I open my notebook again, looking at my everyday’s study, my everyday’s effort. I see myself trying hard to put more words and sentences into blank pages. I try to learn more vocabularies to be able to communicate. I try to put the whole dictionary in my brain. But in this remote countryside, in this nobody’s wonderland, what’s the point of this? It doesn’t matter if one speaks Chinese or English here; it doesn’t matter if one is mute or deaf. Language is not important anymore. Only the simple physical existence matters in the nature.
A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers explores some profound questions about language, identity, culture, communication, and love. Its depths aren’t immediately apparent, though, because Guo approaches these issues carefully through voice and form, illustrating them through her narrator’s experiences and gradually changing self-expression, rather than addressing them directly.
The novel is narrated by Zhuang Xiao Qiao (or “Z,” as she comes to be called because most people she meets can’t actually pronounce her name), a young Chinese woman who moves to London to “make better life through Western education.” She’s dubious about the goal: “I not caring if I speaking English or not,” she says: she’s doing it at her parents’ urging (“Why they want changing my life?”) and she’s wary about what it will be like (“how I living in strange country West alone?”). Once arrived, she attends language classes and carries her Chinese-English dictionary with her everywhere. Looking words up isn’t enough, though: the novel emphasizes that knowing definitions still leaves plenty of room for confusion and misinterpretation—because language carries not just nuances and idioms but also assumptions, contexts, whole layers of culture that make one-to-one translations impossible. “After grammar class,” Z says early in her lessons,
I sit on bus and have deep thought about my new language. Person as dominate subject, is main thing in an English sentence. Does it mean West culture respecting individuals more? In China, you open daily newspaper, title on top is “OUR HISTORY DECIDE IT IS TIME TO GET RICH” or “THE GREAT COMMUNIST PARTY HAVE THIRD MEETING” or “THE 2008 OLYMPICS NEED CITIZENS PLANT MORE GREENS.” Look, no subjects here are mans or womans. Maybe Chinese too shaming putting their name first, because that not modest way to be.
Z’s English narration captures the misfit between her complex thoughts and the limited language she has available to express them; one of the cleverest aspects of the novel is the gradual closing of that gap as her English becomes more fluent—though as she reflects, the process is also one of internal transformation, as she changes herself in response to her new experiences of life in England and travel abroad.
Though it is structured as a love story, between Z and an Englishman she meets at the cinema and then moves in with, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers avoids the cliché of setting the lovers up as representatives of different, sometimes clashing, cultures who resolve their differences by finding some third way—a new language, either literally or metaphorically. In fact, their relationship is an uneasy one from the beginning, or at least it was to me. For one thing, he is quite a bit older, and because Z is so focused on learning English (and learning about England), there is a pedagogical dimension to their interactions that doesn’t sit well, even before we start to know him well enough to doubt he’s a keeper. He isn’t always comfortable with it either, bursting out at one point,
It is too tiring to live like this. I cannot spend my whole time explaining the meaning of words to you, and I can’t be questioned by you all day long.
As Z’s linguistic education continues, he also comes to feel threatened by it, protesting her habits of constant reading and writing. In her turn, Z gets frustrated with him, as well as with the need for constant effort in her communication:
I am sick of speaking English like this. I am sick of writing English like this. I feel as if I am being tied up, as if I am living in a prison . . . I wish I could just go back to my own language now. But is my own native language simple enough?
“Why do we have to study language?” she goes on to ask; “Why do we have to force ourselves to communicate with people? Why is the process of communication so troubled and so painful?”
I think these questions may go to the heart of the novel: the specific differences between Chinese and English are important but are also just a device for arguing that communication through language is never actually transparent. Thinking about the novel this way helped me make sense of the attention it pays to the lovers’ sexual relationship, and to Z’s exploration of her own sexuality outside of it as well. It’s not that physical sensations are perfectly straightforward: sex, like language, is something we understand only in the terms we learn from our culture. A lot of effort goes into trying to find words for what we experience, though, including all of our emotions and sensations, a struggle Z’s efforts with English literalize. Sometimes it seems as if the novel, or at least Z, suggests that Chinese culture is better at integrating the mental and the physical world. “In China,” Z tells her lover,
we don’t name all these kinds of diseases. Because we think all the illnesses actually causes from very simple reason. If you want to solve your illness then you must start to cam your whole body, not just taking pills every time.
As she gains confidence in her English and in their relationship, Z also pushes back against her lover’s didacticism, which (she angrily points out) tacitly assumes she has nothing to teach or contribute to his understanding of the world:
You never really pay attention to my culture. You English once took over Hong Kong, so you probably heard of that we Chinese have 5,000 years of the greatest human civilisation ever existed in the world . . . Our Chinese invented paper so your Shakespeare can write two thousand years later. Our Chinese invented gunpowder for you English and Americans to bomb Iraq. And our Chinese invented compass for you English to sail and colonise the Asian and Africa.
Tying those Chinese achievements to acts of war, violence, and imperialism is not exactly claiming superiority—just relevance. Perhaps it is not a novel about these two cultures but about cross-cultural engagement more generally, and about how language both does and does not create mutual understanding.
One good thing Z’s lover does (though it too arises from a paternalistic impulse that is a bit cringe-inducing) is send her off to travel around Europe: “I think you should see a bit of the world without me,” he tells her. Her trip does add to her experience and her knowledge of yet more cultures; it’s another layer to the novel as a story of her individual development. “I think it’s important you go by yourself,” her lover says, and while there’s some selfishness to his motives (at least, I thought so), because he is chafing a bit against their proximity, he’s right that—young and unworldly as she is when she arrives in London—she will benefit from a chance to think about who she is when she isn’t defined either by what she recalls as a highly regimented life in China or by their romantic entanglement.
It seemed significant to me that Z’s Bildungsroman is international in that way. Although it is very much and very specifically a novel about differences between particular countries and cultures and languages, I finished the novel thinking that (as with the issue of languages) to some extent its Chinese-English set-up is a device to make us question how far these differences really matter—if we could only find ways to communicate between or across them. “I want to become a citizen of the world,” Z says at one point. Lots of details about A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers make that notion seem naïve, and perhaps the way her relationship with her lover turns out is more evidence for a pessimistic reading. But I didn’t think their affair was meant to represent a “solution.” It’s a stage in Z’s journey, which ends, as seemed right, in her reflections on what she has learned so far, and with memories of travel and togetherness that will shape where she goes next:
The address on the envelope is familiar. It must be in west Wales. Yes, we went there together. I remember how it rained. The rain was ceaseless, covering the whole forest, the whole mountain, and the whole land.
The novel begins with Z stumbling through her sentences, but by the end her language is close to poetry—the hardest form to translate, but the most beautiful to speak.