Cultural Lexicology: Maqiao Dictionary by Han Shaogong

By Vivian Lee

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 14, no. 1, pp.145-177

This paper offers a close-reading of Han Shaogong’s controversial novel, Maqiao Cidian from the perspective of Han’s persistent effort to probe the Chinese cultural psyche by tracing the linguistic roots of its social and moral manifestations. Maqiao Cidian, as its title suggests, is a fictional dictionary of a local dialect and each entry tells a unique story that embodies Han’s own vision of Chinese history and culture. In this connection, the intertextual links between this novel and Han’s earlier short stories that share the same concern with language and history are examined to offer a broader view of the writer’s developing style and thematic concerns. Han’s “linguistic” approach to Chinese history and culture is then explored through a close-reading of key entries, i.e. personae and the recurrent “lexicons” associated with them. As Han says in the novel and elsewhere, the strangeness of these cultural lexicons reveal the “ambiguous zones of linguistic consciousness,” which are only made apparent by acknowledging and confronting the “blood stains” whose color has faded in time. As a literary return to the past Han’s cultural lexicology, therefore, signifies not the end of a journey but the beginning of a new one.