A Dictionary of Maqiao

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 2005-09-27
  • Publisher: Dial Press Trade Paperback

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From the daring imagination of one of China's greatest living novelists comes a work of startling power and originalitythe 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 Maqiaois a novel of bold inventionand 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 languagewhere 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 charactersfrom a weeping ox to a man so poisonous that snakes die when they bite himA Dictionary of Maqiaois both an important work of Chinese literature and a probing inquiry into the extraordinary power of language.

Author Biography

Han Shaogong is an award-winning novelist, essayist, and translator. He is also the former editor of the magazines Hainan Review and Frontiers and is the vice-chairman of the Hainan Writer's Association.

Julia Lovell is a translator of modern Chinese literature and a research fellow at Queen's College, Cambridge.



The word for river (jiang in Mandarin) is pronounced gang by Maqiao people (in southern China) and refers not just to vast bodies of water, but to all waterways, including small ditches and streams. In northern China, on the other hand, the word "sea" is used to cover everything from lakes to ponds, which must seem equally strange to southerners. Size, it appears, is something left for people to worry about later.

In English, difference in size can be expressed by "stream" or "river." Yet in French, fleuve refers to rivers entering the sea and riviere indicates an inland river or tributary entering another river, while size remains unspecified. It seems that the world contains many systems of naming, which do not necessarily relate to each other.

Although Maqiao people later on became more specific about size, they still didn't seem to attach much importance to it, only differentiating it slightly by tone. Gang pronounced in a high, level tone refers to a large river, and in a rising tone to a rivulet or stream; it takes some time for outsiders to attune their ears to avoid misunderstandings. As a newcomer to Maqiao, I ran into such difficulties myself when I went off in excited search of a river, following directions from locals. My destination turned out to be a gurgling brook so narrow I could reach the other side in one flying leap. Some dark waterweed lay within and watersnakes would flash by unannounced, but for washing or swimming it was of no use.

Rising-tone gang is very different from high-tone gang. Following this rising-tone gang for a stretch, I wandered alternately between torrents and calm, and then back to torrents. I felt myself scattering in pieces then coming together again, as if repeatedly lost, then found. When I came across an old herdsman, he said not to dismiss the river for its size--in the past, its water had been so oily it could be used to light lamps.

*Luo River

Maqiao's water flowed into the Luo River, a good half-day's walk from the village. There was a little rowboat for crossing, and if the boatman wasn't there then people wanting to cross simply rowed themselves over. If the boatman was there, it cost five cents per person. He moored the rowboat on the opposite side, stuck the boat pole well into the ground, and stood on the bank taking each person's money, one by one, licking a finger to count each note.

Once he'd collected a good handful of notes, he tucked them in a tattered wool hat and pulled it firmly onto his head.

The cost of crossing the river remained the same whether in summer or winter. In fact, the river in summer was much wider, and the water much more turbulent. If it happened to be the flood season, the bottomless brown soup overflowed unstoppably, obscuring all reflections, expelling layer upon layer of mire onto the banks, along with sour-smelling piles of foam which the slow lapping of the water marooned on the shallow bends. But the worse the conditions became, the more people gathered on the riverbanks, patiently waiting for dead ducks, dead pigs, broken tables or old wooden pots, along with bamboo canes split off from bundles, to come bobbing along: fishing them out and taking them off home was called "making a flood fortune."

Of course, sometimes perhaps a woman or a child, swollen up into an enormous white flesh ball, would suddenly roll up out of the waves, their glazed stare scattering people, provoking cries of terror.

Some strong-stomached children would search out a long bamboo pole and amuse themselves by prodding at the flesh ball.

People at the riverbank also fished, by casting nets or with line and hook. Once, as I headed toward the bank, some women in front of me suddenly screeched in panic, turned, and ran-something, it would seem, had happened. When I took a more careful look at where they'd run from, I saw that all the men, old and young, carriers and herders, had stopped what they were doing, ripped off their pants, and run, stumbling, toward the river in a line of ten or more pairs of glistening buttocks, shouting at the tops of their voices. Only then did it occur to me that the muffled noise I had just heard was the sound of firecrackers. That is to say, firecrackers had been set off in the river to blast the fish. After the explosion, the men had pulled off their pants to go and hook the fish. Not wanting to get their pants wet, they hadn't foreseen that their spontaneously coordinated initiative would frighten anyone.

