This Injun is a half-breed with Indian blood in his heredity. Before he committed murder, he told his victim, “The Injun blood ain’t in me for nothing.” Since there was a UN-like super state above in China, the conflicts among different clans went rarely beyond control. To my knowledge, violent or prolonged conflicts never occurred in my hometown and its surrounding area, though quarrel did occur among individuals of different clans. I lived there until I went to university but kept coming back for short visit. I have never heard any murder case, and thefts were extremely rare until recent years.

            Since a clan would not normally allow any of its members to starve to death, entirely pariahs or outcasts were much less common in the Chinese countryside though they became more with the process of modernization and urbanization. Huck (Huckleberry Finn) is such a pariah. Tom has a family but he joins Huck for almost all his adventures in the novel. None of their adventures were family-based. On the other hand, the Chinese Town was much poorer than the American one though the former was a hundred years later than the latter.

            When I was a child, there was a popular tale which was apparently based on facts. The tale so goes, in the long winter, peasants usually had two meals per day, one around 10:00 AM and the other at 4:00 PM. Such an arrangement aimed to save food during the idle winter. To keep his children in bed before 10:00 AM, a father hang a caged duck instead of a rooster at their door, telling the children, “We get up only after this bird calls at dawn.” When the children wanted to get up in the morning, the father tried to keep them in bed saying. “The ‘rooster’ has not called yet.” Please notice that the Chinese peasants were frugal but not starving. Chinese peasants apparently preferred to stay quietly within themselves instead of adventuring at the secondary society level.

            As a result, the Chinese Town was poor but egalitarian. All residents in my hometown lived in one-story bungalows. Nothing could match the so-called “palace” in Tom Sawyer’s town or village St. Petersburg. There was no public school but only private schools in the American Town. In my hometown, the schools were usually run by clans and therefore similar the public school in modern sense as it almost cost nothing. The students could not become fully literate, since the Chinese characters are much harder to master.

            In a generous prayer during a sermon, the minister pleaded for the country, for the United States, for Congress, for the President, and for the oppressed millions groaning under the heel of European monarchies and Oriental despotisms. It indicates that the American villagers were well aware their government and their world. The illiterate Chinese villagers almost knew nothing outside their villages. They usually did not distinguish fairy tales from historical figures or even from what happened in the current Chinese government. They treated them all the same as if they were from another realm or another world. It was simply because the primary society and the secondary society are at different levels, which are similar to letters and essays and to cells and organs.


(4)   Tom Sawyer and its Matched Chinese Novels


            Here I selected three Chinese fictions as being most comparable to Mark Twain’s Tom Sayers, and here I call them the matched. The third of the three is a short story published in 1936, and its communist influence is evident. This study is concentrated on the first two novels, A Dream in the Red Mansion and The True Story of Ah Q, which were published around 1791 and 1921 respectively. In combination, the two novels meet well the three characteristics listed above. The first protagonist or hero in the first novel, a juvenile, comes from an aristocratic family of a few hundreds, including the service people, which was similar in a way to Tom Sawyer who lives with his family in a small town. The hero in the second novel was a pariah in a village but an adult. The third was a juvenile outcast in the coast city, Shanghai. The regard in which the first two Chinese novels and the three Chinese writers are held is also matched well with Tom Sawyer and its author. Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) wrote, “All American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Huckleberry Finn is only a sequel to Tom Sawyer, and those two books are generally regarded the most outstanding works of Mark Twain. The same can be said about the first two matched novels in Chinese literature. The author of the second matched novel was the first Chinese novelist in modern Western terms, Lu Hsun (1881-1936). He received his education from Japan that had already been westernized. The first Chinese novel is the only matched one that was written without influence from Western literature.

            The first magazine for children appeared in 1886 in China but the early writings for children were usually fairy tales and illustrated stories. Tom Sawyer is a novel for both adults and juvenile children. So are the three matched Chinese fictions, though Chinese fictions written only to suit children’s taste appeared much later than their Western counterparts. Lu Hsu occasionally wrote stories and memoirs about his childhood and therefore the main characters are all children. But those writings were all for adult readers, because children were simply not allowed to read such books during the Imperial China (221 BC-1911).

            The inclusion of novels before and after Chinese fiction writing was opened to Western influence allows us to see the original way of Chinese fiction writing and see how a Westernized Chinese writer would address the same issue in literature.


