Han Shaogong stunningly unmasked the omnipresent power of language in his Maqiao Cidian (Maqiao Dictionary).
So it seems at once surprising and natural that he should in every page of his new work, Anshi (Intimations), again prompt readers to be aware of the non-verbal world that surrounds them.
"Man could only live in the world of language," Han declared, after he finished Maqiao Dictionary.
However, as he says in the preface of Intimations, published by People's Literature Publishing House late last year, "as soon as the words were uttered, a suspicion crept into my heart."
Han claims that as habitual slaves of language, we might have lost the ability to feel other things. "Without language, we are no more competent than a puppy or a child," he said. "From that time on, I began to try to write a book to challenge this conclusion, to see whether life exists or, rather, how life exists in the places where language has not reached."
Han described Intimations as a dictionary of xiang -- a concept related to yan (words) and yi (meaning) -- which signifies the object that the words describe. He borrowed the word from ancient Chinese literary critical theory.
"A look, a cap, an old station, a shout of the peddler -- all such things turn our memories into a museum and build up real life," Han explained in the preface to his novel. "I always want to closely 'read' these detailed nuances in life, to decipher the meaning of these distinct but disordered old items, just as I would look up their definitions in a dictionary."
He not only looks at those things -- images and appearances -- that can be seen, but also anything that can be heard, tasted, smelt, or touched.
Han said all these things exist on two levels: The first is the actual object or experience, while the other is the version produced by people, especially by the media.
Han has also found that the actual or unadulterated object often goes beyond the world of language, or its existing vocabulary fails to describe the nuances in life.
To put it more simply, the expressions, gestures, scenes and atmosphere which should help define the specific context vanish quickly and leave no trace even in history books, let alone in posterity's memory.
Take, for example, the recent history of Chinese "educated youth," which forms part of Han's life as well.
He can summon from his memory such words as "army uniform," "revolution," "Russian songs," "red sun," and zhongziwu (dance of devotion), which help recreate the atmosphere of the times.
For people who grew up during that period, those words evoke images of hundreds of thousands of youths in military-green "army uniforms," performing a ritualized dance with the little red book in their right hands. Every morning, they sang "The East is Red."
In private, especially when they sat down on a brick bed in a village house far from the chaotic cities, these youth sang the "Russian songs" of the former Soviet Union. Their melodies and love themes somehow helped ameliorate their pain and frustration at being cast off during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).
In his new book, Han attempts to summon these ghosts back in his hope that that part of history will not be forgotten.
Han's deft but rather sad autopsy on his generation's youth is matched by his alertness to the complex post-modernist landscape.
He, like many leading Chinese writers such as Li Rui, Ge Fei and Yu Hua, is worried about the global spread of Western values.
These misgivings have aroused heated debate in recent years among writers and scholars, who have divided into two camps. One has tried to highlight the dangers while the other is accepting of the Western "crusade."
In the book, Han analyses the icons used to describe progress, colonization by media and globalization. He describes the polarization of the world between the haves and the have-nots as power, capital and technology triumph.
He also warns of the numbing effect of the modern cultural industry, which could "concoct anything, even wars, as 'delicious drinks' of entertainment to be comfortably enjoyed."
In Intimations, Han again exhibits a passion for reading 'signs' and exposing meaning, as he did in his Maqiao Dictionary.
Through his eyes, we see that the mark of today's well-to-do classes is scrawny beauty. The smoking of tobacco by Chinese "educated youth" and marijuana by American hippies in the 1960s are both driven by the desire to belong. Nostalgia, such as that felt by former "educated youth" for their afflicted life in the countryside, is nothing but a spiritual masquerade.
All in all, Han's new book, Intimation, should be considered a work in much the same vein as his Maqiao Dictionary.
Critical opinion varies over whether Han has taken his work further with his latest book.
Even a casual reader will find similar qualities in both books: the fragmented writing style, the penchant for decoding signs and unearthing meaning, and the references to the author's "educated youth" experience.
But others point out that central issues in the two books differ.
Maqiao Dictionary reflects the cultural ecosystem of a specific rural community, both idiosyncratic and typical in China. Intimations, on the other hand, shares with the reader his philosophical quest: How does human civilization, especially in its modern form, operate?
Han's obsession might well have started as he wrote Maqiao Dictionary. Even then, he shrewdly pointed out some of the phenomena that could offer new insights into human civilization.
For instance, Han claims there is a difference between the literal and actual meaning of words -- between what is said and what is meant.
Commentators unanimously applauded Intimations for its author's critical spirit and humanist concerns.
However, some believe the book is fundamentally flawed in form. The criticism is reminiscent of that leveled against Maqiao Dictionary some six years ago. There was an ensuing legal battle during which Han successfully defended his name as a writer, not a plagiarist.
As its title suggests, Maqiao Dictionary takes the form of a dictionary. Each of the 115 entries that builds up the main body of the book is part of a vocabulary used either exclusively by the so-called Maqiao people or in other dialects as well.
The entries sometimes include depictions of a Maqiao character or landscape linked to the word or an account of a Maqiao anecdote from which the word is derived. That's when his work yields the most surprises, in its close examination of the literal meaning and the connotations of the word.
Intimations inherits the fragmentary style and loose organization of Maqiao Dictionary.
The book is loosely divided into four parts.
In each part, except for the first one perhaps, readers might find it hard to grasp a strong, dominant theme. Han tends to slip into eloquent free prose, which, although generally ingenious and instructive, is not always related to the theme suggested by the title or preface of the book.
Each of the 113 chapters of the book appears to be independent of the other.
Intimations fully demonstrates Han's theoretical and intellectual aptitude. Some of the chapters could be seen as scintillating theses on cultural anthropology, linguistic politics and linguistic philosophy. The book teems with ideas.
However, some critics claim the book is compromised by its weak narrative.
(China Daily April 21, 2003)