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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.
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Author:Twitchell-Waas, Jeffrey
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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