During my six years in Maqiao, I never had much to do with the Luo River, only crossing it when I happened to be walking to the county seat. Speaking of river crossing, five cents often seemed like a lot of money. None of the Educated Youth had much money and once the male students got together, a kind of resistance-hero-versus-Jap-devil-oppressors mentality set in: whenever we crossed the river, we always considered fare dodging. One Educated Youth, nicknamed Master Black, was particularly heroic when it came to this kind of stunt, and once, after getting onto the bank, he took on the role of Underground Worker Sacrificing Himself for the People--giving us a meaningful look, he told us to walk right on and that he'd pay for us all himself. He patted his right pocket, groped in his left pocket, and generally dragged his feet until he saw that we'd walked on a long way, when he snarled at the boatman that he didn't have any money, and even if he did he wouldn't hand it over, so what was he going to do about it? He then picked up his heels and ran. He fancied himself as something of a basketball player, and thought there was no way the old ferryman could catch him up. It turned out, though, that the issue of speed was irrelevant to the old man: shouldering an oar, he ran slowly and trailed further and further behind us, but he never stopped. He followed us for one li, two li, three li, four li. . . . When finally we were staggering along, dripping with sweat, the tiny black dot far back in the distance still held on fast. Everyone truly believed that he would pursue us to the edge of heaven, brandishing the oar as he went, for as long as we hadn't paid him those thirty cents; short of us killing him, nothing else would persuade him to turn back. He wasn't half as clever as us and hadn't thought things through properly; not once did regret at abandoning his boat or the large crowd of customers waiting at the side of the river cross his mind.

There was nothing to be done but meekly gather together the money and send Master Black back to avoid trouble in the future. In the distance, I glimpsed the old man actually giving Master Black his change, his mouth making big open and shut movements, probably to swear at him, but as he was standing against the wind, not a single word reached us.

I never saw the old man again. When the movement to purge counterrevolutionaries began, a pistol in our possession became the target of investigation. We'd got hold of the pistol while waging Cultural Revolution in the city. After the bullets had all been used up, we were loath to give it up, and secretly brought it down to the countryside. When things got tense later on, we were afraid we'd be hauled up on a charge of hoarding weapons, so Master Black dropped it in the river as he crossed and we agreed amongst ourselves to keep our mouths shut. Even now I'm still not sure how the whole business came out into the open. I'm just sorry that we were too clever for our own good, that we reckoned losing it in the river would be the tidiest solution. We hadn't realized that until the authorities found the gun, the case simply couldn't be closed; in fact, they even suspected we were still secretly harboring this gun with intentions of our own. We endured endless grillings and interrogations until winter came and the water of the Luo River crept back, exposing a large stretch of sandy bank. Clutching rakes, we dug deep and sifted meticulously over the place where we'd dropped the gun, determined to excavate our innocence. We dug in the riverbank for a full five days, covering an ever-widening area. Lashed by winds that bit into our bones, we dug over almost the entire Good Earth of the People's Commune, but never heard the clunk of rake on metal.

There was no way such a heavy gun could have been swept away by the current. Neither was there any way anyone could have taken it away, sunk beneath the water as it was.
Strange--where could it have gone?

I could only suspect that this strange river harbored ill feeling toward us for some unknown reason, and was determined to have us locked up.

Only then did we sense its mystery, only then, for the first time, did we size it up properly. It was strewn with the winter's first snow, reflecting a piercing white glow, like a sudden bolt of lightning that had illuminated the world, then petrified for eternity. On the riverbank was a track of light footprints, which had alarmed a few waterbirds into flight. Sometimes they merged into the icy background so that people had no way of differentiating the two, sometimes emerged from nowhere, a few white threads breaking up the dark green surface of the narrow waterway. As I stood in the path of this eternal streak of lightning, tears sprang uncontrollably to my eyes.

There was hardly anyone crossing the river. The boatman was no longer the old guy from before, it was now someone middle-aged, quite a bit younger, who squatted for a while on the riverbank with his hands in his sleeves, then headed home.
I suddenly spun around, but the bank was still empty.

