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The best novel of the year isn't that DeLillo-on-automatic-pilot thing that broke out, along with SARS, this spring; nor the smutty anti-Islamic screed by the super-annuated French juvenile delinquent; nor even Jane Smiley's excellent investigation of the unlikely souls of real estate agents. Rather, it is this 'dictionary' of the dialect of a fictitious village, Maqiao, lost in the squat hills of South China.
[ A Dictionary of Maqiao] is a magnificent book, epic in its ambitions and sweep without any of the sentimental obfuscation on which that genre so often depends.
[B]oth fascinating and masterful... Han paints a detailed, intriguing and amusing picture of what happens when Marxism collides with entrenched village beliefs, and how traditional China coexists with modernity. The book is filled with peculiar, beguiling, tragic characters and scenery so real you can touch it... This is an intelligent, amusing, clever, fascinating and well-written view of a China most of us never see, or don't recognize when we do.
To enter [ A Dictionary of Maqiao]'s pages is to cross into a world of bandits and ghosts, where 'rude' means 'pretty,' and homosexuals are 'Red Flower Daddies' and people don't die, they 'scatter.'
Dictionary of Maqiao is a wonderful, many-layered novel written as a series of definitions which gains further depth from a good translation... Han Shaogong's novel [is] clever, sympathetic and amused... Julia Lovell's translation is an impressive achievement, a fine reflection of a complex book.
Han Shaogong's novel has won wide acclaim, and deservedly so; through his treatment of language, he not only vividly portrays village life in rural China, but also inspires readers to rethink what they are accustomed to taking for granted.
— Amanda Heller
— Bradley Winterton
— Jeffrey Twitchell-Waas
— Anton Graham
— Fatima Wu
The narrator's folkloric stereotypes the provincial simpletons and fools, the cuckolded husbands, the long-suffering wives resolve affectingly into distinct human beings. And the peasant vocabulary vulgar, quaint, superstitious which so perplexesthe earnest young outsider is also revealed to be cunningly subversive, an antidote to the totalitarian imposition of a "reality"irreconcilably at odds with the real thing.
This is a serious, ground-breaking and finally brilliant novel by one of China's leading authors... The translation is everywhere excellent -- fluent, colloquial where appropriate, without being excessively so, learned in places, and without any hint anywhere of 'translationese'... surely destined for classic status.
In its formal inventiveness, its nuanced depiction of Chinese peasant life, and its speculative explorations into the Chinese cultural psyche, this is one of the finest novels of the post-Mao era to so far make its way into English.
Worth reading...fascinating and surprisingly accessible.
Han is a good storyteller, ingeniously leading the reader into the heart of his stories... A Dictionary of Maqiao is readable and enjoyable.
The word for river (jiang in Mandarin) is pronounced gang by Maqiao people (in southern China) and refers not just to vast bodies of water, but to all waterways, including small ditches and streams. In northern China, on the other hand, the word "sea" is used to cover everything from lakes to ponds, which must seem equally strange to southerners. Size, it appears, is something left for people to worry about later.
In English, difference in size can be expressed by "stream" or "river." Yet in French, fleuve refers to rivers entering the sea and riviere indicates an inland river or tributary entering another river, while size remains unspecified. It seems that the world contains many systems of naming, which do not necessarily relate to each other.
Although Maqiao people later on became more specific about size, they still didn't seem to attach much importance to it, only differentiating it slightly by tone. Gang pronounced in a high, level tone refers to a large river, and in a rising tone to a rivulet or stream; it takes some time for outsiders to attune their ears to avoid misunderstandings. As a newcomer to Maqiao, I ran into such difficulties myself when I went off in excited search of a river, following directions from locals. My destination turned out to be a gurgling brook so narrow I could reach the other side in one flying leap. Some dark waterweed lay within and watersnakes would flash by unannounced, but for washing or swimming it was of no use.
Rising-tone gang is very different from high-tone gang. Following this rising-tone gang for a stretch, I wandered alternately between torrents and calm, and then back to torrents. I felt myself scattering in pieces then coming together again, as if repeatedly lost, then found. When I came across an old herdsman, he said not to dismiss the river for its size--in the past, its water had been so oily it could be used to light lamps.
