Fictional Dictionaries: Power and Philosophy
of Language in Contemporary Chinese Fiction

By Astrid Møller-Olsen

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 29, no.2  (Fall 2017), pp. 66-108

This essay compares Han Shaogong’s A Dictionary of Maqiao, Yu Hua’s China in Ten Words, and Xiaolu Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers from the perspective of philosophy of language. Drawing on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s concept of language games, Zhuangzi’s therapeutic skepticism and J. L. Austin’s theory of speech acts, the essay includes analyses of propaganda as linguistic magic, relexicalization as subversive activism, and human relationships as acts of translation. It argues that the dictionary format is used experimentally to probe and tickle the prejudices and preconceived ideas that dwell in language, as well as to create an explicit awareness of language as a historically conditioned and culturally varying human construct.