A Dictionary of Maqiao

Han Shaogong

translated from the Chinese by Julia Lovell
Dial Press 2005
A book review by Danny Yee © 2006 http://dannyreviews.com/
During the Cultural Revolution, Han Shaogong was one of seven Educated Youth sent to the hamlet of Maqiao in northern Hunan, which consisted of "forty-odd households, about ten head of cattle, and pigs, dogs, chickens, and ducks, with two long, narrow paddy fields hugging its perimeters". His observations of people and customs and language during the six years he spent there form the basis for his novel A Dictionary of Maqiao.

This takes the ostensible form of a dictionary or encyclopedia, with over a hundred "entries" named after Maqiao terms or idioms; the prologue claims these were originally in alphabetical order, but in fact they follow each other in a logical sequence and are much closer to short stories than reference material.

The vignettes and stories in A Dictionary of Maqiao jump around chronologically: most are set during the narrator's time in Maqiao, but there are also episodes from a return visit many years later and from meetings with Maqiao residents elsewhere, as well as the explorations of earlier history. The narratorial perspective also changes: there are pieces in the third person, but in others the narrator intrudes, through first-person presence or commentary, and in some he plays a central role.

Despite its pointillist rendering and lack of a central plot, The Dictionary of Maqiao is an effective novel. It is centred by the community of Maqiao, following key individuals within it, the relationships between them, and the working out of their stories, over a span of decades. Twenty or more figures feature prominently: Party Branch secretary Benyi; his wife Tiexiang, daughter of beggar king "Nine Pockets"; the stonemason Zhihuang and his ox "Three-Hairs"; landlord's son and "traitor to the Chinese" Yanzao, and his "poison woman" grandmother and younger brother Yanwu; the ascetic dropout "Daoist Immortals"; and many more.

Shaogong devotes several entries to Maqiao's place in the historical record, going back into deep history and myth. More recent times are remembered by the villagers — the warlord period, the bandit leader Ma Wenjie, and the events in 1948 when the communists took control — but these are subject to different and changing interpretations. A Dictionary of Maqiao doesn't focus on politics, however. The effects of the Cultural Revolution and the sending of urban elites into the countryside are depicted rather than described, and comments on bureaucracy, Western stereotypes of Chinese politics, and so forth are mostly incidental.

Sociolinguistics provides the strongest recurrent theme. Shaogong explores the way language, and in particular lexical choice, marks social status, moulds the way people think, and reflects the forms of social control. (He never succumbs, however, to the lure of a naive linguistic determinism.) And he highlights the ways in which Maqiao dialect diverges from standard Mandarin — a translator's note mentions that five entries were omitted because they were dependent on untranslatable puns. A Dictionary of Maqiao is not an ethnography, with stories that have been selected and quite likely exaggerated for effect. But it is a powerful demonstration of just how different a remote rural village can be — or, for the Western audience of this translation, of the diversity of China.

A Dictionary of Maqiao is skillfully arranged to provide motive force, with far more momentum than a collection of short stories. And despite the sometimes dark subject material, its overall tone is light, with some detachment provided by the framing. The result is a gripping read.

August 2006

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%T A Dictionary of Maqiao
%A Han Shaogong
%M Chinese
%F Lovell, Julia
%I Dial Press
%D 2005 [1996]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0385339356
%P 394pp