Analysis of Han Shaogong’s A Dictionary of Maqiao

Written in the form of a dictionary, A Dictionary of Maqiao, by Chinese novelist Han Shaogong (1953– ), consists of 150 independent entries, each in length from a paragraph to a few pages, and not arranged alphabetically. The entries are regional, vernacular terms about local sites, people, customs, legends, and other phenomena in a place named Maqiao, a fictional village in the countryside of southern China in the 20th century. Each entry is essentially a narrative that consists of descriptions, stories, and comments about things related to Maqiao. There are no narrative bridges between entries; however, the same narrator provides all the information.

The narrator is an “intellectual youth,” as the term is applied at that time to a young man who has relocated from a city to Maqiao and lives in the rural countryside for many years during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong launched this wide-sweeping and radical change throughout China during the last decade he was in power (1966–76). In the novel, the narrator plays the role of an “ethnographic-lexicographer,” one knowledgeable in language, word formations, and cultural backgrounds. This identity gives him the vantage point of representing local cultural ideas, values, and historical memories beyond a provincial perspective. The approach of lexicography does not limit the author’s freedom of using more subject matters and writing styles than word definitions and explanations. Usually beginning with a semantic and functional interpretation of a word, it soon leads to an illustrative narration, including stories, anecdotes, legends, historical events, as well as comments on things relevant in a wide sense. This way of representation was considered by many Chinese critics as innovative; however, in the eyes of some critics, the approach still bears the traces of traditional Chinese genres such as the anecdote fiction approach to fiction writing known as biji xiaoshuo.

The narrator’s expressed intention is to write a biography for every individual thing in Maqiao, especially for those that seem unimportant and trivial but are meaningful by the narrator’s standard. Some of them pose a challenge to the official discourses, while some help to grope into the depth of the texture of cultural traditions and historical memories. The “Maple Ghosts” entry is a good example. Not unlike any other trees in their physical features, these two “ghost-haunted” maples carry heavy historical, psychological, and cultural weight in Maqiao people’s minds and memories. Once they were disastrously used by the Japanese invaders to navigate their bombing and killed villagers during World War II. Any challenging attempts, from felling the trees to portraying them, have failed. The narrator interprets the maple ghost in a perspective beyond the local “psychological reality”: A tree has no will and freedom, but it can obtain significance in a complex network of meanings and cause-effect-relations in life, and thus the difference between one tree and another is as large as that between two such people as Adolf Hitler and Mahatma Gandhi. This consciousness can well account for the author’s motivation and starting point of recording things in Maqiao and creating this dictionary-like novel.

In the undeveloped agricultural village of Maqiao, which is separated from the outside world, some backward sides can be found. The villagers seem to have a psychologically different time-space that has stranded Maqiao in an embarrassingly isolated, poor, and ridiculous state, and miserably out of step with the outside world. Nevertheless, with provincial cultural and geographical ideas, people here see Maqiao as the center of the world and view people from other places as marginal. The narrator is also surprised at the extreme male-centric character of Maqiao language and culture. Most words about femininity are dissolved into male discourses. Appellations such as mom, and sister are replaced by little dad and little brother.

The narrator does not hide his critical consciousness under the objective mask of an ethnographic lexicographer. His criticism is aimed at double targets: the cultural world of Maqiao and the outside ideological world. Sometimes these ideas are discussed as contrasting, opposite, or confrontational, and sometimes as similar, equivalent, or connective phenomena. In both senses, it is easy to discover a subversive and refl ective function of Maqiao vocabulary to the dominant ideological discourses.

The local values that challenge the orthodox ideas are often connected to the special use of terms in Maqiao. In this dictionary, the Chinese character xing means “foolish” or “crazy,” opposite to its usual meaning, “awake” and “vigilant.” This brings a new understanding of the values embodied in the respected image of the ancient patriotic poet Qu Yuan (332–296 B.C.), who was exiled by his unwise king. Out of political loyalty to his country, he ended his own life in the Miluo River, a place where the ancestors of Maqiao people used to live. Long considered the father of Chinese poetry, Qu Yuan once described himself in his poetry as the only person who was xing,—that is, “awake” and “sagacious”—while other people were all “drunk” and “asleep,” but the ambiguous double meaning of xing (foolish and awake) in the Maqiao terminology casts a new light on Qu Yuan’s behavior and all the relevant values and ideology. The narrator supposes that Qu Yuan had already gone insane (xing) when he came to Miluo. From the linguistic relics of the historical memory, a different view rises, accompanied by a disengaged attitude toward power politics and a silent resistance to the official culture.

The Maqiao people exhibit their cultural ideas and consciousness in various dimensions. In their mind, science is the product of the “lazy-bone,” since they describe any lazy phenomena as “scientific” in their everyday use of language. On the other hand, the “lazy” behaviors of some villagers, who refuse to participate in any organized labor and reject any benefit from the productive activities, are not only closer the spirit to the nature in of Taoism but also more “scientific,” “reasonable,” and “sagacious” in the sense of staying detached from the frenetic political movements before and during the Cultural Revolution.

In this dictionary-like work, a lot of comments are on language itself, based on the observation of the special qualities and uses of Maqiao terms. For example, the scarcity and low quality of food limit the meaning and functions of Maqiao words concerning taste. Maoqiao people describe any palatable fl avor as sweet, no matter how salty, spicy, or sour it is, and they use the word candy for anything that is delicious. The narrator immediately extends its meaning to a general level: Due to the ignorance brought by distance, we are always inclined to understand other people and their cultures in a similar simplified way. This phenomenon of Maqiao linguistic limitedness is even associated with the United States’s undifferentiating view of the exiled Chinese as the “anticommunist heroes,” regardless of the fact that a lot of them leave their country simply because they have failed in economic or cultural fraud. Some ideological and cultural stupidities of great powers are refl ected in this tiny linguistic mirror.

Much attention is paid to another side of language in this dictionary. A considerable part of it describes how the creation, misuse, or abuse of words greatly infl uences people’s lives and change their fates. The suggestive power of the unique term street-sickness, obviously an extension from words like sea-sickness, and car-sickness, always makes Maqiao people feel dizzy on urban streets, thus binding their lives in the agricultural zones generation after generation. There are many other relevant examples: An accidental mispronunciation of a word leads to a radio announcer being sentenced to years in prison; the miswriting in an invitation turns friendship into hatred and results in irreversible tragedy. In an ironic style, the narrator also tells stories about the similarity between the sheer meaningless words in everyday greetings in Maqiao and the politically clichéd language in China, in terms of their common characteristics and functions as the rubbish, or “shit,” of language.

Influenced by magic realism and the local ghost cultures, A Dictionary of Maqiao provides stories with supernatural characteristics. A part of these create unique images and perspectives of viewing life. For example, the word Wowei refers to a legendary cabbage-formed thing that posthumously grows out of the mouth of a buried person. Its size is believed to be a conclusive measure of the degree of happiness, fortune, and physical satisfaction (basically nutrition) throughout his or her life. The naïve local people, while removing old waste tombs and scattered bones, search for Wowei among them and cannot help speculating how big, magnificent, and precious Chairman Mao’s Wowei would be, because in their eyes, their greatest leader enjoys the most fortunate, satisfying, and fascinating life in the world. This experience gives the narrator a cynical, even nihilistic mood for days, casting his measuring gaze at every living person as walking Woweis, the sizes of which show their worldly status, happiness, and success. This exemplifies the use of magic realism in this novel in the way it represents the cultural psyche of the people of Maqiao and, further, the psychological reality and cultural imagination of the Chinese people during Mao’s era.

A Brief History of Chinese Novels

Han Shaogong. A Dictionary of Maqiao. Translated by Julia Kovell. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.
Lee, Vivian. “Cultural Lexicology: Maqiao Dictionary by Han Shaogong.” Modern Chinese Literature and Culture 14, no. 1. (Spring 2002). 145–177.
Leenhouts, Mark. “Is it a Dictionary or a Novel? On Playfulness in Han Shaogong’s Dictionary of Maqiao.” In The Chinese at Play: Festivals, Games and Leisure, edited by Bonnie McDougall and Anders Hansson. London: Kegan Paul, 2002. 168–185.
“Nanfan, Maqiao Cidian: Changkai yu Qiujin.” (A Dictionary of Maqiao: Openness and Boundness.) Dangdai Zuojia Pinglun (Contemporary Literary Review) 5 (October 1996). 4–10.
Zhou Zhengbao. “Maqiao Cidian de Yiyi.” (The Signifi cance of A Dictionary of Maqiao) Dangdai Zuojia Pinglun (Contemporary Literary Review) 1 (February 1997) 4–10.

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