Fictional Dictionaries

IMG_5934Currently I am busy working on my thesis on ‘fictional dictionaries’ in contemporary Chinese literature. Browsing of my supervisor’s affluent book shelves I accidentally noticed that around the turn of the century 3 novels by Chinese authors which all took the form of wordbooks, were published:

Han Shaogong: A Dictionary of Maqiao 马桥词典 (1996/ trans. 2003 by Julia Lovell) Based on his experiences and meditations upon language as an educated youth ‘send down’ to the countryside in the 1970s, the novel take the shape of a lexicon biography of the semi-fictional village of Maqiao. Through the formal break with linear narrative, Han Shaogong foregrounds the ambiguous yet powerful nature of language in shaping our understanding of history, the world and ourselves. More about Han Shaogong and language here.

Yu Hua: China in Ten Words 十个词汇里的中国 (First published in French 2010, Chinese version published 2011 in Taipei, English translation by Allan H. Barr 2011) Yu Hua aims at reappropriating China from communist sloganeering and Western generalization by redefining ten Chinese words. His word definitions consist of personal anecdote, critical essay and political analysis, blending the genres in a way that points to the context dependent status of language as well as the inherent paradox in trying to define language with language.

Guo Xiaolu: A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (Written in English 2007) Using the clashes arising in the cultural and literal translation between lovers as her point of departure, Guo Xiaolu probes the interconnectedness of language and cultural identity. Self exiled into a foreign context, the subject is forced to constantly translate her surroundings, while at the same time translating herself into her new reality.

IMG_5935The formal constraint of the wordbook or dictionary force a common thematic focus on language in all 3 novels, different as they do otherwise appear. Likewise the question of history, the right to write it, and the role of language in the communication of as well as the creation of it, is a topic of the first two. Cultural identity and translation is a theme shared by Han Shaogon and Guo Xiaolu, with the former presenting language struggles within Chinese territory and the latter between China and the UK.

Hope to have made some of you curious for more, all 3 novels are available in English, with A Dictionary of Maqiao as my personal favourite!

Forced to remember: The Power of Language in Han Shaogong

Han Shaogong‘s 韩少功 short story ‘Homecoming?’ from 1985 takes up many of the themes of his famous later novel A Dictionary of Maqiao from 1996. Like Dictionary it is about history and language, and their mutual distortion of one another.

In ‘Homecoming?’ a young man comes (back?) to a village he almost remembers and which definitely remembers him, though under a different name than the one he carries now: “All this looked so familiar and yet so strange. It was like looking at a written character: the harder you look at it, the more it looks like a character you know, and yet it doesn’t look like the character you know. Damn! Had I been here before?” (pp. 2)

Through the story the people of the village succeed in making the protagonist recall the violent and suppressed happenings of his past life in the village where he lived as an ‘educated youth’ and maybe killed a man. Indeed it is an act of re-membering of bringing something back into the mind, for before they start calling him by his old name ‘Glasses Ma’, he is completely unaware that he has not always been Huang Zhixian.

In the previous quote Han compares memory and written language: Both are second hand representations of happenings, open to mistake and distortion and thus not to be trusted or equaled with the events themselves.

While the power of language and naming/categorizing (Glassed Ma or Huang Zhixian) over history is taken up on the scene of personal trauma (the killing of a man) in this short story, the same relationship, now on a collective scale, is one of the themes of A Dictionary of Maqiao.

In Dictionary the official historical narrative is distorted and the constructedness of its raw linguistic framework exposed by the local dialect and its (mis-)appropriations of official discourse.

Lastly ‘Homecoming?’ also hints at the distorting yet enlightening power of dialect, as this dialogue between the protagonist and the villager Ai Ba shows: “Do you know me (Does he mean ‘recognize’? Or ‘remember’?) […] I went to chase meat with you once, do you still know? (‘to chase meat’, does it mean ‘hunting’?)” (pp. 6-7)

Is to know to remember (that is to know again)? and is remembering (recalling to a mind that is no longer exactly the same mind) knowledge producing? Certainly the power of language and remembering is so strong that the protagonist has a new (old) identity forced upon himself before he quickly leaves the village again calling for his mother, the only certain historical point of origin, in other words: home.

All quotes from Han, Shaogong (trans. Martha Cheung): Homecoming? and Other Stories. Hong Kong: Renditions Paperbacks, 1992.