A Dictionary of Maqiao is a really considered and philosophical book, whilst managing to retain an earthiness and wit throughout. I liked the way the narrator poses the book as an effort to deconstruct traditional story-telling. He sees the traditional novel as directing its gaze selectively – focusing in on those things that relate to the central narrative, while ignoring the things that are on the periphery of this:
Things that can’t be put in the traditional novel are normally “insignificant.” However, when your focus is theocracy, science is insignificant; when it is humanity, nature is insignificant; when it is politics, then love is insignificant; when it is money, then aesthetics are insignificant. I suspect that everything in the world has the same level of significance, however, and that the reason that some things appear insignificant at times, is because they are filtered out by the author’s framework of meaning and are resisted by the reader’s framework of meaning, as they are not exciting enough. Clearly, these frameworks are not innate and unchanging, but rather the contrary, they are reformed by fads, habit and cultural tendencies – this mould is then set in the form of the novel. [My translation]
This is the narrator’s justification of his dictionary-like structure to the book, but the book is far from a dry rendering of definitions. The narrator is only partially successful in escaping the strictures of the modern novel form, as the narrative, although it jumps about in time and from topic to topic, is a story of cultural differences between the villagers, along with their cultural landscape, and the narrator himself – a young man from an urban background of privilege sent “Down to the Countryside” during the 1960s during the Cultural Revolution. (Incidentally, incumbent Chinese president Xi Jinping was among the many young people sent to the countryside during this movement, so the book likely offers an idea of what he went through too.) He traces the lives of several characters throughout the definitions although the references are far more wide-ranging than would be realizable in a traditional novel – as he focuses in on things that don’t necessarily bring the narrative forward, like inanimate objects and how these relate to the cultural landscape.
There is an understated humor that undercuts a lot of the villager’s anti-intellectualism in the book, like the story of Xidahanzi (希大桿子) who the villagers all think of as a bit of a bumpkin because he uses terms from the modern scientific world. This is not a collection of half-baked anecdotes, however, as it links into a larger observation of the language and forms of expression of the local people. They show a marked strain of anti-intellectualism, which the author draws attention to the contrast between the connotations of terms like 醒 (xing2 – awake; alert) and 科學 (ke1xue2 – science) in Mandarin, in which they bring to mind intellect and enlightenment, and in Maqiao, in which they have negative connotations of foolishness and eccentricity. The reverse is also true, as words like 狠 (hen3 fierce) which have a negative connotation in Mandarin and a positive connotation in the Maqiao dialect (狠 means capable in Maqiao). This suggests the underlying differences in the value systems of the rural people to that of the urban narrator; for them the revelations of science are so removed from their lives that they are associated with eccentricity and foolishness. The entry on 醒 I felt was particularly poignant as it mentions how Qu Yuan, a Warring States period poet and exiled minister from the court, came to a place near Maqiao on the way to drown himself. The narrator imagines how the locals would have perceived him, using the term “醒子” or fool, despite the high regard in which Qu Yuan is generally held in Chinese scholarly culture. The author underpins the narrator’s perception of the anti-intellectualism of the book with a reference to Zhuangzi’s 〈胠篋〉 (Cutting Open Satchels):
天下之善人少而不善人多，則聖人之利天下也少而害天下也多。 But the good men in the world are few, and those who are not good are many – it follows that the sages benefit the world in a few instances and injure it in many.
This spurred me to reexamine my derision at the ignorance of the villagers at the start of the book and this sentiment is summed up by the author as follows:
Zhuangzi’s warning, in a modern world in which technology grows ever more advanced, has faded to a distant murmur or a fading star beyond the horizon which the majority of people are unwilling to treat seriously. [My Translation]
I thought it was interesting how language was shaped by local experience and could completely distort words until they came to mean the opposite of the Mandarin interpretation of their definition. Another example of this was the hostile attitude of locals to beauty, in the dictionary entry 不和氣 (not in harmony with chi/unfriendly) which locals used to describe beautiful women. Beautiful women must cover their faces if they wish to ride on the ferry if the weather is choppy, as they believe that beauty brings bad luck:
What interested me was the term 不和氣. It’s use led one to a chilling conclusion: Beauty is a form of evil, that goodness poses a danger and that that which is good and beautiful always bring division, instability and dissatisfaction to a group, as they bring conflict and incite hate, or ‘disharmony’.
This brought to mind a poem by W.B. Yeats, in which he prays that his daughter will have moderate beauty, along the same lines:
May she be granted beauty and yet not
Beauty to make a stranger’s eye distraught,
Or hers before a looking-glass, for such,
Being made beautiful overmuch,
Consider beauty a sufficient end,
Lose natural kindness and maybe
The heart-revealing intimacy
That chooses right, and never find a friend.
Although in Yeats’ case this is clearly a reference to the beauty of Irish nationalist Maud Gonne, who turned down his four marriage proposals, a parallel can be seen in the way beauty is perceived by the local people of Maqiao and Yeats’ sentiment. There are also some interesting reflections on perception of history in the book, as in the local account of events, the Japanese colonial regime extends 8 years after their official surrender in local memory, for example, as events are placed in a chronological order that doesn’t fit the official narrative. This suggests Maqiao has its own records of time, that will likely eventually be replaced by the official historical narrative.
The treatment of women in rural China is also a major theme of the book and I felt that there was an interesting comparison to be made with the treatment of women in the fiction of Chinese writer Shen Congwen (沈從文). Shen wrote of the change that was occurring in rural China after the formation of the Republic of China and as modern technology and ways of thinking where encroaching on rural life. In Shen’s story Xiaoxiao (蕭蕭) I perceived an attitude suggesting that, despite the apparent subjugation and repression that women suffered in rural China, there was a sort of compensation for this in civil society institutions, providing protection for women. In Han Shaogong’s novel, however, there is no sense that civil society institutions or attitudes are regulating the violence and repression of women, which suggests that the author is drawing attention to the amount of suffering undergone by women during this period.
The last thing I wanted to mention was the treatment of homosexuality in the book, as despite the scant references to it within the story, it was highlighted by a New York Times review printed on the sleeve of the book. I felt that the treatment of men who have sex with men in the book was tied in with several relatively tired tropes, including misogyny and deviancy. I felt that it was put into the novel as a punchline in order to amuse, rather than to examine with empathy. This dated the book for me a little bit, as it increased the distance between the narrator and me. I felt 「紅花老爹」 (red flower grandpa) was portrayed almost as a Chinese Mr Humphries from Are You Being Served?, in that he is a figure of fun and there is little attempt by the narrator to explore the experience of non-conforming masculinities. The head of the village being involved with the Mr Humphries figure is almost seen as a comically deviant twist to the tale and in the context of the novel it seems to “explain” why the village head beats his wife.
Despite this one caveat, the book is a really great read and is very successful in displaying the diverse heterogeneity of the Chinese experience.