Han Shaogong. A Dictionary of Maqiao.
Trans. Julia Lovell. Columbia Univ. Press, 2003. 322 pp. $27.95.
The premise of this "dictionary" is that the local
peculiarities of language usage reveal the outlook and way of life of a
tiny remote village in southern China. This fascinating novel also
presents itself as an ethnographic work whose compiler, explicitly
identified as the author himself, was among the millions of youths
"sent down" to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution
to learn from the peasants. The loose dictionary format allows
considerable flexibility in assembling diverse local narratives,
augmented by research and speculative commentary to construct a complex
portrait of Maqiao, primarily during the communist era. While we meet a
gallery of colorful characters, none are allowed more than momentary prominence, and the focus is on a sympathetic but unsentimental
portrayal of the harsh, often brutal, but not infrequently humorous life
in the Chinese countryside. Han is well known for his interest in the
residual elements of tradition and the deep structure of Chinese
culture, so the disruptions of the communist regime are mostly
experienced as passing epiphenomenona against the larger rhythms of
peasant existence and history. Yet the roots of culture as examined
through language prove to be anything but immutable and unambiguous, and
as Julia Lovell points out in her preface, this living sense of language
offers an implied critique of the abstract rigidities of Mao-speak.
While on the one hand this novel details the uniqueness and exotic
alienness of a specific place, on the other the educated urban recorder
draws out the implications for Chinese society and culture in general.
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.