A Dictionary of Maqiao

Han Shaogong. Translated by Julia Lovell

Columbia University Press

A Dictionary of Maqiao

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Pub Date: July 2003

ISBN: 9780231127448

400 Pages

Format: Hardcover

List Price: $35.00£30.00

A Dictionary of Maqiao

Han Shaogong. Translated by Julia Lovell

Columbia University Press

One of the most-talked about works of fiction to emerge from China in recent years, this novel about an urban youth "displaced" to a small village in rural China during the Cultural Revolution is a fictionalized portrait of the author's own experience as a young man. Han Shaogong was one of millions of students relocated from cities and towns to live and work alongside peasant farmers in an effort to create a classless society. Translated into English for the first time, Han's novel is an exciting experiment in form—structured as a dictionary of the Maqiao dialect—through which he seeks to understand and translate the local life and customs of his strange new home.

Han encounters an upside-down world among the people of Maqiao: a con man dupes his neighbors into thinking that he has found the fountain of youth by convincing them that his father is in fact his son; to be scientific" is to be lazy; time and relationships are understood using the language of food and its preparation; and to die young is considered "sweet," while the aged reckon their lives to be "cheap."

As entries build one upon another, Han meditates on the ability of a waidi ren (outsider) to represent the ways of life of another community. In this light, the Communist effort to control the language and history of a people whose words and past are bound together in ineluctably local ways emerges as an often comical, sometimes tragic exercise in miscommunication.

The best novel of the year isn't that DeLillo-on-automatic-pilot thing that broke out, along with SARS, this spring; nor the smutty anti-Islamic screed by the super-annuated French juvenile delinquent; nor even Jane Smiley's excellent investigation of the unlikely souls of real estate agents. Rather, it is this 'dictionary' of the dialect of a fictitious village, Maqiao, lost in the squat hills of South China.

San Francisco Chronicle Book Review

[A] subtle and smashingly effective critique of the futility of totalitarian efforts to suppress language and thought—and, more to the point, a stunningly imaginative and absorbing work of fiction.

Kirkus Reviews

[A Dictionary of Maqiao] is a magnificent book, epic in its ambitions and sweep without any of the sentimental obfuscation on which that genre so often depends.

The Village Voice

[B]oth fascinating and masterful... Han paints a detailed, intriguing and amusing picture of what happens when Marxism collides with entrenched village beliefs, and how traditional China coexists with modernity. The book is filled with peculiar, beguiling, tragic characters and scenery so real you can touch it... This is an intelligent, amusing, clever, fascinating and well-written view of a China most of us never see, or don't recognize when we do.

Asian Review of Books

To enter [A Dictionary of Maqiao]'s pages is to cross into a world of bandits and ghosts, where 'rude' means 'pretty,' and homosexuals are 'Red Flower Daddies' and people don't die, they 'scatter.'

The New York Times Book Review

Dictionary of Maqiao is a wonderful, many-layered novel written as a series of definitions which gains further depth from a good translation... Han Shaogong's novel [is] clever, sympathetic and amused... Julia Lovell's translation is an impressive achievement, a fine reflection of a complex book.

Times Literary Supplement

Han Shaogong's novel has won wide acclaim, and deservedly so; through his treatment of language, he not only vividly portrays village life in rural China, but also inspires readers to rethink what they are accustomed to taking for granted.


Sometimes humorous, but crude and grim at other times, the entries all intertwine to give readers a picture of life in this distant region.

Library Journal

The narrator's folkloric stereotypes the provincial simpletons and fools, the cuckolded husbands, the long-suffering wives resolve affectingly into distinct human beings. And the peasant vocabulary vulgar, quaint, superstitious which so perplexesthe earnest young outsider is also revealed to be cunningly subversive, an antidote to the totalitarian imposition of a "reality"irreconcilably at odds with the real thing.

Amanda Heller, The Boston Globe

This is a serious, ground-breaking and finally brilliant novel by one of China's leading authors... The translation is everywhere excellent—fluent, colloquial where appropriate, without being excessively so, learned in places, and without any hint anywhere of 'translationese'... surely destined for classic status.

Bradley Winterton, Taipei Times

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

Worth reading...fascinating and surprisingly accessible.

Anton Graham, China Economic Review

Han is a good storyteller, ingeniously leading the reader into the heart of his stories...A Dictionary of Maqiao is readable and enjoyable.

Fatima Wu, World Literature Today

In view of the emphasis that Han Shaogong places on the analysis of the languages we use and how those languages shape—even become—the realities that we experience, it is not surprising that he should present his novel as a dictionary. A novel presented as a dictionary? A daunting task for any translator! Yet Julia Lovell has rendered Han Shaogong's highly original A Dictionary of Maqiao into English with an accuracy and grace that engross us in the daily life of Maqiao village, a place where a cast of colorful characters speak the language recorded in the dictionary.

William A. Lyell, Stanford University

One of the truly meaningful narratives from contemporary Chinese literature, A Dictionary ofMaqiao weaves together a vast tapestry of legends, anecdotes, haunting memories, proverbial wisdoms, and provocative insights. Each entry is a beautifully composed short essay or story, and provides an intriguing strand of an ever broadening vista. With this masterful novel, Han Shaogong illustrates ever more eloquently how historical traumas and actions are embedded in, and absorbed by, the persistent tradition of a living language. Thanks to Lovell's highly readable translation, students of Chinese culture, history, literature, anthropology, and indeed lexicography now have a new access to the village of Maqiao and its inhabitants. The general reader, too, will find his or her imagination of modern China magnificently extended and enriched.

Xiaobing Tang, The University of Chicago

2011 Newman Prize for Chinese Literature

About the Author

Han Shaogong is an award-winning novelist, essayist, and translator. He is author of Moon Orchid (1985), Bababa (1985), Womanwomanwoman (1985), and Deserted City (1989). He is also former editor of the magazines Hainan Review and Frontiers, and is vice-chairman of the Hainan Writer's Association.