(5)   The Ideology


1) The Two Levels of Society and Ideology: Peter Kropotkin observed that “Throughout the history of our civilization, two traditions, two opposed tendencies have been in conflict: the Roman tradition and the popular tradition, the imperial tradition and the federalist tradition, the authoritarian and the libertarian tradition.” [5] Tom Sawyer so represents the libertarian tradition to rebel against the authoritarian tradition.

            Those who denounce the secondary society seek an alternative life by freeing their spirit while those who denounce the primary society either rebel or leave. Those two opposed traditions represent two directions towards different types of the secondary society. There are numerous models for a secondary society to conform to. In a fight or competition for voting, people tend to group into two opposed camps. With the primary society that has only one type, whoever denounces the society has to leave. If he is lucky, he can find another primary society to join. That was what happened to ancient primitive tribal people:

            Since Chinese civilization started with a super state functioning as police to keep peace among local powers, Chinese people were able to live in primary or quasi-primary societies until the Axial Age when the philosophical foundation was laid down for the next two and half millennia. As a result, China carried over their traditions of the primary society into the imperial age from 221 BC till 1911. In Chinese history, the two opposed yet complementary traditions were Confucianism and Taoism. As an unofficial ideology, Taoism did not seek an alternative type of secondary society but sought a fairy life outside the secular world and meanwhile lent a hand to peasant uprisings from time to time.

2) Emotional Expression: Both Chinese and Western writers describe emotion in an exaggerated way. In A Dream in the Red Mansion, the author often goes into lengthy details about how a master searches every corner of her heart in order to treat her slave girl well in order to ensure her own peace of mind. In contrast, when Tom and Becky finally came back, the whole village all woke up to show their love for the two kids. When the Chinese hero Baoyu made a major mistake that had brought serious trouble to his father and received a whipping and his beloved girl came to see him afterwards: She is barely able to hold back her tears from eyes swollen like two peaches, and says, “You change, please!” And then she leaves. Tom’s and Huck’s adventure shows an emotional expression of liberty, and so their adventure is idealized with exaggeration so that both its successes and dramatic twists are unbelievable, and this forms the humour of the novel. Taoist religion aims at making its adherents godly immortals. When the Chinese hero Baoyu finally became a monk, he, with a Taoist and Buddhist at each side, moves in the air and disappears before his father’s eyes. This kind of exaggeration is only seen in fairy tales in the West.

3) Materialistic and Aesthetic Adventures: Tom Sawyer depicts the adventures of Tom Sawyer and his juvenile friends. As children’s play functions as preparation for their adult life, so those adventures serve only as miniature precursors of the adventurous adult life in a secondary society. In modern society, many enjoy their life as an adventure, and our advanced global society provides a safe and accommodating environment. Here we call such goal-oriented adventure, materialistic adventure while spiritual adventure of the mind is referred to as aesthetic adventure.

            It is understandable that a materialistic adventurous lifestyle prevails in the West but much less so in China. As a result, none of the heroes of the matched Chinese novels are adventurous in the way Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are. In the second matched Chinese novel, the hero had no adventurous plan of his own but, nevertheless, wanted to join the revolution and was also once attracted by a robbery. He was too outcast to be able to join either. In the last matched Chinese novel, the hero’s adventure was nothing more than getting alms of bread in a harsh environment to fill up his stomach.

            In the first matched Chinese novel, A Dream in the Red Mansion, a female character Wangxifeng, who manages a large family of a few hundred and looks down on all the males in front her, may be called materialistically adventurous and spiritually similar to Tom Sawyer. The novel describes her as being ignorant and stubborn with wrong ideas (chimi) and she finally meets her tragic end. The novel uses her as a negative stereotype to denounce the secular world. In a Chinese way, the whole novel is the hero’s adventurous story. It starts with an ancient myth: Once the sky was broken, Goddess, whose name is interpreted by many scholars as female sex organ, used a huge pile of rocks to mend the sky. After finishing her job, she had a left over piece of rock. This piece of useless rock reincarnates and becomes the hero, who is the beloved son of the richest and noblest family on earth. He is obsessed with the idea of denouncing the cultural tradition of this large bureaucratic family and eventually becomes a Buddhist monk. It is a Taoist idea that life on earth is a mistake and any truly libertarian will seek freedom outside this secondary society. Males predominated in prominent positions in both Western and Chinese society, and so is in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Fin but not in this Chinese novel where all the males are peripheral, ridiculous, nasty characters. In the hero’s mind, the ideal life is idling around with a playful interest in poetry, arts, and intellectual discussion of spirituality while both Tom and Huck illustrate an ideal life by their purely materialistic pursuit while showing no interest in either literature or arts. Tom was interested only in the adventurous side while reading novels and stories.

