Tongue twister

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 February, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 February, 2004, 12:00am

Han Shaogong is enthusing about The Story of English by Robert McCrum. 'Have you read it? It's very good, really excellent. It follows the English language to America and elsewhere,' says Han, from his home in Hainan Island's capital, Haikou.

McCrum's examination of English is logical reading for a writer such as Han, who has an exquisite sensitivity to language. His latest novel turns on the relationship between dialect and culture.

Inquisitiveness is one of his main reasons for taking part in the literary festival. 'I'm very curious. I've heard the festival is mostly in English and it's Asia-wide. But English isn't the mother tongue for a lot of the writers. So what I want to know is: How do they write in it?'

Han, 51, is one of the mainland's best-known contemporary writers, a reputation boosted last year with the publication of the English version of his fourth novel, A Dictionary of Maqiao. First published in Chinese in 1996, the book was warmly received by critics. It has already won two prizes and has been chosen as one of the top 100 works of 20th-century Chinese fiction by Yazhou Zhoukan magazine.

The book tells the story of life in the village of Maqiao - in a remote, hilly part of Hunan - where locals use different pronouns for a person who is near and one who is far away; where 'barbarian' is used variously to describe a person from America, the provincial capital, Changsha, or even the neighbouring county; where Daoist recluses are left alone even by the most ardent revolutionary cadres; and where women, though downtrodden and without 'speech rights', sing and joke with a ribaldry that astonishes - and pains - sophisticated city dwellers.

It's a life that Han experienced between 1968 and 1974 when he was sent to the area to learn from the farmers as part of Mao Zedong's drive to 'educate' urban youth.

Many of the plaudits aimed at his work have centred on its unusual form. Organised as a dictionary, each entry is as long as a chapter - though of varying lengths - and goes into considerable novelistic and historical detail about the village and surrounding countryside.

'It's a novel in dictionary form,' says Han. 'Most of what's in it I experienced myself, but some of it is fiction.' And what of the entry titled 'Streetsickness', a five-and-a-half-page examination of how villagers feel ill when they go to the city? 'I made that up,' says Han, chuckling.

Above all, the book is about how language is always different, depending on who and where you are. As Han says in the afterword: 'This, of course, is only my own individual dictionary. It possesses no standardising significance for other people.'

Han's sensitivity to language stems partly from his own experience of learning standard Putonghua. Born in Changsha, Han's first language was a local dialect and he was obliged to learn Putonghua while young. 'I realise this is necessary. It's necessary in order for me to be accepted by neighbours, colleagues, shop assistants, policemen and officials,' Han writes.

Decades later, having moved to Hainan Island in 1988, Han is still outside his 'natural' language environment. He divides his time between Haikou, where he edits a magazine, and Miluo county, the scene of his youthful experiences in the countryside and the place where his novel is set.

The location was a spur to his writing. Hainan's dialect is related to one spoken in Fujian province and in Taiwan, and is very different from Cantonese, although Guangdong is close. 'Living here, you have to compare a lot,' Han says.

As regards minnanyu, or the 'southern people's language', as Hainan's main dialect is called, Han says: 'I can speak a little. I can buy vegetables in the market.'

He says the form of the novel is related to traditional Chinese literature, which didn't necessarily differentiate between fiction, history or philosophy. 'We started doing that under influence from the west,' he says. 'So this is a way of returning to a Chinese tradition. Language is a very important thing in our life. Through it, you can really look at a place's society and history.'

Han says Asia's English speakers are highly creative, and he's keen to meet more. 'English in Asia is one big confusion ... I want to go to Hong Kong to meet people and make friends.'

In the Mother Tongue, March 13, 4.15pm-5.30pm, The Fringe Club, $100 (in Putonghua); China from A-Z, March 14, 11.30am-12.45pm, The Fringe Club, $100.