The novel is organized in the manner of a dictionary. Each of the dozens of entries begins with a word or a phrase used in the village Maqiao in Hunan, to which the author was sent as an Educated Youth in the Cultural Revolution in 1960s. The body of the novel is the explanations of the phrases. The stories, the characters, the sense of the village and its past, builds up definition by definition.
Language being what it is, a novel structured in this way is difficult to translate, but Lovell does a magnificent job and opens up the village in a way that makes sense in English too.
You pass through a village in China or anywhere, and the faces and the houses are blank walls. But of course there are myriad stories behind the blankness and the walls. Every village is different and, as Han points out, every WORD is different, depending on who is using it and when.
In fact, he concludes, everyone should have his own dictionary. Any dictionary which tries to standardize something as volatile and shifting as words is doomed to failure.
The madness of the shift from the old world to the communists arrived. The land reform, the Cultural Revolution. The craziness of those decades. And also, interestingly, the shift through to today. How the Maqiao village kids of today have lost or are losing the thread and heritage of their small village world.
The word "lazy" has negative connotations for the older generations, but a positive connotation for the kids.
"Lazy, that's exactly what we are," one boy tells him. "I'm lazy around the house too, I've never cut firewood, never carried water, I still don't know how rice is washed and boiled, never done it."
Han tells stories, using the cast of characters of the village over a landscape of several decades, revealing the simplicities and complexities of village life, the tragedies and little kindnesses, the fickleness of fate. In the depth of its description of this one little village of a couple of dozen households is encompassed the breadth of China, and beyond: there is much here that addresses the human condition as much as the Chinese condition.
He tells of how Maqiao men traditionally prefer to marry women who are obviously pregnant – by whom, it does not matter – in order to prove their child-bearing capability. Or about the farmer who absorbs so much pesticide as he sprays the crops that he becomes more poisonous than snakes.
He tells of two trees in the center of the village and how fundamental they are to village life, and what happens when they are cut down, on the orders of the cadre from the county seat, to make benches. Of how a former landlord prefers to lead the life of a hermit rather than submit to the new system. Of how, even during the years when the fields were collectivized, the peasant still pissed on the plots that had belonged to their families before, to nurture them.
Also, about how the opposite of "collective" for this village was not individual ownership in a Western sense, but family ownership – that is, collective ownership on a smaller scale. "'Private' in the West means private to the individual," Han writes. "Any talk of property between husband and wife or father and son brings with it clear demarcations of private rights. For Maqiao people, the term "private family" signifies something public within the private. There was never a division between this and that, you and me, within a family."
It is little illuminations such as this, plus tales of adultery and starvation and cruelty and heroism, which make the book worth reading.
Han discusses the shifting meaning of words, and how they reflect the shifting lives of the people who use them.
"Consider Maqiao: a little village, impossible to find, almost dropped off the map, with a few dozen households in the upper and lower village combined, a strip of land, set against a stretch of mountain. Maqiao has a great many stones and a great deal of soil, stones and earth which have endured through thousands of years. However hard you look, you won't see it changing," he says. "On the other hand, Maqiao is not, of course, the Maqiao of former days, or even the Maqiao of a moment ago. A wrinkle has appeared, a white hair has floated to the ground, a withered hand has turned cold, everything moves silently on."
He worries that language itself may be a cause of troubles and wars and change, with examples that range over Chinese history, and also beyond. Han is an educated man trying to interpret the world from his own experience, which is all anyone can do. That his experience includes six years living in a village as backward and basic as any in China allowed him to write this fascinating and surprisingly accessible book.
A Dictionary of Maqiao by Shaogong Han; HarperCollins; English translation by Julia Lovell; May, 2004; paper ?13.69 at amazon.co.uk.