            History is itself an adventure of humankind. In the West, materialistic adventure took the form of escalating war and ended with the Second World War. In Chinese history, aesthetic adventure ended periodically with collapses and revolutions. A thorough survey of all emperors, 611 in total, in Chinese history found that emperors were the most unlucky subpopulation. As high as 45% of them met unnatural deaths; and their life spans averaged 35 years while that of the general population was 57 years, after infant deaths were excluded. Due to lack of security and increased stress, a high proportion of emperors showed symptoms of psychological and mental disorders. [6] In a way, Chinese history restricted its chaotic disorder of the secondary society within the government but spread out occasionally to engulf the whole country in chaos. Western history spread out a similar disorder all over the society but dealt with it seriously to provide an improving social environment for materialistic adventure.


(6) Further Comparison of Tom Sawyer with its Matched Chinese Novels


1) The Shadowy Superior Society: From Tom Sawyer, we can see clearly that life in the American Town was independent from its government and the society surrounding it. Social hierarchy is essential for any ordered secondary society, but its influence on life can be minimized to providing the basic rules and ensuring a suitable environment. Government officials and their associates appeared as important people, and to Tom and Huck, their power was limited to a front seat at social gatherings. Mr. Thatcher, a judge, even compared Tom Sawyer with George Washington. The Sunday service prayed for the president as well as some villagers.

            Due to the ancient Chinese super state of primary societies and its influence on subsequent history, Chinese society was organized into different levels:


The Emperor and his clan + Intellectuals, Quasi-primary society



Government officials and their candidates, Secondary society



Villages, Quasi-primary society


            In the above model, the three levels were literally three different worlds with impassable gaps between. The life of a clan, a family, or an individual might be affected by the society at a higher level in a mysterious way beyond reason. Ordinary people like my mother and grandmother might adapt to the influence from above the same way as to climate change. [7] Both novelists and their readers were intellectuals who fell unfortunately into those gaps of mystery.

            For many years after Mao the former national leader’s death, China developed a nationwide superstition of worshipping Mao as a protecting god. Mao’s image and

statue were believed to have the magic power to protect people from natural disaster. Most drivers had a Mao’s statue in front of their seat in hope that Mao would protect them in case of traffic accidents. There was no comparable superstition developed in the United States after George Washington’s death. It is no surprise that a social outcast was compared to George Washington in Tom Sawyer.

            The first matched Chinese novel describes the life of a large family of government officials. Those officials themselves formed a typical secondary society, but their clans and family might live in a quasi-primary society. Since literature reflects the ideal life and world of the author and the people, this Chinese novel’s family life was typically a primary society, built on emotional and aesthetic value rather than a uniform goal. This novel’s main theme is to condemn the secondary society and its value and praise the primary society and its value. In this novel, every male character is bad while every female is elegant but suffers a miserable end as the world is muddled up by males. During Confucius’ time, the separation of the man’s outside world and the woman’s inside world was largely in place. Such a separation was still visible more than two thousand years later in this novel. The large family of a few hundred was totally managed by women. Furthermore, the male head of the family was deemed to be an unpractical man lacking knowledge in dealing with secular affairs.

            The higher level above this family was the emperor and his court, who were apparently a different world of mystery and awe. Once someone was called into the palace, the whole family were sitting awake until midnight full of fear about what misfortune might fall upon them but finally learnt good news instead. Their daughter was a concubine of the emperor, and they were not allowed to see her for years. When the daughter came to visit her home for the first time, she wept with tears streaming down her face, saying, “You have sent me to a world where I cannot see anybody, waiting for years to get this occasion. Why do we female companions and sweethearts get together today doing nothing by shedding tears?” The whole novel foreshadows and describes the inevitable declined trend of the family, which is in a way similar to the inescapable fate in the ancient Greek. The ancient Greek tragedy illustrates the unfortunate nature of civilized life on earth, and it focuses on the experience of the human as an individual, which is the result of uncontrollable fate. This Chinese novel focuses on the family and the primary society, and the social tragedy is spelt out by a mysterious force from above. Both Tom Sawyer and this Chinese novel were partially autobiographical, and in real history, this Chinese author’s autocratic family suffered dramatically when China had a new emperor who happened to dislike them.