Maqiao's water flowed into the Luo River, a good half-day's walk from the village. There was a little rowboat for crossing, and if the boatman wasn't there then people wanting to cross simply rowed themselves over. If the boatman was there, it cost five cents per person. He moored the rowboat on the opposite side, stuck the boat pole well into the ground, and stood on the bank taking each person's money, one by one, licking a finger to count each note.
Once he'd collected a good handful of notes, he tucked them in a tattered wool hat and pulled it firmly onto his head.
The cost of crossing the river remained the same whether in summer or winter. In fact, the river in summer was much wider, and the water much more turbulent. If it happened to be the flood season, the bottomless brown soup overflowed unstoppably, obscuring all reflections, expelling layer upon layer of mire onto the banks, along with sour-smelling piles of foam which the slow lapping of the water marooned on the shallow bends. But the worse the conditions became, the more people gathered on the riverbanks, patiently waiting for dead ducks, dead pigs, broken tables or old wooden pots, along with bamboo canes split off from bundles, to come bobbing along: fishing them out and taking them off home was called "making a flood fortune."
Of course, sometimes perhaps a woman or a child, swollen up into an enormous white flesh ball, would suddenly roll up out of the waves, their glazed stare scattering people, provoking cries of terror.
Some strong-stomached children would search out a long bamboo pole and amuse themselves by prodding at the flesh ball.
People at the riverbank also fished, by casting nets or with line and hook. Once, as I headed toward the bank, some women in front of me suddenly screeched in panic, turned, and ran-something, it would seem, had happened. When I took a more careful look at where they'd run from, I saw that all the men, old and young, carriers and herders, had stopped what they were doing, ripped off their pants, and run, stumbling, toward the river in a line of ten or more pairs of glistening buttocks, shouting at the tops of their voices. Only then did it occur to me that the muffled noise I had just heard was the sound of firecrackers. That is to say, firecrackers had been set off in the river to blast the fish. After the explosion, the men had pulled off their pants to go and hook the fish. Not wanting to get their pants wet, they hadn't foreseen that their spontaneously coordinated initiative would frighten anyone.
During my six years in Maqiao, I never had much to do with the Luo River, only crossing it when I happened to be walking to the county seat. Speaking of river crossing, five cents often seemed like a lot of money. None of the Educated Youth had much money and once the male students got together, a kind of resistance-hero-versus-Jap-devil-oppressors mentality set in: whenever we crossed the river, we always considered fare dodging. One Educated Youth, nicknamed Master Black, was particularly heroic when it came to this kind of stunt, and once, after getting onto the bank, he took on the role of Underground Worker Sacrificing Himself for the People--giving us a meaningful look, he told us to walk right on and that he'd pay for us all himself. He patted his right pocket, groped in his left pocket, and generally dragged his feet until he saw that we'd walked on a long way, when he snarled at the boatman that he didn't have any money, and even if he did he wouldn't hand it over, so what was he going to do about it? He then picked up his heels and ran. He fancied himself as something of a basketball player, and thought there was no way the old ferryman could catch him up. It turned out, though, that the issue of speed was irrelevant to the old man: shouldering an oar, he ran slowly and trailed further and further behind us, but he never stopped. He followed us for one li, two li, three li, four li. . . . When finally we were staggering along, dripping with sweat, the tiny black dot far back in the distance still held on fast. Everyone truly believed that he would pursue us to the edge of heaven, brandishing the oar as he went, for as long as we hadn't paid him those thirty cents; short of us killing him, nothing else would persuade him to turn back. He wasn't half as clever as us and hadn't thought things through properly; not once did regret at abandoning his boat or the large crowd of customers waiting at the side of the river cross his mind.
There was nothing to be done but meekly gather together the money and send Master Black back to avoid trouble in the future. In the distance, I glimpsed the old man actually giving Master Black his change, his mouth making big open and shut movements, probably to swear at him, but as he was standing against the wind, not a single word reached us.
