Han Shaogong

"A Dictionary of Maqiao"

(Reviewed by Poornima Apte MAY 15, 2004)

A Dictionary of Maqiao by Han Shaogong

In a country where much can hinge on the written word, Chinese author Han Shaogong gives it the respect it deserves. In a beautiful afterword to his A Dictionary of Maqiao, he writes: “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.”

Contrary to what the title suggests, A Dictionary of Maqiao is actually a novel, written in an interesting technique, almost through the point of view a spectator. Han spends much of the years of the Cultural Revolution in China, in a small village in the south called Maqiao. He spreads the words of the authority while staying useful and productive in the village. Han knows as well as anybody that the language of a region is an effective mirror of its culture. Through “dictionary entries,” explanations of region-specific terms, a picture of Maqiao (arguably even China) appears. The entries are fascinating some just a paragraph in length, others going for at least a few pages. A single entry can count for larger criticisms or appreciation of culture. For example, an examination of the word, “sweet,” indicates that the word can actually cover a wide spectrum of flavors in Maqiao. Han also makes a beautifully executed leap to generalizations peoples of the world make about each other: “Even today, the majority of Chinese people still have great difficulty in distinguishing the facial types of western, northern, and eastern Europeans, and in making out cultural differences between the British, the French, the Spanish, the Norwegians, the Poles etc. The names of each European people are no more than empty symbols in school textbooks, and many Chinese, when put on the spot, are still unable to make any link between them and corresponding characteristics in facial type, clothing, language and customs. This baffles Europeans, just as it baffles the Chinese that Europeans cannot differentiate clearly between people from Shanghai, Canton, and the Northeast.”

Another interesting “entry” is one on science where the residents consider science to be the product of “lazybones” and therefore deride its use. As with any culture, modern values soon make their appearance even in Maqiao. Towards the end, Han explains: “In Maqiao during the 1990s, a lot of new words came into fashion and passed into common usage: 'television,' 'paint,' 'diet,' 'operate,' Ni-Ping (a well-known television host), 'disco dancing,' 'Highway 107,' 'seafood,' 'lottery tickets,' 'build the Great Wall (play Mahjong),' 'bump-the-butt' (motorbike), 'hold the basket' (act as mediator) and so on.”

While these dictionary entries make for a fascinating glimpse into China, the book is not easy reading. For one, the very small print creates practical difficulties. This combined with the heft of the material can weigh the reader down significantly. Still, the end result is well worth the reader’s effort. A Dictionary of Maqiao (translated ably by Julia Lovell) emerges as a wonderful, if fractured, portrait of China. Han Shaogong, through his award-winning novel, provides not only a nuanced look into modern China, but also focuses on language as an instrument of keeping culture alive. “Strictly speaking, what we might term a 'common language' will forever remain a distant human objective,” he says, “providing we don’t intend exchange to become a process of mutual neutralization, of mutual attrition, then we must maintain vigilance and resistance toward exchange, preserving in this compromise our own, indomitable forms of expression.” A Dictionary of Maqiao establishes wonderfully, the vital link between language and culture. In a world of rapid globalization, the subtle warning about the increasing loss of languages is only too timely and important.

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About the Author:

Han ShaogongHan Shaogong (b. 1953 ) is an award-winning novelist, essayist, and translator. He uses traditional Chinese culture, Chinese mythology and folklore, Taoism, Buddism as inspiration yet borrows freely from western literary techniques making him one of the most prominent and innovative writers in China. His latest novel A Dictionary of Maqiao was named one of the top one hundred works of twentieth century Chinese fiction and was the winner of the Shanghai Literary Prize. He has also been instrumental in introducing western literature classics to China by translating The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera and The Box of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, into Chinese.

He currently lives in Hainan, China where he is vice-chairman of the Hainan Writer's Association.

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