            The hero in the third matched Chinese novel was a child who lived in the largest commercialized city as a pariah. He apparently lacked the worriless free comfort Huck Finn enjoyed. He literally lived on mercy of a society above him. He dug into the garbage outside the buildings of rich people for discarded food, and also begged pennies from misses and laddies there. Policemen were responsible for driving him away though everybody had the right to do so. He also often received a heavy kick on his buttocks as a reward. He did not have any sense what going on in the upper class while the whole society knew nothing about his life. Only under Communist influence, such an urban outcast was put in spot by the author and reminding, he can join the patriotic revolutionary movement as well.

            The second matched Chinese novel describes an outcast peasant named Ah Q. He lived a life similar to Huck Finn but he lived in a small local temple and had to do odd jobs for other villagers to feed himself. He had no family and relatives. In place of Tom’s and Huck’s adventure of the independent selves, Ah Q was looked down by other villagers and had to rely on his technique of spiritual victory: After being beaten up by others, he felt better by saying to himself in his heart, “I have been beaten by my sons.”

            The novel clearly shows the different meanings of life between the village and the world of the government officials: The two levels of society equal human tissues and organs, and there is an impassable gap between them. One night a landlord was robbed by a group of bandits. The government could not find those bandits but arrested Ah Q instead, saying the government eventually got the one responsible for a robbery. It must be pointed out that such administrative tricks are not uncommon at all in China even today. When the court official asked Ah Q to sign his name on a prepared confession, Ah Q felt most dignified because he was for the first time in his life offered a Chinese pen, the brush. As he did not know how to write his name, he was allowed to draw a circle instead. In front of so many important people, Ah Q determined to draw the circle as round as possible to match this occasion and his own self-importance. Traditionally the prisoner often sings a heroic song of Chinese opera to show his lofty spirit before the execution, which often earns applauses from the spectators. Ah Q made all efforts to do so but only managed to say, “In twenty years, there will be another man of will and strength.” According to the theory of reincarnation, after death the soul will be born as another baby who grows into a man in twenty years. Therefore the secondary society uses it as a cover up for its failure while the primary society may see it as a treasurable opportunity to be near heaven or God. Such fundamentally different worlds of different meanings are absent in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and its sequel, Huckleberry Finn. In the latter, even Huck’s illiterate drunken father knew countries outside his country. He was angry to see black man in decent dress and saying he would leave this country if it continued to tolerate niggers like that. It shows that the Western secondary society is a man-made society to suit its people, and so every one including outcasts has a say how the society should be run.

2) Outcasts, Robbers, and Peasant Uprisings: Let’s here call Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and all the heroes or protagonists of the three most comparable Chinese fictions outcasts, as they denounce the mainstream culture and live at the periphery of their society with unacceptable behavior. They are one step away from real robbers who are outlaws. Since fiction is addressed to the public, the author does not want to offend the society by narrating how to break laws but may nevertheless express such a wish metaphorically. For example, Tom and Huck dug holes into a house to help a captured black man to escape only because this man had been freed by his master already. The author apparently wished to break the law to free slaves but avoid offending the public. Therefore the following discussion is not concerned with the possible robbery behaviour and its illegality in those fictions, though the distinction between outcasts and robbers would blur away if those fictions were considered as real happenings in a real world.

            In the last chapter, Huck is bored of civilized life and wants to leave his guardian. Tom persuaded him to stay in order to qualify for a membership in the gang of robbers. According to Tom, a robber is high-toned. “In most countries they’re awful high up in the nobility---dukes and such.” Tom required all gang members “to swear to stand by one another, and never tell the gang’s secrets, even if you’re chopped all to flinders, and kill anybody and all his family that hurts one of the gang.” (p198-99)

            Chuang Tzu who lived around 369-286 BC wrote down a detailed account of Robber Chi. When his gang members asked whether robbers have their own Tao or principle, Robber Chi answered, What profession is there which does not have its own principles? A robber in his recklessness comes to the conclusion that there are valuables deposited inside a house that makes it worth breaking in, and it shows his sagacity. As a robber, he is the first to enter, and this shows his bravery. He is the last to quit and come out, and this shows his righteousness. He knows whether the robbery may be attempted or not, and this shows his wisdom. He makes an equal division of the plunder among all gang members, and this shows his human-heartedness. Without all these five qualities, no one in the world has ever been able to become a great robber.”