I never saw the old man again. When the movement to purge counterrevolutionaries began, a pistol in our possession became the target of investigation. We'd got hold of the pistol while waging Cultural Revolution in the city. After the bullets had all been used up, we were loath to give it up, and secretly brought it down to the countryside. When things got tense later on, we were afraid we'd be hauled up on a charge of hoarding weapons, so Master Black dropped it in the river as he crossed and we agreed amongst ourselves to keep our mouths shut. Even now I'm still not sure how the whole business came out into the open. I'm just sorry that we were too clever for our own good, that we reckoned losing it in the river would be the tidiest solution. We hadn't realized that until the authorities found the gun, the case simply couldn't be closed; in fact, they even suspected we were still secretly harboring this gun with intentions of our own. We endured endless grillings and interrogations until winter came and the water of the Luo River crept back, exposing a large stretch of sandy bank. Clutching rakes, we dug deep and sifted meticulously over the place where we'd dropped the gun, determined to excavate our innocence. We dug in the riverbank for a full five days, covering an ever-widening area. Lashed by winds that bit into our bones, we dug over almost the entire Good Earth of the People's Commune, but never heard the clunk of rake on metal.
There was no way such a heavy gun could have been swept away by the current. Neither was there any way anyone could have taken it away, sunk beneath the water as it was.
Strange--where could it have gone?
I could only suspect that this strange river harbored ill feeling toward us for some unknown reason, and was determined to have us locked up.
Only then did we sense its mystery, only then, for the first time, did we size it up properly. It was strewn with the winter's first snow, reflecting a piercing white glow, like a sudden bolt of lightning that had illuminated the world, then petrified for eternity. On the riverbank was a track of light footprints, which had alarmed a few waterbirds into flight. Sometimes they merged into the icy background so that people had no way of differentiating the two, sometimes emerged from nowhere, a few white threads breaking up the dark green surface of the narrow waterway. As I stood in the path of this eternal streak of lightning, tears sprang uncontrollably to my eyes.
There was hardly anyone crossing the river. The boatman was no longer the old guy from before, it was now someone middle-aged, quite a bit younger, who squatted for a while on the riverbank with his hands in his sleeves, then headed home.
I suddenly spun around, but the bank was still empty.
*Savages (and Savages of the Luo Clan)
In Mandarin Chinese, sturdy young men are also known as hanzi (lads). In Maqiao, men are more often called savages, or "savages of the three clans." I haven't been able to ascertain the origins of this "three clans." The ancients had a saying: "Although there are only three clans in Chu, the Chu must extinguish the Qin"; it seems the "three clans" of this saying don't just refer to men.
This term "savage of the three clans" clearly referred to a single person, but it brought with it the mark of the "three clans," as if the individual had to carry out the mission of the "three clans"; I've never managed to discover whether this was a tradition from Chu ancestry. I once had a thought: if a person's bloodline comes from his two parents, but the parents' bloodline comes from their set of four grandparents, the grandparents' bloodline also comes from their set of eight great-grandparents. By this sequencing system, within a few dozen counts all mankind in its vast totality would be traced back to a single forebear, a universal common ancestor. Through this simple operation of arithmetic, the hope expressed in the Chinese saying that "over ocean and sea, all are brothers" ceases to be a beautiful but empty platitude; it is borne out by biological proof. In theory, everyone is descended from all mankind, all people carry within them the accumulated, concentrated inheritance of all mankind, passed down along a few dozens of generations. If so, is an individual still only an individual? As I've commented in an article elsewhere, the concept of the "individual" is incomplete in itself; everyone is at the same time a "group person." I hope that the "three" in Maqiao's "savages of the three clans" is a traditional synonym for "many." So if "savages of the three clans" is another name for "group person," thus emphasizing the group background of the individual, it corroborates my strange hypothesis.
