Sun, Aug 31, 2003 - Page 18 News List

When words manage to say much more than they mean

Many authors aspire to write the modern classic, but Han Shaogong's `A Dictionary of Maqiao' could be the real thing

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

A Dictionary of Maqiao
By Han Shaogong
323 pages
Columbia University Press

This is a serious, ground-breaking and finally brilliant novel by one of China's leading authors. Laid out in the form of a dictionary of the dialect spoken in a minute part of southern China, A Dictionary of Maqiao quickly develops into a story of the lives of a group of so-called "educated youth" dispatched to such remote regions during China's Cultural Revolution.

Much of it is in fact the story of Han Shaogong's own experience. The result is a masterpiece, and at the same time a clarion call in defense of the local and particular as against the international and the uniform.

For Han to call it a "dictionary" is to stretch the term, to put it mildly. Each word, rather, acts as a stimulus to provoke seemingly random thoughts on the subject referred to, a process aided by the words not being in Western alphabetical order. So you begin with "River," then a particular river, then a term used to describe the local rustic population -- and before you know where you are you are listening to a tale of how a group of urban youth once tried to cheat a ferryman of his fare, and on another occasion threw a gun they shouldn't have possessed down into the mud, and so on. After only a few pages an array of characters has been established, and their interactions begin to constitute the material of an almost conventional story.

This method, as the translator Julia Lovell comments, actually harks back to the traditional Chinese literary form of the "jottings" (biji) essay -- loosely connected thoughts prompted by a particular idea or quotation. There are European precedents too. The penultimate section of Joyce's Ulysses is one example in English, as are all the many long fictions, such as Don Quixote or Gargantua and Pantagruel, that proceed by episodes, digressions, and animadversions irregularly inserted on any subject under the sun.

A Dictionary of Maqiao conjures up once again the world of remote upland China made familiar in so many other novels written by former "educated youth" about their experiences. Rain falls for days on end, winds howl, people find shelter from evil spirits in thatched huts and have long been conditioned to eating the most abominable horrors. Yet today the former urban evacuees remain ambivalent, continuing to feel that their tame life back in the cities has never attained quite the same level of memorability.

The meeting of two such different forms of sensibility lies at the heart of the novel's method. The migrants tend not to have much religious belief, have more or less ingested Maoist orthodoxy, however grudgingly, and approach problems with a generally rational outlook.

The locals, by contrast, embody as weird a collection of attitudes as you could imagine. Imported novelties such as dangerous agricultural pesticides and Communist Party hierarchies are treated with equal wonder and puzzlement. Their patched-up, hand-to-mouth world had had its own bizarre coherence, and these new intrusions, which the city youth understand and accept, give rise to comic contortions of resentment and adaptation in the peasants.

An example of the episodic technique is the entry under the headword "This him." This refers to a Maqiao word meaning "someone here, standing in front of you," and distinct from another word meaning "someone not here, someone far away."

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