            With such a high-toned personality and principle, a robber can certainly organize thousands into a powerful and well disciplined army and conquer a vast land. He then becomes a king, a more respectful title. So Tom Sawyer said, “In most countries they’re awful high up in the nobility---dukes and such.” In other words, kings are great robbers while robbers are those who are not as big as kings. It is applicable to ancient Greece when looting wars prevailed: the winner of a war could take over all the possessions of the defeated ones and sell them as slaves. The same happened to the American slavery before the Civil War. But this does not apply to Chinese history when Confucianism was the dominant ideology. A Chinese robber had to accept Confucianism before he could become a king.

            According to Chuang Tzu, Confucius once tried to persuade Robber Chi to change his behavior. The reader has to keep in mind that such a story was likely based on legends that prevailed after Confucius’ death and thus not very reliable, though it is still valuable to illustrate certain aspects of Confucianism. Robber Chi had nine thousand bandits gathered under his leadership. Confucius told him, with his ability and achievement, he could become a king respected by the whole society if he could accept his teachings. Robber Chi rejected Confucius’ suggestion, saying, “If you talk about gods and spirits, I must admit that I know nothing about them. If you talk about humanity, I will tell you my understanding of the situation we humans are all facing: The eyes wish to look on beauty; the ears want to hear music; the mouth wants to enjoy flavors; the will and desire want to be gratified. The greatest longevity man can reach is a hundred years; a medium is eighty years; and the lowest, only sixty. Apart from sickness, bereavement, mourning, anxieties, and worries, the time when one can smile or laugh is only four or five days per month. Heaven and earth have no limit of duration but man’s life has its limit. With our limited life and body against the background of a limitless universe, our individual existence is as brief as the passing of a crevice by a fast running horse. Those who cannot gratify their will and natural desires, and nourish their destined longevity, are all unacquainted with the Tao of life.”

            What Robber Chi said is not much different from what Tom said about their gang of robbers. To gratify one’s will, either adventure or materialistic pursuit, is the utmost goal. It is okay to kill one and his whole family in order to keep a secret or to enjoy a man’s liver after it is deliciously cooked, as long as it is within the moral codes of the gang of robbers. Both Mark Twain and Chuang Tzu praised or at least approved such cruel non-civil behaviors but to avoid offending the reader, neither Mark Twain nor Chuang Tzu failed to mention whether such things happened afterwards, let alone describing them in detail.

            Both Tom Sawyer and its sequel Huckleberry Finn show clearly that Tom and Huck wished to become robbers and considered robbers are among the great men of the world. In fact they lived near and had some kind of relationship with robbers and rapscallions such as Injun, the King and his duke. Their adventures miraculously avoided any disasters and ended with a great fortune, which may suggest robbery. In summary, the outcasts of the Western secondary society who challenge the mainstream cultural values still have their own life and their own dream. Both Tom and Huck eventually earned understanding, love, and respect from characters of the mainstream society. None of the heroes in the three matched Chinese fictions did so.

            As mentioned above, in the primary society, whoever denounces the society has to leave. If he is lucky, he will find another primary society to join. Since the imperial China was a unified world where the dominant value system was Confucianism, whoever challenged the mainstream cultural values had nowhere to go. They had either to join the robbers who lived inside mountains and were not allowed to appear as positive characters in literature or to join an uprising or a revolution. The hero in the first Chinese novel ended up as a monk who lived outside the world, since there was no uprising for him to join. The hero in the second Chinese novel wanted to join the revolution but the local revolutionaries would not accept him. He was eventually executed as scapegoat for an unsolved robbery. The third Chinese fiction created an urban outcast who eventually joined the anti-government but patriotic rally, which was most likely organized into a national uprising by the Communists. There was a traditional association of social outcasts with uprising in Chinese history. Since the main population was peasants, any uprising on a large scale inevitably became peasant uprisings.

            Therefore, in the West, those outcasts or rogues live their own lives in their own choice. In Chinese history, the society would not allow those outcasts to share the same social esteem as others. They either became bandits or robbers who lived inside mountains or joined the peasant uprising.

            According to the Confucian principle, a conqueror has to set up a state for the conquered to live and worship their ancestors. Thus the Chinese conqueror could not sell the conquered people as slaves as the ancient Greeks did. Compared to the Western history, the gap between a Confucian conqueror king and a real robber among the mountains was much bigger in Chinese history. It left a much more room for the Chinese robbers to develop, and they could become much bigger than the Western robbers. Furthermore, in a content of various local powers fighting each other, a robber who has his own principle like Robber Chi has advantage over those who adhere to Confucian principle.

