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A Dictionary of Maqiao [Paperback]

Han Shaogong , Julia Lovell
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Sept. 27 2005
From the daring imagination of one of China’s greatest living novelists comes a work of startling power and originality–the story of a young man “displaced” to a small village in rural China during the 1960s. Told in the format of a dictionary, with a series of vignettes disguised as entries, A Dictionary of Maqiao is a novel of bold invention–and a fascinating, comic, deeply moving journey through the dark heart of the Cultural Revolution.
Entries trace the wisdom and absurdities of Maqiao: the petty squabbles, family grudges, poverty, infidelities, fantasies, lunatics, bullies, superstitions, and especially the odd logic in their use of language–where the word for “beginning” is the same as the word for “end”; “little big brother” means older sister; to be “scientific” means to be lazy; and “streetsickness” is a disease afflicting villagers visiting urban areas. Filled with colorful characters–from a weeping ox to a man so poisonous that snakes die when they bite him–A Dictionary of Maqiao is both an important work of Chinese literature and a probing inquiry into the extraordinary power of language.

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From Publishers Weekly

Maqiao, a fictitious rural village lost in the vitals of Mao's Communist empire, is to Han's magical novel what Macondo is to One Hundred Years of Solitude-a place in which the various brutalities and advances of contemporary history are transformed within the "fossil seams" of popular myth. Han adopts the rules of the dictionary to the rules of fiction, distributing mini-sagas of rural bandits, Daoist madmen and mixed up Maoists across the definitions of terms with special meaning in Maqiao. Han, narrator as well as author, is sent to Maqiao as part of a cadre of "Educated Youth" during the Cultural Revolution. A sharp, sophisticated observer, he narrates these folkloric tales from the vantage point of contemporary China, situating them within a richly informative historical and philosophical framework. Among the stories that deserve mention are those of Wanyu, the village's best singer and reputed Don Juan, who is discovered to lack the male "dragon"; of "poisonous" Yanzao, so called both because his aged mother has a reputation as a poisoner and because he is assigned to spread pesticides (and in so doing absorbs such a quantity of toxins that mosquitoes die upon contact with him); and of Tiexiang, the adulterous wife of Party Secretary Benyi, who takes up with Three Ears, so called because of the rudimentary third ear that grows under one of his armpits. Flawlessly translated by Lovell, this novel should not be missed by lovers of literature.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Review

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.

(Persimmon)

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) --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Customer Reviews

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Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Poignant, innovative, thought-provoking May 5 2004
Format:Hardcover
In 1970 16-year-old Han Shaogong was sent to the Southern Chinese village of Maqiao in Hunan Province to plant rice and tea as a member of the Educated Youth. During his years in Maqiao he carefully made notations of the differences in culture, customs, and language that he observed as a stranger. Later in his life Shaogong became a central member of the Root-Searching Movement that aimed to undermine and reverse the thought-control mechanisms instituted by the Cultural Revolution and rebel against the highly-structured controls on literature, language, and aesthetics. Shaogong returned to his observations of Maqiao and developed this book to further the movement. THE DICTIONARY OF MAQIAO is structured as a dictionary with 110 entries, but it is not a tedious index of words and meanings; rather this book provides small vignettes of how life, both human and natural, is lived in Maqiao. Shaogong's position as an outsider provides him with a unique perspective of the village. He detailed the often-eccentric habitants and their distinctive language that differs from his own. By documenting these cultural and custom differences Shaogong demonstrates how there is great variety and fluency of unlike the teachings of the Maoist doctrines. I loved reading this book and would highly recommend it to others.
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5.0 out of 5 stars May this book find its way to many, many readers. March 18 2004
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
Thank you, Han Shaogong, for a wonderful, thought-provoking novel. The fiction you deliver, cloaked in the garb of a regional history, transcends time, place, and language to offer an incredibly precise and well-crafted definition of 'being.' Your point concerning the importance of defining experience and expression on a scale less grand than that of global village is well-delivered and it imbues A Dictionary of Maqiao with a message of hope. As more readers come to this book, may it gain the recognition it deserves. We in Western culture are lucky to have this story available to us in translation.
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By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
This book takes me back to my home, a village in Southern Hunan Province, China, and to my childhood. When I was reading, the stories and the people jump out of the book onto my memory. It reminds me of my childhood friends, my relatives, the village doctors, the traveling smith and craftsmen.
When I was 6 or 7 years old, I often grazed water buffalos with my friends in the slops of Wuling (Five Peaks) Mountain. One day we saw a World War II bomb delivered by the Japanese airplane. We were so curious, excited and naïve. We moved it to the grain yard of our agricultural production brigade on the buffalos?back. Fortunately, the explosive was already gone possibly because of aging and weathering. This book forces me to recall the detail of this incident and reassure that nobody was hurt by our ignorance.
During that time our village was often visited by a locksmith, who is the one spoke "xiang qi?accent. He was tall with broad shoulders and white beard. He carried two cabinets covered by glasses on a bamboo pole. Whenever he came, we surrounded his workshop area in the grain yard. He was always accompanied by a young boy of our age. I never figured out why that boy would play with us while the locksmith was making the 5 or 10 cent deals with the adults. The visit was usually about two to three hours. Then they left for other villages. We saw them off in sun and in rain. They did not take away anything from us. But they brought us excitements every time.
In our area, we had village doctors they used to practice Chinese medicine in Jianxi province. They always told us that people from Jianxi province were our relatives. We greeted each other "Lao Biao? I would always have remembered them because I was often sent by my mom to ask for medicine help when our family members felt unease.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Maqiao Mysteries Sept. 29 2003
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
This masterful and quite heady novel tackles the history of a fictitious town buried deep in China, a place protected by rivers and mountains. When a a "sent-down" worker from the city joins a group of urbanites to live in the town, they discover a place that's almost a metaphor for Chinese life -- cast in reverse.
Han Shaogong guides the reader through the fictitious author's "dictionary" of Maqiao, which acquaints us with a baffling set of customs, and a people who view themselves as a kind of "Middle Kingdom," in which the outside world is shunned. The novel becomes an inventive expose of Shaogong's sometimes profound insights into the restrictions of culture and language. The book's episodes can be rigorously dry or unexpectedly moving.
The diligent reader will be rewarded. The depth and honesty of Shaogong's insights reach to the present day, and his small town of Maqiao is certain to leave a deep impression. This prize-winning novel is a dictionary that compels your interest and enjoyment..
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5.0 out of 5 stars Magnificent - fuses experimentalism and localism July 31 2003
Format:Hardcover
This is an unmistakable classic: beautifully written by Han Shaogong and superbly translated by Julia Lovell. Anyone who feels fatigued with contemporary American or British fiction should read this for an object lesson in what is being produced out there, in foreign languages, and how important it is that we keep our translation market alive.
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