*Savages (and Savages of the Luo Clan)

In Mandarin Chinese, sturdy young men are also known as hanzi (lads). In Maqiao, men are more often called savages, or "savages of the three clans." I haven't been able to ascertain the origins of this "three clans." The ancients had a saying: "Although there are only three clans in Chu, the Chu must extinguish the Qin"; it seems the "three clans" of this saying don't just refer to men.

This term "savage of the three clans" clearly referred to a single person, but it brought with it the mark of the "three clans," as if the individual had to carry out the mission of the "three clans"; I've never managed to discover whether this was a tradition from Chu ancestry. I once had a thought: if a person's bloodline comes from his two parents, but the parents' bloodline comes from their set of four grandparents, the grandparents' bloodline also comes from their set of eight great-grandparents. By this sequencing system, within a few dozen counts all mankind in its vast totality would be traced back to a single forebear, a universal common ancestor. Through this simple operation of arithmetic, the hope expressed in the Chinese saying that "over ocean and sea, all are brothers" ceases to be a beautiful but empty platitude; it is borne out by biological proof. In theory, everyone is descended from all mankind, all people carry within them the accumulated, concentrated inheritance of all mankind, passed down along a few dozens of generations. If so, is an individual still only an individual? As I've commented in an article elsewhere, the concept of the "individual" is incomplete in itself; everyone is at the same time a "group person." I hope that the "three" in Maqiao's "savages of the three clans" is a traditional synonym for "many." So if "savages of the three clans" is another name for "group person," thus emphasizing the group background of the individual, it corroborates my strange hypothesis.

The word "savage" is popular in the south, and for a long time it served as a general term for southerners. Historical records state that in the Spring and Autumn Period (c. 700 b.c.) there existed a Luo Kingdom, also known as the "Savages of the Luo Clan." The Chronicles of Zuo tell us that "in the twelfth year of Lu Huangong's reign, the Chu army divided and reached the Peng. The Luo people wanted to attack them." This is the earliest mention of them. The Luo people settled in southwest Yinan county (modern Hubei), adjacent to the southwestern Ba kingdom. They subsequently named it Luochuan City, which gets a mention in the 28th chapter of The Waterway Records. The Savages of the Luo Clan were also known as the Kingdom of Luozi, and they made use of the Peng River as a natural frontier against fearsome northern invaders. After the Chu army had been seen fording down south, they were forced to put up a fight and won an unexpected victory. But their kingdom was far smaller than the Kingdom of Chu, and in the end peace was made. We know from The Chronicles of Zuo that the Luo people twice fled for their lives. The first time, they fled to Zhijiang County, none other than the historical birthplace of the "Ba people"; the second time was about twenty years later, in the time of King Wen of Chu, when they once again fled to Xiangbei, the area composed of present-day Yueyang, Pingjiang, and Xiangyin county.

The river took on the name of the people--that was how the Luo River got its name.
It's hard to imagine the scene as children and old people were helped along that long trek across the river. From the records available, it appears that after arriving, the Luo people rebuilt the city of Luo, but there is no trace left of it today. I suspect the town of Changle on the bank of the River Luo is the Luo City of old (the two are linked by the similarity in sound between le and luo). It's a small town, positioned between mountains and a river, which I had to cross on my way carrying bamboo from the mountains. A cobblestone street, over whose stones floated the scent of sweet rice wine and the clop of wooden clogs, traversed the entire town, linking it to a damp, bustling wharf. The town's windows and doors were jammed so tightly shut it seemed a human face would never poke out. The local people said that there were iron pillars below the wharf, visible only at low tide, on top of which were written many blurred ancient inscriptions. I had no great interest in archaeology then, and so never went to look. Every time I passed through, I was dazed with exhaustion, and after drinking down a bowl of sweet wine, I'd topple over at the side of the street and fall asleep with my clothes on, before preparing to continue my journey. Plenty of times I was woken in deep winter by a glacial blast of wind. As I opened my eyes, only the distant stars hung above me, swaying as if about to fall.

Excerpted from A Dictionary of Maqiao by Han Shaogong
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