The word "savage" is popular in the south, and for a long time it served as a general term for southerners. Historical records state that in the Spring and Autumn Period (c. 700 b.c.) there existed a Luo Kingdom, also known as the "Savages of the Luo Clan." The Chronicles of Zuo tell us that "in the twelfth year of Lu Huangong's reign, the Chu army divided and reached the Peng. The Luo people wanted to attack them." This is the earliest mention of them. The Luo people settled in southwest Yinan county (modern Hubei), adjacent to the southwestern Ba kingdom. They subsequently named it Luochuan City, which gets a mention in the 28th chapter of The Waterway Records. The Savages of the Luo Clan were also known as the Kingdom of Luozi, and they made use of the Peng River as a natural frontier against fearsome northern invaders. After the Chu army had been seen fording down south, they were forced to put up a fight and won an unexpected victory. But their kingdom was far smaller than the Kingdom of Chu, and in the end peace was made. We know from The Chronicles of Zuo that the Luo people twice fled for their lives. The first time, they fled to Zhijiang County, none other than the historical birthplace of the "Ba people"; the second time was about twenty years later, in the time of King Wen of Chu, when they once again fled to Xiangbei, the area composed of present-day Yueyang, Pingjiang, and Xiangyin county.
The river took on the name of the people--that was how the Luo River got its name.
It's hard to imagine the scene as children and old people were helped along that long trek across the river. From the records available, it appears that after arriving, the Luo people rebuilt the city of Luo, but there is no trace left of it today. I suspect the town of Changle on the bank of the River Luo is the Luo City of old (the two are linked by the similarity in sound between le and luo). It's a small town, positioned between mountains and a river, which I had to cross on my way carrying bamboo from the mountains. A cobblestone street, over whose stones floated the scent of sweet rice wine and the clop of wooden clogs, traversed the entire town, linking it to a damp, bustling wharf. The town's windows and doors were jammed so tightly shut it seemed a human face would never poke out. The local people said that there were iron pillars below the wharf, visible only at low tide, on top of which were written many blurred ancient inscriptions. I had no great interest in archaeology then, and so never went to look. Every time I passed through, I was dazed with exhaustion, and after drinking down a bowl of sweet wine, I'd topple over at the side of the street and fall asleep with my clothes on, before preparing to continue my journey. Plenty of times I was woken in deep winter by a glacial blast of wind. As I opened my eyes, only the distant stars hung above me, swaying as if about to fall.
1. How were you affected by the novel's dictionary format? How did the entries differ from traditional chapters in a novel, or short stories in a collection? What does the narrator have to say about traditional fiction, with one protagonist climbing a standard narrative arc?
2. What do the anecdotes about Long Stick Xi in "Rough" illustrate about the villagers' reaction to outsiders and to elixirs?
3. In his entry for "Little Big Brother (etc.)" Han writes, "A linguistic space will always be distorted under the influence of a particular set of beliefs." What does this section express about the power of language to diminish respect for women? What is your opinion of the Revolution's reasoning in expunging professional titles, from Ph.D. to artist?
4. "House of Immortals (and Lazybones)" provides information about full-form Chinese characters, especially the picto-phonetic type. What are your impressions of this form of written communication? What benefits and limitations does it possess, especially compared to the use of an alphabet? How would these traits affect the translator's experience?
5. Han observes that only humans suffer from "streetsickness;" dogs and other nonverbal creatures are immune. He then deduces that language must be part of the culprit: "Language becomes prophecy, a mass hysteria that confuses true and false." Would humanity be better off without language?
6. The showdown between Benyi and Three Ears, escalating in "Rude (continued)" and "Nailed Backs," culminates in Tiexiang's elopement. What does this portion of the book convey about the codes of acceptable behavior, punishment, and morality in general in Maqiao? How do the villagers feel about love? What accounts for the "linguistic blanks" mentioned in "Riding a Wheelbarrow"?
7. What sort of portrait is created by the list of entries itself? What is the significance of the categories of words, from ""Floating Soul" to "Taiwan," that would need clarification for a visitor to this community?
8. During his exile, the narrator becomes an informal anthropologist. From that perspective, what does A Dictionary of Maqiao say about the rituals and norms of the villagers? Are they so removed from those of the narrator? What roles do nature, nurture, history, and politics play in shaping the beliefs of any population? Why does the Cultural Revolution cause Han to have an essentially immigrant experience within his own country?
