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Han Shaogong (1953-)
A Dictionary of Maqiao

Nominated by Julia Lovell

My nomination for the 2011 Newman Prize in Chinese Literature is Han Shaogong: a Chinese writer who intertwines, with exceptional artistry and originality, human perspectives of the local and the global, and whose career exemplifies the creative revolution that has taken place in Chinese writing since 1976. I recommend A Dictionary of Maqiao as Han’s representative work for consideration by the jury: for the humour and humanity of its story-telling; for its unsentimental dedication to recounting the lives of impoverished farmers; for the light-handed skill with which it narrates the tragedies of modern China; and for its experimental form and sophisticated insights into Chinese culture, language and society. A constantly surprising blend of fiction, memoir and essay, A Dictionary of Maqiao combines the variety of a short-story collection with the deep and complex structure of a sustained plot.   
In 1970, as part of Mao’s utopian plan to resettle millions of urban intellectuals in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, the sixteen-year-old Han Shaogong was sent to villages in northern Hunan as an “Educated Youth”, to spend his life planting rice and tea. That plan came to an end in 1976, along with the Cultural Revolution (and Mao Zedong himself), and Han returned to Hunan’s provincial capital Changsha, where he attended college and began a career as a novelist. By the early 1980s, he was contributing to newly critical currents of writing tolerated by the early post-Mao political thaw, producing a series of short stories reflecting on the personal catastrophes caused by Maoism. In 1985, he became spokesman-in-chief for the “Roots-Seeking Movement” – a pioneering group of writers committed (amongst other things) to exploring the fantastical roots of Chinese culture through local histories and legends, and to creating a darkly modernist type of fiction capable of articulating the macabre violence of Maoism. A decade later, Han’s fascination with south China (in particular, with the heterodox traditions of the ancient state of Chu, in present day Hunan) and with the political calamities of the 20th century culminated in his 1996 masterpiece, A Dictionary of Maqiao: a fictional biography of the village to which Han was sent down during the Cultural Revolution. 

The book offers – at first reading – an extraordinary cornucopia of social, cultural and ethnographic information about north Hunan. As its title suggests, the novel is structured as a dictionary (its headings made up of words from the local dialect), narrated by Han Shaogong as an Educated Youth, recording the history, language and customs of the area – from before, during and after the Cultural Revolution. Through entries that range from people and places to dogs and mosquitoes, Han introduces us to a wealth of local singularities that survived into the ruthlessly modernising Maoist era and beyond: such as the misogyny written deep into Maqiao dialect, the worship of food and eating hardwired into the villagers by the constant menace of famine, and the hazy grasp of a linear, national sense of time. At all points, this detail is embedded in the recent and distant past of the region, and of China itself: in the legendary migrations of the first millennium BC; in Qing-dynasty millenarian rebellions; in the chaos and treachery of the Communist revolution; in the horrific famine of the early 1960s; in the appalling political apartheid of Maoism.

But Han’s novel is far more than a dry lexicon of historical and linguistic data. As the book progresses, entries start to assume knowledge of people and words already introduced (the old village leader Uncle Luo; the opera aficionado Wanyu; the topsy-turvy Maqiao understanding of the words “scientific” or “awakened”), thus dictating a linear reading. The novel manages to humanise (with wonderfully understated sympathy and humour) every big, conventional historical narrative upon which it touches. During the Cultural Revolution, the villagers are distinctly un-entertained by the provincial propaganda squad’s dull “proletarian” operas: “Why don’t you have me haul a bucket of shit, while you’re about it?” the local singing star sarcastically asks Han, protesting at being forced to carry a “realistic” hoe on stage. Political persecution transforms Yanzao, the son of a former landlord, into a mute, incapable even of shouting “Long Live Chairman Mao” at gunpoint. Most surprisingly of all, perhaps, Maqiao combines the inquisitive prurience of a small, isolated, rural community, with a raucous licentiousness – even through the puritanism of the Maoist years. Consider, for example, Benyi, the village’s loud-mouthed Party Secretary, and also a practising bisexual; or then again, Tiexiang, his femme-fatale wife, who commandeers Benyi as a husband while conspicuously pregnant; a few years into her marriage, she has a scandalous affair with Maqiao’s most picaresque loafer, Three Ears.

Yet while inspired by the peoples, places and languages of south China, Han Shaogong is in no way bound by them, for he is simultaneously heir to the vital cosmopolitan traditions of 20th-century Chinese letters. Lu Xun, one of the founding figures of modern Chinese writing, helped remake literary language and form during the 1910s and 1920s through his voracious reading and translation of foreign literature. Han – unlike many of his contemporaries – has in the high May Fourth style mastered a foreign language (English), enabling him to discover in the original a number of non-Chinese stylists; he has also translated into Chinese authors such as Milan Kundera and Fernando Pessoa. On his travels abroad (in recognition of his national and international literary stature, he is regularly invited to conferences and symposia outside China), Han’s linguistic fluency enables him to browse bookshops and access literary worlds far beyond those of his exclusively Sinophone peers. 

Like Han Shaogong himself, A Dictionary of Maqiao is as international as it is local and particular. Han places himself within a broad channel of influences, from Confucius to Freud, and he is not afraid to leap between different countries and periods in his musings on the impossibility of creating a universal, normalised language, and on the absurdities and tragedies that ensue when such an attempt is made. His frame of reference encompasses both Chinese and Western history and culture – Daoism, the Crusades, American anti-Communism, modernist art and literature – resulting in a novel that is both fascinatingly Chinese and accessibly Western in approach. He is equally comfortable with conventional and magical realism, with story-telling and philological digressions. The inhabitants of Han’s Maqiao are as universal and three-dimensional as a reader could hope for: Zhihuang, the brutish idiot savant; Zhaoqing, the eccentric miser who comes to a mysterious, violent end; Zhongqi, the village busybody, who commits suicide from poverty and shame; Yanwu, the “strange talent” who’s just a bit too clever for his own good. Although Han’s characters live in Maqiao, “a little village, almost dropped off the map,” we would do well to remember the conviction of the modern Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh that “Parochialism is universal; it deals with the fundamentals.” As explored in Han Shaogong’s Dictionary, the dialect, life and people of Maqiao are fully deserving of their place in world literature.