“Language,” Han Shaogong writes in A Dictionary of Maqiao, “isn’t something to be sneezed at.” Certainly not in China, where the wrong word can still land you in prison, and not here either, where we practically swim in the stuff, sucking it in like smog-choked air, and yet too often forget to see that it’s words that make the world. In his first novel to be translated into English (Homecoming?
and Other Stories appeared here in 1995), Han sections off one small corner of the world, the tiny village in southern China to which he was consigned during the Cultural Revolution, and attempts to describe it through its words alone. Of course words are never alone—they are unruly, parasitic little brutes that can’t survive without human breath and blood—so defining words, for Han, means telling stories, situating words in their lived, terrestrial contexts, naming the ghosts that haunt them, that shift and bend them with time.
The result is a magnificent book, epic in its ambitions and sweep without any of the sentimental obfuscation on which that genre so often depends. The novel is organized, as the title suggests, as a dictionary. Some entries are a paragraph long, while others stretch on for pages. Some confine themselves to brief philological speculation, while others spin out long, intertwining tales about the village and its inhabitants. A page-long “Guide to Principal Characters” is provided at novel’s end, though enough are omitted (and enough are surnamed Ma) that it’s not a bad idea to map them out as you read. But try not to let the tangle of lines you draw between characters blot out the whole page, for this is not a novel in the traditional plot-and-protagonist sense. Suspecting that, as he puts it, “an ideology lurks within,” Han rejects the standard novelistic model in which “Main character, main plot, main mood block out all else, dominating the field of vision of both reader and writer, preventing any sidelong glances,” in which “any occasional casual digression is no more than a fragmentary embellishment of the main line, the temporary amnesty of a tyrant.”
Digression rules here, but if it’s no tyranny, it’s not quite lawless, either. Han’s wanderings are roundabout, but he’s always going somewhere. Open the book at random, to, say, the entry under “Dear Life,” a phrase used in Maqiao to refer to youth. (Old age, which arrives shortly after 30, is “cheap life.”) The section begins with an account of the sad and premature end of “Zhihuang’s snot-nosed son Xiongshi,” who unearths a Japanese artillery shell which, having failed to explode when dropped 30 years earlier, promptly does so when Xiongshi bangs it with a sickle, dissolving him into “a few icy drops of rain.” The next entry pushes Han into the tale of Xiongshi’s mother’s descent into madness and subsequent ascent to regional celebrity, and a brief discussion of insanity, Freud, dreams and prophetic ability. Then, sliding into an explication of a word translated as stick (roughly synonymous with fuck), and some thoughts on rural resistance to Maoist linguistic puritanism, he jumps without further ado into the story of Old Master Nine Pockets, the beggar king of Changle, jailed under Mao, and thence to Bandit Ma, “the one great historical figure who came out of Maqiao,” who led a barefoot Taoist bandit army in the war against the Japanese, briefly landed on the wrong side of the Communist-Nationalist divide, and later killed himself fearing he would be arrested. His story is told through a great leap forward to 1982, as Han sits in Ma’s miserable son’s bean-curd stall, just after Ma has been rehabilitated, 30 years too late for it to matter much. Thus Han skips deftly back and forth (and side to side, and to and fro) through a half century of Chinese history.
History, after all, is very much Han’s topic here—its contradictions and ambiguities, how words move history and history shapes words, “how act upon act of bitter farce have played themselves out” over decades of poverty, famine, and violence. For all that, Dictionary is not a gloomy book, and Han’s no Solzhenitsyn. At least three characters take their own lives, more still are driven mad by suffering, but their stories are relayed with almost Rabelaisian wit. Han recounts an old peasant’s death by accidental auto-decapitation: “And so, amidst such confused circumstances, Zhaoqing’s head fell off.”
Such light spirits come in conscious rebellion against the heavy-pawed revolutionary realist affection for the drudgeries of rural life (one peasant bristles at being forced to sing about “hoes and rakes filling manure pits watering rice seedlings . . . why don’t I make it even more artistic by hauling a bucket of shit around?”). Formal and political concerns are bound tight here; when Han writes of the tyranny of narrative, he’s not being coy. Maoist restrictions on literature meant that between 1949 and 1966, only eight novels on average were published in China each year, and fewer in the decade that followed. Dictionary is as much an exhilarated exploration of the relative freedom that followed the end of the Cultural Revolution as it is a stern reminder that “language equals the power to control,” a sustained polemic against any attempt to freeze and fetishize the word. Lest anyone try turning that into dogma, Han ends on a healthy note of Taoist disavowal, that “language is just language, and nothing else . . . its importance shouldn’t be exaggerated.”