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A Dictionary of Maqiao

3.95  ·  Rating details ·  302 ratings  ·  37 reviews
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, dee ...more
Paperback, 416 pages
Published September 27th 2005 by Dial Press Trade Paperback (first published 1996)
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Average rating 3.95  · 
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Feb 27, 2017 added it
Shelves: chinese-fiction
Where to even start with this? Who knew books like this even existed? First, how many Chinese novels have you read (and I ain't talking about those overseas-Chinese novels about how they can't truly connect with their grandparents) for starters... despite the fact that nearly 20 percent of humanity identifies as Chinese in some meaningful way. Now, let's look at how fucking insane the structure of this book is, a dizzying collage of stories all of which are this sort of folk sociolinguistics of ...more
Apr 24, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: china
Having a sense of humour doesn't mean being able to tell jokes. Humour is the ability to play with the expected. Which is never more apparent than when authority tries to tell people what to think.

In 1970, the young intellectual student Han Shaogong was sent to the tiny village of Maqiao, where not much has changed since the emperor's days. But this was the cultural revolution and everything was to be made new: city-dwelling weaklings would become good workers, and in the process help turn the f
Jim Elkins
Jul 27, 2019 added it
Shelves: chinese
Traditional storytelling overwhelming experimental fiction

"A Dictionary of Maqiao" is a 1996 Chinese novel about a fictional village in the south of China. It takes the form of a dictionary, which is an unusual gambit for a novel. A principal precedent is Milorad Pavić's "Dictionary of the Khazars" (1984). (See the note at the end of this review.) Are there others? There are shorter pieces by Borges, Perec, and Lem, but I am not aware of other book-length dictionaries that ask to be read as nove
Feb 21, 2014 rated it really liked it
This was such a unique book; part novel, part short story collection, part memoir, part treatise on language and culture. The author was one of the "Educated Youth" relocated to the countryside, specifically the village of Maqiao, in the 1950's as part of Mao's Cultural Revolution. The author presents his somewhat fictionalized experiences in Maqiao as vignettes, each revolving around a particular word, name, or phrase from the Maqiao dialect. Through these we are introduced to a cast of eccentr ...more
John Armstrong
Aug 01, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: chinese-modern
Han Shaogong’s A Dictionary of Maqiao, originally published in Chinese in 1996 and translated into English by Julia Lovell in 2006, is not only the best novel I’ve read in the last few years but also an absolute miracle of translation. The translator had great admiration for the book and approached the author for permission to translate it into English. She relates his response as, “I am very happy that you wish to translate the book, but I’m afraid it will be terribly difficult.”

She was not s
Jason Pym
Oct 01, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: china
This book is an involving, vivid, occasionally funny portrait of a rural village told in the form of a dictionary. Each entry has the definition of a word from the local Maqiao dialect, and with it a new chapter of the story is told.

Aside from an entertaining story, the book is two things; an example of how Chinese village life is timeless no matter what political maelstrom is raging outside, and secondly a lamentation for the rich, earthy local languages lost to the bland functionalism of stan
Rowland Pasaribu
Aug 18, 2010 rated it really liked it
During the Cultural Revolution, Han Shaogong was one of seven Educated Youth sent to the hamlet of Maqiao in northern Hunan, which consisted of "forty-odd households, about ten head of cattle, and pigs, dogs, chickens, and ducks, with two long, narrow paddy fields hugging its perimeters". His observations of people and customs and language during the six years he spent there form the basis for his novel A Dictionary of Maqiao.

This takes the ostensible form of a dictionary or encyclopedia, with o
Frank Kasell
Mar 22, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: chinese, asian
An interesting book, this. When I discovered it, the immediate comparison that came to mind was with the Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavić. Ultimately, though, outside of the main structural conceit (eschewing a conventional linear plot in favor of short, interconnecting "dictionary" entries), the connections are limited. In Han's fictionalized dictionary (it's unclear to me where the line is between the fiction and the reality, to be honest...not that I think it's important to know) of ...more
Wendy G
Apr 07, 2014 rated it really liked it
This is one of the many books I chose based on the title; I was not disapponted. "A Dictionary of Maqiao" is a novel about a fictional village in rural China and the ways in which the people used language to resist, transgress, and mock the current political climate. The backdrop is the Down to the Countryside Movement, which was a component of the Cultural Revolution in China. Young, urban, college-educated people were sent en masse to rural villages to learn the real and valuable work of the p ...more
Apr 12, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It was very beautifully written and the story got richer and better the more I read. It has deepened my understanding of chinese society and even though the stories are fictional I think they can represent lives that have and are lived. Having that said, the plot didn't really pull me in and even though it was beautiful I felt my mind wander after reading for a while so it took long to finish. ...more
Jan 10, 2018 rated it really liked it
What an intriguing and unusual book! I recommend this to anyone interested in language and/or Chinese history.
Nov 12, 2019 rated it really liked it
Anyone with a scientific bent will appreciate a well designed or clever experiment, a methodology that gets to the roots of something new and groundbreaking. For this reason I have a great admiration for A Dictionary of Maqiao, a work of Chinese experimental fiction, that is exactly the sort of shrewd exploration of society that yields piercing insight into something we all take for granted: language.

