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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

A Dictionary of Maqiao

Han Shaogong

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To purchase A Dictionary of Maqiao

Title: A Dictionary of Maqiao
Author: Han Shaogong
Genre: Novel
Written: 1995 (Eng. 2003)
Length: 323 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: A Dictionary of Maqiao - US
A Dictionary of Maqiao - UK
A Dictionary of Maqiao - Canada
A Dictionary of Maqiao - India
  • Chinese title: Maqiao Cidian
  • Translated and with a Preface by Julia Lovell

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Our Assessment:

B+ : effective fiction, but parts don't entirely make a whole

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 31/8/2003 Katherine Wolff
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction A Spring/2004 Jeffrey Twitchell-Waas
San Francisco Chronicle A+ 10/8/2003 Roger Gathman
The Village Voice A 23/9/2003 Ben Ehrenreich
TLS A+ 19/9/2003 Frances Wood

  From the Reviews:
  • "The result is a collage of stories that loosely cohere as the reader becomes fluent in the bizarre logic of Maqiao (.....) The book, the winner of several prizes in China, stubbornly resists analysis." - Katherine Wolff, The New York Times Book Review

  • "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." - Jeffrey Twitchell-Waas, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "Under the disguise of an excursion in ethnographic linguistics, Han Shaogong creates a compendium of stories, observations and reflections that, stroke by stroke, give the place more textual density, more history and, finally, more reality than all of the county seats of Utah and Montana combined." - Roger Gathman, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "The result is a magnificent book, epic in its ambitions and sweep without any of the sentimental obfuscation on which that genre so often depends." - Ben Ehrenreich, The Village Voice

  • "A Dictionary of Maqiao is a wonderful, many-layered novel written as a series of definitions, which gains further depth from a good translation. It repays rereading, too, for the subtlety of the jokes emerges as the characters become more familiar. (...) Julia Lovell's translation is an impressive achievement, a fine reflection of a complex book." - Frances Wood, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       A Dictionary of Maqiao is a novel, but, as the title suggests, it is presented as a dictionary. The Maqiao are a southern Chinese people, and the lexicographer cum narrator was sent to the region during the Cultural Revolution -- an intellectual of sorts (he can actually write -- and is often enlisted to paint Mao's slogans where needed) getting re-educated. In this dictionary he collects Maqiao vocabulary and designations, using each entry to describe the use or origins of the term, spinning stories and descriptions of characters, places, local customs and more. It is not, however, merely an alphabetical collection of terms unique (at least in how they are used) to this region: A Dictionary of Maqiao is a novel, full of smaller, connected narratives, ultimately making for a sweeping picture of Maqiao and its people (and also, more generally, of China in these times).
       The entries are, understandably, not presented in alphabetical order in the English translation ("In order to make it easier for readers to grasp the narrative thread and to increase the readability of the novel", an editorial note explains). Each entry begins with the term being discussed ("River" is the first), the Chinese characters for the word in parentheses and one of two star-variations, to indicate whether the term is unique to Maqiao ("or even that it is used by only one individual in Maqiao") or used elsewhere (as many of the words are). The entries themselves are then not presented like normal dictionary definitions, but rather range from explanations focussed on the meaning and use of the word to far more digressive accounts of events and people in Maqiao. Most are a few pages in length (and none longer than about seven).
       There are obvious difficulties in presenting a dictionary, even a fictional one, written in Chinese in translation. Readers should note that translator Julia Lovell omitted ("with the author's permission") four entries, and the final paragraph of a fifth, explaining that she felt they were "so heavily dependent in the Chinese original on puns between dialect and Mandarin Chinese as to make extensive and distracting linguistic explanations necessary in English".
       Despite the perhaps unpromising sounding premise and the additional hurdles of translation, A Dictionary of Maqiao is an often remarkable read. Much of Han Shaogong's piece by piece presentation is impressive. There isn't much effort for continuity, but chunks of Maqiao life are presented at a time and a larger picture does emerge. Characters recur (and a 'Guide to Principal Characters' appended to the book helps keep track of them), and Maqiao, with all its (and its inhabitants') idiosyncrasies, comes to life over the course of the novel. The novel is also not limited to the time of the Cultural Revolution, though most of what is described takes place during this period: stories from the past are also offered in explanation, and the narrator does also look at the transformation Maqiao underwent in the post-Mao years.
       The narrator explains that he had originally "hoped to write the biography of every single thing in Maqiao". He's unable to do that, but he does maintain the biographic focus (which, in many cases here, manifests itself as lexicographic). The traditional demands of fiction -- plot, character, mood -- frustrate him, as he explains why this is a book of "sidelong glances", the focus often away from what would dominate in conventional fiction and instead on the peripheral and what is often seen as being of no significance -- but, since it is part of everyday life, often is, in fact, of considerable significance.
       The approach is especially effective when, for example, he discusses time. Out in the countryside, time moves at a different pace, innovations take hold much later, and history itself has a different meaning. The Maqiao 1948 is different from that even elsewhere in China, and it is in passages about such contrasts that Han is particularly convincing. Similarly the difficulty those of Maqiao have in their encounters with the more fast-paced and modern towns and cities is nicely developed in the concept of "streetsickness", an illness like sea- or car-sickness which many Maqiao suffer from when they visit any urban centre
       The author recognises that language is not only a marvelous advance, but that it comes with its own burdens:

Once human beings have become linguistic beings, they attain possibilities that other animals lack completely -- they can harness the magical powers of language; language becomes prophecy, a mass hysteria that confuses true and false, and that establishes fictions, manufacturing one factual miracle after another.
       He is keenly aware of how this has occurred in Maqiao, and his examples illustrate his point well, the Maqiao use of language making for a great deal that is special about the place, but also isolating and insulating it from the greater world.
       ""Mouth-bans" -- linguistic taboos -- also exist in Maqiao. As do wordgames, a playing with language that shifts at least the superficial sense of what lies behind an act. "Language can change the way people feel", the narrator notes, and in Maqiao that is certainly the case: butchering animals, for example, is called "reincarnation" -- "a turn of phrase that makes it sound like a loftily noble undertaking.".
       The language of Maqiao is rich in its peculiar meanings, and near the end the author contrasts it with the deadened baihua -- "empty talk", or "vernacular" (though in Maqiao it does have three different overlapping meanings). Language has generally (and specifically under Mao) been degraded in this way: simplified, stripped of the expressive meanings and allusions underneath. The author acknowledges that fiction, with which he has long occupied himself, is a sort of baihua -- "fiction is, in the end, fiction -- nothing more" -- which suggests, of course, that this twist (of trying to grasp and convey the Maqiao language (not yet degraded into baihua) is a superior and more worthy attempt. There are numerous moments in the book that the reader can be convinced he ahs a point.

       A Dictionary of Maqiao is an impressive achievement, but not entirely a success. There is no clear chronology, but Han also can't commit to an almost entirely timeless Maqiao, leading to an occasionally unsettling (and confusing) jumping back and forth. The failure to clearly position the narrator / author / lexicographer is also problematic: for the most part he merely recounts, an observer or re-teller of tales, but he also figures in many of the episodes and encounters, without his presence being adequately developed. The many pieces are also not always easy to piece together or keep track of: the book largely remains a series discrete units which don't quite add up to a complete picture. Still: an interesting work.

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A Dictionary of Maqiao: Reviews: Han Shaogong: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chinese author Han Shaogong was born in 1953.

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© 2003-2021 the complete review

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