HAN SHAOGONG (1953— ) - The Dictionary

Chinese Literature - Li-hua Ying 2010

The Dictionary

HAN SHAOGONG (1953— ). Novelist. Han Shaogong gained his literary fame by writing about his native land, Hunan, in southern China. In the 1980s, with the publication of his novellas Bababa (Pa Pa Pa) and Nününü (Woman Woman Woman) and a critical essay entitled “Roots of Literature,” Han placed himself at the center of a literary movement later named root-seeking. Together with Ah Cheng, Jia Pingwa, and many other post-Mao young writers, Han sought to rediscover the lost traditions of ancient Chinese culture and literature. Having spent several years as an educated youth in the Hunan countryside where the legend of Qu Yuan, one of China’s most beloved poets, was a treasured folklore, he began to pay attention to traces of the ancient Chu culture, a southern tradition known for its vibrant shamanistic imagination as opposed to the more pragmatic Confucian northern tradition. In the folklores and dialects of the Miao people and the villages hidden in the mountains, isolated from modern civilization, Han believed that he had found the remains of the ancient Chu culture.

Although most critics do not group Han with China’s avant-garde writers, he is truly postmodern in his approach to narrative innovation. While most of the root-seekers settled for the realistic mode, Han chose a separate path. The lack of specific historical reference and the supernatural elements in his novellas Bababa and Nününü, though inspired by ancient shamanistic traditions, are undoubtedly influenced by the magic realism of Latin American literature. In relating an allegorical tale about the decline of a tribe, Bababa calls for the spirit of the patrilinial masculine. Nününü, on the other hand, expresses the desire for the return of the primordial feminine, a mixture of the beautiful and the grotesque womanhood. Han’s later works, especially Maqiao cidian (A Dictionary of Maqiao) and more recently Anshi (Hints), go even furth er in redefining the nature of fiction. Indeed, these are highly unusual fictional works. Maqiao cidian is written in the form of a dictionary, with more than 100 lexicon entries. It describes and analyzes the provenance of local expressions, popular myths, local history, and colorful personalities; the result is an assortment of stories loosely strung together to offer glimpses of a rural community struggling to survive the onslaught of radical changes brought by the Cultural Revolution. Han juxtaposes the local speech with the highly politicized official language. The clashes of these two modes of expression produce many hilarious moments, making ironic comments on the absurdities of that era. In Anshi, Han continues the search for the subconscious continent associated with but beyond language. He explores the possibilities of escaping the control of signs and meanings by identifying the absurd in the midst of the normal and the microhistories buried within everyday speech. Han was awarded France’s Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2003.