First, our framework is Chinese, the world's longest continually used language, with the additio
Richard Thompson
May 31, 2017 rated it really liked it
I have read and enjoyed several traditional Chinese novels -- The Water Margin, The Scholars and The Dream of the Red Chamber, all of which are written in episodic fashion -- loosely connected stories with some commonality of plot, character and theme, but without a coherent story arc in the sense that is typical of Western novels. A Dictionary of Maqiao uses the form of a dictionary as a way to organize a novel with a traditional Chinese structure around very modern themes of language, culture ...more
Feb 11, 2017 rated it liked it
"Is history nothing but a war of words?"
"All language is just language, and nothing else; no more than a few symbols describing facts, just as a clock is no more than a symbol describing time."

The narrator's personal dictionary to a village called Maqiao reads like fables in each dictionary entry. Han Shaogong uses the slipperiness of language and dialect to both attempt to pin down truth and to suggest that reality is perhaps forever out of that sort of definition—good or evil, right or wrong,
Dec 30, 2020 rated it really liked it
Unquestionably original, crafted with care, and imparting deep couleur locale. I had a bit of difficulty connecting to any of the characters as they were referred to somewhat sporadically, though it can't be said that they lack depth. This difficulty probably reflects my individualistic cultural origins, which would account for my expectation that characters will be developed in a linear way and will represent the primary means of communicating the author's intentions. One is, rather, left here ...more
Sherry Fyman
Oct 31, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is as close as I could come to sitting down with someone displaced during the Cultural Revolution and finding out what daily life was like to be dropped hundreds of miles away from everything you know into a culture that is foreign in every way. We don't learn much about the narrator but learn tons about life in a rural community culturally cut off from the rest of the country and world. Life here is truly nasty, brutish and short. Outsiders are viewed with mistrust. Women are written out o ...more
Jan 12, 2017 rated it really liked it
Unique postmodern structure plays out with linguistic insight and hilarious storytelling, -the story of a Chinese village is told through dictionary entries of their unique vernacular.
Kate Beittenmiller
Mar 03, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Excellent story, told in a unique way through "dictionary" vignettes. ...more
Richard Yu
Mar 13, 2016 rated it it was amazing
(view spoiler) ...more
Sarah Fisher
Jun 05, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: language lovers
4 stars since it tended to be dry at times. It's written in dictionary style using language and its cultural peculiarities to also tell the story of a remote village in China, which speaks their own dialect. Very interesting how the language really becomes part of the people. You'll probably get more out of it if you already have some background in Chinese, or better yet, can read it in the original language. It'll make the book easier to understand at first. ...more
Shanti Hofshi
Aug 05, 2011 rated it liked it
Interesting approach to telling a story - a series of word definitions that bring the characters and their relationships to life little by little. Also a fascinating insight into life under the Cultural Revolution in China. Would be nice to know whether all the tidbits of information can be taken at face value, though.
May 17, 2008 rated it it was ok
Shelves: fiction
There were pages of this that I liked, pages that explored how language is rooted in place. There were small stories within the larger novel that were fascinating. But on the whole, it felt like work to finish it, like an unfinished promise.
Valette Keller
Feb 19, 2011 rated it did not like it
Shelves: didn-t-finish
So slow and boring. The few bits of story that happened in some of the definitions were kind of interesting, but the history of the people and the lands an the words was uninteresting and just couldn't finish. ...more
Joey Diamond
Aug 20, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: fiction
There needs to be more fragment fiction. Such a good way to capture all the ins and outs of this small village and the weird experience of being an Educated Youth sent down to the country during the cultural revolution and the folk tales and the doublespeak and everything. Almost everything.
Nancy Lewis
Dec 02, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: china
A familiarity with China and Chinese culture helps when reading this book.
Natasha Telepneva
Sep 26, 2012 rated it it was amazing
An incredible book, strongly recommend!
Jan 08, 2014 rated it it was ok
Read it, interesting enough, but just couldn't get into. ...more
Peter Milligan
Jan 24, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Love the spirit of the book. Revolution!
Kristen Schrader (Wenke)
Couldn't finish it. Just really really boring. And the format's a neat idea, but I needed more of a narrative to draw me in. ...more
Aug 18, 2017 added it
One of the best things I've read this year. ...more
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Han Shaogong (Traditional:韓少功; Simplified: 韩少功; Pinyin: Hán Shàogōng; born January 1, 1953) is a Chinese novelist and fictionist.

Han was born in Hunan, China. While relying on traditional Chinese culture, in particular Chinese mythology, folklore, Taoism and Buddhism as source of inspiration, he also borrows freely from Western literary techniques. As a teenager during the Cultural revolution he w

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