3) Rapscallions and Kings/Emperors: Cheating: In the sequel, Huckleberry Finn said: “As far as I can make out, all kings are mostly rapscallions.” It impressed me when I read it, since the Chinese have similar notions and sayings. One says, “Since the ancient time, emperors and kings have mostly been rapscallions.” How did those people reach the same consensus about their kings and emperors while they lived in quite different social environments? Did they mean the same or something different by the word, “rapscallions”?  To answer those questions, we have to explore the whole issue thoroughly.

            Louis XIV of France said to his court painters, “I entrust to you the most sacred thing on earth---my fame.” Only portraits in a secondary society have such political and economic value. Indeed, Louis XIV lived in a society opened to Christian clergy, nobles, bourgeoisies, and peasants inside the state. As a leader, he also had to deal with Germany, Britain, and other European states. So it was important for Louis XIV to give the right impression to the world. That’s why Louis XIV valued his portraits so much. It is not surprising that he had several hundred portraits painting him with different costumes and poses. Under his leadership, France became the supreme power in Europe, and those portraits no doubt contributed to his success. Did French people see the real Louis XIV or a beautified and stylized one designed by him and his painters? Of the latter, are there elements of cheating here?

Discussing the psychological effects imposed on people by moving from the primary to the secondary society, I wrote: “Fear lets people worship heroes who are actually the same as they are but hold important positions in the secondary society. Apathy and indifference leave loopholes for cheating. It is materially beneficial to pretend to be someone bigger and higher but hypocrisy is harmful to the soul and deadly to spirituality. Hypocrisy is a deviation from naturalness and simplicity, and deviation from the Tao. No luxury is enjoyable if it is consumed in front of other fellow beings of less privilege. Ostentation and luxury are a disease exclusive to the secondary society.” [8]

            In Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, the deviational behaviour or so-called adventures of their main characters are described in a humorous tone. A major part of the humour comes from cheating: a detailed lengthy description of the cheating and the cheated always fascinates and amuses the reader. This major part of the American novels becomes almost invisible in their matched Chinese fictions, since Chinese cheating takes a different form.

            A Dream in the Red Mansion’s protagonist, hero Baoyu, has two lovers: One represents the ideal personality of the primary society and the other, the ideal of the secondary society. The former expressed her true emotions so freely that she scorned others and spoke sarcastically, hurting others, while the latter was typically a nice person in every social situation. To readers nowadays, the latter is a good-hearted nice lady, but the hero preferred the former while his family preferred the latter. Only after the former died young, the family cheated the hero and had him and the latter married. After finding out, he walked out of his marriage and became a monk. The main theme of the novel is to praise the fully expressed human emotion and condemn the secondary society. A good-hearted person who is nice to everyone is considered as a cheater. As a Christian value, good-heartedness was admired in Tom Sawyer. Those who denounce a primary society have their footing outside society since there is only one type of the primary society while those who denounce a secondary society can still live in society, since a secondary society can be driven by its members towards different types.

            On the other hand, the hero in the third Chinese fiction cheated all the time but nobody blamed him. He had the right to cheat to fill up his empty stomach. So cheating was seen as part of his normal life. So were the niggers in Tom Sawyer, who said, “Niggers always cheat. I have never seen a nigger who does not cheat.”

            Lu Hsu’s Ah Q cheated himself in order to cope with the unfriendly social environment. He imagined himself as the winner even when he met with a humiliating disaster. The government executed Ah Q as the scapegoat for an unsolved case of robbery. It is shameless cheating but nobody knew it and cared about it. Ah Q considered his execution as part of normal human life and took it as an occasion to show off in front of hundreds of spectators, who all came far away to enjoy the scene: The execution itself was the final proof of Ah’ Q’s guilt, the spectators said. In Tom Sawyer, spectators came for a funeral of a shameless murder Injun and got the same satisfaction as watching a hanging.

            It is beyond doubt that there is much less cheating in a primary society than in a secondary society. With the society in the imperial China modeled as above, it is hard to say whether the ancient Chinese society had more or less cheating than Western society. From the comparison study of matched American and Chinese fictions, one thing is certain that cheating is much more an issue felt psychologically by Western society than being felt by Chinese society.

