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A Mosaic of Fragments as Narrative Practice: Maqiao Dictionary

From: Narrative
Volume 21, Number 3, October 2013
pp. 333-345 | 10.1353/nar.2013.0016

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Polonius:

What do you read, my lord?

Hamlet:

Words, words, words.

(Hamlet, 2.2.189–190)

In his very ambitious mapping of Chinese postmodernism or postmodernity, Wang Ning compiled a long list of postmodernist writers in China, but Han Shaogong’s Maqiao Dictionary appeared too late for Han’s name to be included on the list (Wang 29). Now that the avant-garde has become a historical phenomenon, I find, in rereading Han’s novel carefully, that it is his experimental “dictionary” more than any of his other writings that earns him a place on this list.

Among the many remarkable features of this work is its generic deviance from the conventional schema, its mosaic of fragments organically interwoven into a systematic reference book on a fictional yet realistic local dialect, which nevertheless produces a coherent narrative discourse, in the sense of “a perceived sequence of nonrandomly connected events” (Toolan 8). This fictional dictionary explores the enormous possibilities of linguistics-oriented writing and enriches the definitions of “narrativity” and “narrativeness” (Prince 44) in postmodernist fiction.

Literature in and as Dictionary

Maqiao Dictionary, first published as individual short stories in a Shanghai journal and then as a full-length novel in Beijing in 1996, was applauded by some as “a bold invention” and criticized by others as “a crude imitation in both form and content,” “completely modeled on the Dictionary of the Khazars ” (Zhang) and “a blatant plagiarism” of it (see Shen). Yet it overcame all accusations of plagiarizing the Serbian writer Milorad Pavić’s lexicon novel of 1984.1 The honors it won thereafter include inclusion among the Asian Weekly ’s 1999 list of “The Top 100 Chinese Novels of the 20th Century,” China’s National Literary Award in 2005, and—nominated by its English translator, Julia Lovell—the second Newman Prize in Chinese Literature in 2011.

Since the original title, Măqiáo Cídiăn, is structurally and semantically ambiguous, it is hence capable of being parsed in a number of possible ways. For one thing, “Maqiao” is a proper name, but it is unclear whether it refers to a person or a place, and it is hard to tell at first sight whether the descriptor actually indicates “some quality of the subset” or “a particular subclass of the thing in question,” i.e., epithet or classifier of a nominal group (Halliday 181; 184). Nor is it clear whether “Maqiao” is the compiler or the object of compilation. For another, the few common descriptors that are used in titles of Chinese dictionaries are usually generic or disciplinary, with a few being the publisher’s brands or the compiler’s name, like the Xiandai hanyu cidian (literally, “modern Chinese dictionary”) and the Random House Webster’s Dictionary or the Oxford English Dictionary.

This novel is, as its title suggests, an anthropological and sociolinguistic work, while at the same time being a collection of fictional stories told about history, culture, local customs, and social institutions by a keen linguistic observer. Styling himself a dictionary compiler and editor, Han discursively undercuts “the fabric of fiction” (Chatman 248) by making his work appear to be the result of lexicographical observations. Although the entries seem arbitrarily arranged, they are far more than a lifeless collection of lexical items with explanations; rather, they comprise a series of encyclopedic narratives with anthropological and sociolinguistic weight. Situated in the speech community of a fictional village, Maqiao, the Dictionary records, or rather recounts, things from past and present, from history and culture—people, livestock, fields, rivers, mountains, plants and animals, as well as everyday activities including gossip, small talk, taboos, and productive activities such as sowing and harvesting. In varying lengths and to varying depths, Han combines these small narratives into a mosaic of fragments that sustains a globally coherent narrative, which reflects, on the one hand, the informality and randomness of note-taking in the classical Chinese literary genre of “xiaoshuo ” (fiction or novel, literally “small talk”), and on the other, the fragmented form of postmodern literature.

Maqiao Dictionary literally presents itself as a lexicon of the language (or rather, local dialect or vernacular) of a small village in Hunan Province, China. The...



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