9. Discuss the ironies in the listing for "Tiananmen." How did your associations with Tiananmen Square compare to the more obscure destination in this listing?
10. "Democracy Cell (As Used by Convicts)" describes Kuiyuan's deplorable experience in jail, where the prison king's subordinates were referred to as Daoist Immortals. How does true Daoism influence the actions of the villagers? What does the narrator theorize in "Kuiyuan" about the ineffectiveness of religion in spurring kindness throughout history?
11. "Separated-Pot Brothers" features the narrator's reunion with Ma Ming, who by that time no longer lives in the House of Immortals. What other changes have occurred in their twenty years apart? What could world leaders learn from the fate of Maqiao?
12. What does Uncle Luo, a confirmed bachelor who could recall the days before land reform, prove or disprove about the Revolution's reverence for peasants? Under different circumstances, could he have become an Educated Youth? What might the true destiny have been for other characters in the novel?
13. What storytelling devices does the author use to balance humor with the many tragedies occurring in Maqiao? How does he balance logic with absurdity, and supernatural events with realism? How would censorship affect the storytelling paths an author chooses, especially when capturing a painful chapter of political history? Is A Dictionary of Maqiao a satire?
14. What did this novel help you discover about the history of Communism in China? Can such an economic system exist outside the context of oppression despite its promise to protect the working class from oppression?
15. Dialect is one of the ways the people of Maqiao maintain their distinct identity. What dialects are associated with your ancestry? What do those lexicons and pronunciations reveal about your family history?
Posted March 3, 2004
This book takes me back to my home, a village in Southern Hunan Province, China, and to my childhood. When I was reading, the stories and the people jump out of the book onto my memory. It reminds me of my childhood friends, my relatives, the village doctors, the traveling smith and craftsmen. When I was 6 or 7 years old, I often grazed water buffalos with my friends in the slops of Wuling (Five Peaks) Mountain. One day we saw a World War II bomb delivered by the Japanese airplane. We were so curious, excited and naïve. We moved it to the grain yard of our agricultural production brigade on the buffalos¿ back. Fortunately, the explosive was already gone possibly because of aging and weathering. This book forces me to recall the detail of this incident and reassure that nobody was hurt by our ignorance. During that time our village was often visited by a locksmith, who is the one spoke ¿xiang qi¿ accent. He was tall with broad shoulders and white beard. He carried two cabinets covered by glasses on a bamboo pole. Whenever he came, we surrounded his workshop area in the grain yard. He was always accompanied by a young boy of our age. I never figured out why that boy would play with us while the locksmith was making the 5 or 10 cent deals with the adults. The visit was usually about two to three hours. Then they left for other villages. We saw them off in sun and in rain. They did not take away anything from us. But they brought us excitements every time. In our area, we had village doctors they used to practice Chinese medicine in Jianxi province. They always told us that people from Jianxi province were our relatives. We greeted each other ¿Lao Biao¿. I would always have remembered them because I was often sent by my mom to ask for medicine help when our family members felt unease. Our village also hosted two youngsters from the city. At that time, there were about 16 or 17 years old. They worked hard to learn and to grow up. I didn¿t know what was their feeling when they lived in our village. But I know the villagers are still talking about them and wishing them well. I never had the habit to keep a dairy for my past. I have forgot many things about my childhood. The author of this book recorded the language I have used and the stories I have experienced. It reminds me many of my happiness and sadness. If you want to understand Chinese society, Chinese people, and the rural areas in China, I recommend you read this book. The writing is crisp, the information is practical, and the stories are true. The translation is great. At this point, a pop-rice master is walking towards me from the book, with the black, bomb-shaped and air-tight rice cooker, the charcoal stove and the bellow on his shoulder. The black soot covers his face. His smiling reveals only his eyes and teeth. I hear the explosion of the air. Now, I am going to put a bag of popcorn in my microwave so that I will progress with the book and step back to my hometown with my uncle.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.