            As the above model shows, the government officials and their intellectual candidates lived in a typical secondary society. Another important Chinese novel The Scholars which appeared during the 1750s is well matched with Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn if we consider cheating as a literary theme. Instead of a protagonist and his adventures, The Scholar gives a panorama of various scholars linked loosely together by time and occasional connections. But the humorous effect of elaborating detailed description of cheating is exactly the same. So cheating prevailed at the second level of the above model or among the bureaucrats and their intellectual candidates in Chinese history while it presented in the whole Western society. Of course cheating here was the psychologically well felt one and so it entered to the landmarked literature. The cheating mentioned above in the three Chinese matched fictions was not well felt by or even remained unknown to the society.

4) Rapscallions and Kings/Emperors: Chinese Chess and Historical Anecdotes: The International game of chess was said to have originated in India during the Gupta Empire (320 to 550 CE) and has now developed into more than two thousand variants. As two such variants, both Western and Chinese chess are war game with various figures or pieces moving in different patterns. There was only one notable difference: Kings and queens move freely on the whole board of Western chess while their equivalents, the generals stay inside an area of four squares guarded by clerks in Chinese chess

            As in the game of chess, the Chinese emperor could not move freely as Western kings and queens because of those impassable gaps between different levels of society as shown in the above model. Although those gaps were more social and psychological than physical, they were real. Both the first emperor of the Chin dynasty and the Wu emperor of the Han dynasty were as ambitious as Louis XIV in making their country a super power, so they acted as freely as Western kings or queens. One of those two emperors brought the country to collapse and the other reduced the population by half. To glance over the various man-made constructs dominating the landscape today, we know we owe our predecessors a lot to have a society where individuals can relatively freely pursue their ambitions.

            In Chinese chess, soldiers move, one square at a time, and so do the generals, the equivalents of Western kings and queens, but the former move over the whole board while the latter, within four squares. Could a Chinese soldier replace their king or emperor? This happened in Chinese history with the tossing-over-a-pancake revolution when the upper and the lower classes exchanged their places extensively, a form of revolution that was never seen in the West. To understand this, the following anecdotes will be helpful.

            Like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn that broadened the theme of subsequent American novels, The Scholars started a new fiction writing, so-called denouncing novels. Instead of ridiculing scholars, those novels expose the negative side of the whole society. The following story was likely based facts:

            During the late reign of the Ching dynasty (1644-1911), some robbers appeared in the western mountainous area of Hunan province. It was reported to the emperor, who ordered the Hunan province to suppress them. The Hunan provincial government took this opportunity to form a major army with their relatives and friends serving as army officers at various levels. When this army arrived in this region more than half a year later, all the robbers were gone. Nobody knew what the army was here for. Peasants, who considered soldiers and robbers the same, were so frightened that they all ran away from the army. The army caught them all and killed them all, and razed their villages to the ground. Then they reported to the emperor in how they fought bravely and killed many robbers. The emperor ordered a substantial reward to the army including promotion of the army officers. Since Western influence had already entered China, the county government accused the army of killing innocent peasants. With the support of the county government, thousands of local peasants gathered to protest and request justice, a process lasted for months. It fell far short of reaching the emperor who almost never took back an order even when it was wrong. In the end, the provincial government paid a little money to those families who had lost members.

            All reports to the emperor were traditionally written in strict format and left space for the emperor to write his order in red ink. Of course the emperor only read part of those reports and issue orders on a few. When the last emperor of China was driven out of Chinese history from his palace, ninety bags of such reports and orders were sold as waste papers. A scholar paid three times of the price and bought them back. Nobody cared to find out the above two reports with the emperor’s orders and correct them, and it would be wrong to do so as it was part of the Chinese imperial system. So the Chinese official history still says today that the army carried out the emperor’s order and successfully wiped out hundreds of robbers. The emperor was so pleased to order a royal reward to the army. The gaps in the above model were indeed impassable.

            The story shows the close association of robbers and soldiers in Chinese history. A popular Chinese proverb says, “A good piece of iron will not be made into nails while a good man will not become a soldier.” In ancient Greece where looting wars prevailed, soldiers looted on foreign land but were well disciplined at home. Since the vast land of China, Chinese soldiers hardly knew any foreign land. They often behaved like robbers on their own land. The Chinese government did not make a distinction between robbers and rebels, since all rebels had to rob the rich for their supplies. A famous rebel who captured Beijing in 1644 started his career as a soldier, and then became a robber for years. He progressed from a soldier to a robber, and then to a rebel. Mao’s father was once a soldier, and Mao started his first military base by taking it over from a group of robbers and furthermore, Mao enrolled all those robbers into his army. The national government then called them the Communist robbers.

