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Review: A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guos

My parents came to visit yesterday, and after a bit of a struggle to find a free space in a sandwich shop at 1pm on a sunny afternoon in Lewes, we had a lovely family lunch, where I discovered that both my children support Wales, land of their grandfather, in the Rugby World Cup.  As they hardly speak to each other, there was no collusion in this decision, it’s just something that they both identify with.

After lunch, my mum helped LD#2 write her name in Chinese, as she wants to use this in her GCSE Art project on identity.  My teacher friend Meg says she hates this particular project, because as she puts it “all the kids with money and horses end up with a lovely project and the ones whose parents barely acknowledge they exist end up with nothing.”  Anyway, so far, Isabel has Chinese writing, some Dr Who memorabilia and a tap dancing medal, which Meg assures me is far less difficult to make a cohesive project out of than it would appear, although I wonder what ideas she would come up with if she had to add a Welsh dragon into the mix?

My mum was getting a bit carried away, suggesting that I could teach my children some Chinese writing, since I have a GCSE in Chinese.  To be honest, this counts for nothing as I have forgotten most of the characters, and I can’t speak it.  I find it really annoying when people say things like, “Oh I’m sure you are much better than you think you are” or “If you got back into it, I’m sure you’d pick it up quickly.”  People have no idea how difficult it is to speak Cantonese.  Chinese people cannot even understand me when I try to speak it because of the way I pronounce the words.  Also, there’s the question of grammar.  As the narrator of A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers puts it, “Chinese, we not having grammar.  We saying things simple way.”  So that’s why they sound funny to us and why I sound funny to them.  The Chinese have traditions of how they say things, rather than rules, which makes it a nightmare to learn.  You can’t really learn it, you sort of have to pick it up by instinct.

Zhuang, the narrator of A Concise… , has come to London from Beijing to study English for a year.  She comes from a peasant family made good, so has known great hardship, and is now cautiously enjoying prosperity.  The book is narrated in her broken English, which improves quickly throughout the book, as within days she meets an older man and moves in with him as his lover.   I found this development rather startling, my first reaction being “Is he some kind of psychopath or what??” but then I returned to the no grammar, no rules concept introduced early on, and decided that the storyline of this novel was a bit like that, Zhuang and her lover behaving outside the accepted grammar of social situations, in the same way that she says things outside of the grammar of Western etiquette, eg as an attempt at conversation “Are you a bit fatter than me?”  (Yes, that’s very Chinese.)

Later on, as Zhuang’s English improves and she is able to put forward opposing viewpoints to her lover (who is never named, just referred to in the second person) they find that they irritate each other quite a lot.  I did struggle with the fact that they hadn’t anticipated this, but then he clearly has his own issues, as does Zhuang.  The bits of Chinese history that I have read about (the way they used to execute criminals, the whole of the cultural revolution etc) is seeped through with violence, and that together with the “group” rather than “individual” mentality has led to a casual acceptance of violence within the family that Chinese people themselves don’t really understand, and that came through well in this book, although I can see that non-Chinese people would find it very puzzling.  Also there’s a strong Chinese tendency to believe that if you are not in danger of famine, debilitating violence or death, everything must be OK, which affects a lot of their outlook.

I did wonder whether this was a play on our tendency to assume that what people can express is the sum total of their thoughts.  Zhuang mentions that many people find her and her fellow language school students funny because of the way they talk, and certainly the beginning of the novel is very funny.  My favourite among many was the amazed description of an English breakfast: “messy scrumpled eggs, very salty bacons, burned bread, very thick milk, sweet bean in orange sauce…” As Zhuang becomes more fluent, she is better able to express the Chinese way of thinking.  It’s easy to see why Christianity went down so well in the pockets of China that missionaries were able to reach, because of the similar themes of self-sacrifice and inner spiritual contentment that both cultures prize so highly.

In the end, the book ends up pondering the question of how best to lead our lives when we have experienced the benefits that both cultures have to offer, while necessarily having to choose between living in one of them, which does not understand the other.  Although the conclusion is as definite as it could be, given the need for a sensible time scale, this book surprised me by being one of the few that made me wish I could have stayed with the character and found whether she managed to work out how to achieve her contentment.



  1. Lovely lead in to the book review 🙂 Wow really would like to see the project put together because the bits and pieces seem so far off from one another!
    This book seems to demonstrate communication barriers very well and how our beliefs and cultures have shaped the walls that have been built up. Will keep an eye out for this one!

  2. It’s a work in progress, and I’m curious to see where the art project ends up too!
    You are right about the communication barriers and I liked the way there was no easy way for the two to get over them. There usually isn’t in real life :-/

  3. I can totally understand why u say Cantonese is hard to learn. It doesn’t follow formulas and has 9 tones. I always feel that unless one grows up and live with it, it’s very hard to learn a language. My son was born in Canada but we mainly spoke Cantonese at home when he was growing up so he learned it the easy way. Now that he’s in his 20’s and living away from home , he can still speak the language. But not with reading and writing. He cannot do those.

    • I think it’s great that your son can still speak. That’s much more important than reading and writing. Although I have to say I had a certain academic interest in the characters when I was 14 or 15. Anyway, the characters have all changed since I was young!

      • The characters were changed into the simplified version only in mainland China when the Communists took over in 1949. For all areas outside of China, like Hong Kong, Taiwan, and overseas Chinese, we still use the traditional writing. As for us in Canada, there’s a large population of Chinese immigrants here so keeping up the language isn’t that hard if one resides in the larger cities like Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary. The spoken version I mean. But of course it depends too on the family situation.

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