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A Dictionary of Maqiao by Han Shaogong

A Dictionary of Maqiao (1996)

by Han Shaogong

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I have given a five-star recommendation to this extraordinary book largely because of its ambition and insight, though I am not sure what its appeal would be to anyone without more than a passing interest in China. What it achieves is, at one level, a marvellous picture of a Chinese village during the first phase of Communist rule – its poverty and superstitions spring out from the pages (despite the lack of a conventional narrative structure) – but, at another level, a profound meditation on the nature of language and its rootedness in human experience in all its astonishing variety. By focusing on the dialect (and the characters who use it) of one small remote village, Han, it seems to me, the writer is making a valuable point about the dangers of totalitarian manipulation of language, but also about the futility of such attempts at control. It's also a useful reminder that Chinese is not a single monolithic language in the way Westerners might think of it.
Translating such a work must have been a nightmare, and Julia Lovell is to be congratulated. My only (minor) criticism of the English edition would be that the Chinese characters at the top of each section are not provided with pinyin transliteration, so the reader has no way of knowing how to pronounce the words. ( )
  frogball | Aug 18, 2014 |
This is a novel that is about an educated youth that was sent down to the countryside to work with the peasants. It is set up as dictionary entries of local words and how they are used. Most entries are centered around a story from the village. It was rather interesting and didn't center around a main character and had no actual plot. There is alot to learn about working in a small village in China. ( )
  autumnesf | Jul 15, 2008 |
I just finished a fascinating book. It's a novel by Chinese author Han Shaogong, and it's based on his years as an "Educated Youth" (zhiqing were students sent from the cities to work in small villages in the countryside during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution).

Shaogong structures the novel as a set of dictionary entries, each one of which illuminates the way a particular word was used in Mandarin and in the local village dialect. A few words had no Mandarin equivalent. As you might imagine, there's little plot, not much in the way of a main character, and no real overriding theme other than the exploration of language. It's more like a series of vignettes that bring to light what life in the village was like.

Though I was interested in the details of village life: superstitions, family relationships, diet, work, etc., I was most caught up in the parts of the novel where Shaogong wrote down his thoughts about the nature and fluidity of language, the way it gives power and shapes life itself.

This quote comes from the afterword, but I think it's a great introduction to the book:

Words have lives of their own. They proliferate densely, endlessly transform, gather and scatter for short bursts, drift along without mooring, shift and intermingle, sicken and live on, have personalities and emotions, flourish, decline, even die out. Depending on specific, actual circumstances, they have long or short life spans. For some time now, a number of such words have been caught and imprisoned in my notebook. Over and over, I've elaborated and guessed, probed and investigated, struggled like a detective to discover the stories hidden behind these words; this book is the result.

If you do read this book, make sure you read the translator's preface and note and the author's afterword. There's also a guide to the cast of characters and a pronunciation guide for transliterated Chinese in the back of the book that I found very useful. (I need to be able to "hear" character and place names in my head, or I'm unable to enjoy a book properly. Just a little idiosyncrasy of mine.)

I'm going to include a couple more quotes from the book that I found thought-provoking.

pp. 70-71 . . .but I liked reading and writing fiction less and less--I am, of course, referring to the traditional kind of fiction which has a very strong sense of plot. Main character, main plot, main mood block out all else, dominating the field of vision of both reader and writer, preventing any sidelong glances. Any occasional casual digression is no more than a fragmentary embellishment of the main line, the temporary amnesty of a tyrant. Admittedly, there's nothing to say this kind of fiction can't approach one angle on the truth. But all you have to do is think a little, and you realize that most of the time real life isn't like that, it doesn't fit into one guiding, controlling line of cause and effect. A person often exists in two, three, four, or even more interlocking strands, outside each of which a great many other elements exist, each constituting an indispensable part of our lives. In this multifarious, scattered network of cause and effect, how valid is the domination of one main thread of protagonists, plot, and mood?

p. 169 . . .language isn't something to be sneezed at, it's a dangerous thing we need to defend ourselves against and handle with respect. Language is a kind of incantation, a dictionary is a kind of Pandora's Box capable of releasing a hundred thousand spirits and demons. . .

p. 356 Ever since language has existed in the world, it's led to endless human conflict, arguments, wars, manufactured endless death by language. But I don't for a moment believe this is owing to the magical power of language itself. No, quite the opposite: the instant that certain words take on an aura of incontrovertible sanctity, then immediately, invariably, they lose their original links to reality, and at moments of the greatest, irreconcilable tension between embattled parties, transform themselves into perfectly chiselled symbols, into the abstract simulacra of power, glory, property, and sovereign territory. If, shall we say, language has been instrumental in the advancement and accumulation of culture, then it is precisely this halo of sanctity that strips language of its sense of gravity, turning it into a force harmful to humans.

p. 388 Strictly speaking, what we might term a "common language" will forever remain a distant human objective.

Don't be surprised if it takes a while to get into this book. You have to get used to the pacing, the unusual structure, the episodic nature of the storytelling. But it is worth your time. ( )
2 vote jennyo | Mar 24, 2006 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0385339356, Paperback)

From the daring imagination of one of China’s greatest living novelists comes a work of startling power and originality–the story of a young man “displaced” to a small village in rural China during the 1960s. Told in the format of a dictionary, with a series of vignettes disguised as entries, A Dictionary of Maqiao is a novel of bold invention–and a fascinating, comic, deeply moving journey through the dark heart of the Cultural Revolution.
Entries trace the wisdom and absurdities of Maqiao: the petty squabbles, family grudges, poverty, infidelities, fantasies, lunatics, bullies, superstitions, and especially the odd logic in their use of language–where the word for “beginning” is the same as the word for “end”; “little big brother” means older sister; to be “scientific” means to be lazy; and “streetsickness” is a disease afflicting villagers visiting urban areas. Filled with colorful characters–from a weeping ox to a man so poisonous that snakes die when they bite him–A Dictionary of Maqiao is both an important work of Chinese literature and a probing inquiry into the extraordinary power of language.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:50 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

"In Maqiao, Han encounters an upside-down world among the village's denizens: a con man dupes his neighbors into thinking that he has found the fountain of youth by convincing them that his father is in fact his son; to be "scientific" is to be lazy; time and relationships are understood using the language of food and its preparation; and to die young is considered "dear," while the aged reckon their lives to be "cheap."" "As entries build one upon another, Han meditates on the ability of a waidi ren (out-sider) to represent the ways of life of another community. In this light, the Communist effort to control the language and history of a people whose words and past are bound together in ineluctably local ways emerges as an often comical, sometimes tragic exercise in miscommunication."--BOOK JACKET. "This novel about an urban youth "displaced" to a small village in rural China during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) is a fictionalized portrait of the author's own experience as a young man. Han Shaogong was one of millions of students relocated from cities and towns to live and work alongside peasant farmers in an effort to create a classless society. Translated into English for the first time. Han's novel is an exciting experiment in form - structured as a dictionary of the Maqiao dialect - through which he seeks to understand and translate the local life and customs of his strange new home.".… (more)

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