            In ancient Greece, all citizens were soldiers. Since slaves and women were neither soldiers nor citizens, soldiers were regarded as prestigious. It was quite different in Chinese history where as less as one per cent of the peasants would be more than enough to form an enormous army to defend the country. When you enrolled one per cent of the adult males, of course you would select the best fighters. The best fighter, either as a robber, a rebel, or a soldier, was in no way a good peasant and likely the worst. So the Chinese peasants saw them as the nails of all iron and the bad guys of all males.

Rapscallions would be a proper name for them, and they eventually formed the basis for the government in Chinese history, at least in the view of most Chinese peasants according to the above quoted proverb.

           An ordinary Chinese peasant had two sons: One works hard while the other does not. The father said to the lazy one, “See what a household of wealth has your brother got compared to yours.” When a peasant uprising broke out, as a response, many, including this lazy son, stood up against the government all over China. A year later, he was lucky enough to capture the capital and became a self-appointed king. Three or four years later, he was the emperor of all China, and then he told his father, “See what a household of wealth has my brother got compared to mine.” When he asked his ministers why he was able to win the final victory over his rival, one answered: It was because the emperor was a rapscallion while his rival was not. His major rival was a high-born aristocrat. In Chinese history, there was an emperor who lived exactly like Huckleberry Finn when he was young. The only difference was, Huck idled around while this would be emperor had to beg first and then entered a Buddhist temple to do odd jobs in order to feed himself, because China was economically less developed.

            Those rapscallion emperors had a problem trusting their rapscallion comrades. So they saw all rapscallions have the potential of replacing them. They killed many of those who had fought battles beside him.

            Although kings and emperors were a dangerous profession in both Western and Chinese history especially during their early time, but I tend to think that in the West, this profession might be psychologically less depressing as they played a much more active role in their society. Therefore, Louis XIV pretended to be great in front of his painter and his people, he might well have felt great too. Only people like Huckleberry Finn might have considered him as a rapscallion in a hypocritical costume. Chinese emperors’ portraits usually stayed inside the palace and were not intended to impress people. During the imperial phase of Chinese history, the emperor was well sheltered by the gaps between the different levels of the above model society. Since the Chinese neither developed the social mechanisms to balance and control power nor facilitated a safe social environment at the secondary society level for individuals to materialize their ambitions. Most Chinese emperors might not have felt as great as Louis XIV did.

            The original Chinese word for “rapscallions” is wulai, a trust-unworthy man of no principles. In other words, a robber who lets go his principles becomes king or emperor. In a total anarchy the most ruthless will win and the slightest hesitation of moral instinct will be fatal. [9] As described in Huckleberry Finn, the two rapscallions, the king and the duke, went to the uninformed village to cheat those villagers. It alludes that some kings and their dukes ruled their states like rapscallions. But different states of better rulers were allowed to coexist beside them. In other words, kings or emperors ruled their people like a rapscallion by cheating in the West while the emperor in Chinese history could be in fact a rapscallion himself. At least, that is exactly what Huckleberry Fin thinks of Western kings and what Chinese peasants thought of their emperors in history.



[1] Paul S. Ropp (1990): The Distinctive Art of Chinese Fiction. In P. S. Ropp ed, Heritage of China, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

[2] Chi Ke (1983): Western art history. Beijing: Chinese Youth Publishing House. (In Chinese)


[3] Marvin Harris (1977): Cannibals and Kings. New York: Random House. Pp. 4-25.

[4] Chen Ping (1979): The single agriculture economy of peasants is the root cause of stagnant Chinese history of poverty and tumults. Guangmingridbao, Nov. 16, 1979.(In Chinese)

[5] Peter Kropotkin (1912): Modern Science and Anarchism, 1912. Quoted from: Gordon Marshall (1994): The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p14.

[6]Yang, Jianyu (1989): The Emperors in Chinese History. Shanghai: Shanghai Cultural Publishing House. (In Chinese)

[7] You-Sheng Li (2010): The Ancient Chinese Super State of Primary Societies: Taoist Philosophy for the 21st Century. Bloomington, USA: Author House.

[8] You-Sheng Li (2005): An New Interpretation of Chinese Taoist Philosophy: An Anthropological/Psychological View. London, Canada: Taoist Recovery Centre.

[9] You-Sheng Li (2009): Book Review: War and State Formation in Ancient China and Early Modern Europe by Victoria Hui. From: