This quarter’s classes were picked haphazardly, but they turned out to be a series of pleasant surprises–none more so than my 20th Century Chinese Literature class (taught by, of all people, a charming Italian woman). I was skeptical at first, especially because the first book we read was a weird affair involving castration and face mutilation (?!?). However, I fell in love when I picked up our second book–Han Shaogong’s A Dictionary of Maqiao.
Although the words “a novel” are printed on the cover, the work is far from the conventional piece of linear storytelling. Rather, it unfolds bit by bit as the ethnography of a fictional slice of rural China, told in a series of dictionary entries. Each entry is headed by a phrase that carries haunting significance to the village and the narrator, a young man who, like the author himself, was sent to the countryside as an “Educated Youth“. Instead of providing rigid definitions of universally understood words, the novel uses the dictionary format to illuminate the wealth of meaning that can be hidden in a single phrase, taken in an unusual or unexpected context. In his three hundred-some pages, Han Shaogong explores a rich and complex variety of issues, playing with the constraints of a traditional novel-form. His stories weave together in interesting and unexpected ways—they ultimately solidify into a work that probes cultural specificity and diversity, as well as the richness that can exist on the fringe of a mainstream cultural narrative.
The work is at once an experiment in novelistic form and an amazing portrait of a village that encompasses both the mundane and the extraordinary. Its tales effortlessly combine reality and what reads as fantasy, such as stories of men with half-heads and ghosts in the mountains. In his afterword, Han Shaogong suggests that “when people speak, everyone really needs their own, unique dictionary” (388). What he has given us is truly a “personal dictionary” that has relevance for every reader, a beautiful, rich, and complexly woven account encapsulated within the village of Maqiao.
It’s not quite the light beach reading we might crave as Chicago hits the first truly beautiful days of summer. However, for anyone interested in China, language, and the complexity that can be hidden in a single innocent word, this is a haunting and memorable must-read.