Han Shaogong's most famous works are the novellas Da-Da-Da and Woman, Woman, Woman, and the novel The Dictionary of Maqiao, translated into English by Julia Lovell in 2003, published by Columbia University Press and The Dial Press.


When he was born, he slept with tight-closed eyes for two straight days and nights, nothing to eat or drink, looking for all the world like he was dead and frightening his family halfway there. Only on the third day did he give a "Waaaaa–" and start crying. When he was able to crawl, he was teased and played with often by the other villagers, learning how to be a human. He very quickly learned two phrases, the first of which was, "Daddy" and the second, "F–ck Mommy". The latter was a little coarse, yet in the mouth of a child had no real meaning; you could think of it as a symbol, or even as a collection of sounds, sort of like "fa–ke–ma–mi".

Five years passed, eight years passed and he still only knew those two phrases; what's more, his eyes were vacant and his movements sluggish. The malformed head was huge, like an upside-down bottle gourd that called itself a head but was filled instead with strange material. After meals, with a few kernels of rice still sticking to the corners of his mouth and an oily shine on his chest, he would go out for a walk, staggering around the stockade and greeting anyone at all, regardless of age or gender, with a genial "Daddy". If you glared at him, he'd understand you, would fixate on some point at the top of your head and give a long, slow roll of the eyes, gurgle out a "F–ck Mommy" then turn his head and run away. It was hard for him to move his eyes; one roll seemed to require the full engagement of his neck and torso before he could pull it off. Turning his head was also difficult, as it rolled around like a pestle on his rubber neck, and had to travel a long arc before he could safely get it turned around. Running was even harder: he had no centre, went heavy on one foot and light on the other, had to tilt his head and body forward in order to make his feet move and stare rigidly out from under his eyebrows so he could see where he was going. He took exaggerated steps, like a runner in slow-motion making his last push to the finish line.

Everyone needs a name, if only to put on a wedding invitation or a tombstone. So he became "Bing Zai".

While Bing Zai had many "Daddies" he never actually met his real Daddy. They said that the father, dissatisfied with his wife's ugliness as well as with the thing she bore him, went down the mountain to sell opium and never came back. Some said that bandits had already "fixed" him, others that he'd opened up a tofu shop in Yuezhou, while still others said he'd spent the little money he had in whorehouses, and they'd seen him on the streets of Chenzhou begging for change. Thus the question of whether or not he still existed turned into a rather unimportant riddle.

Bing Zai's mother grew a garden and kept chickens, and was also a midwife. Women would come to her door and mutter a few short sentences, then she'd grab her scissors and other tools and the two, still muttering, would head out. That pair of scissors cut out shoe patterns, fingernails, pickled vegetables, and the lives of an entire generation, a whole future, on that mountain. She cut out many healthy children, yet the one life of her own body still didn't look human. She visited herbalists, invoked spirits and the Buddha, prostrated herself in front of idols of wood and clay, yet her son never learned his third sentence. Some people whispered that, several years ago, she'd killed a spider while out stacking wood. It had been no ordinary spider: it was as big around as a clay jar, with red body and green eyes. Its web was as thick as woven cloth, and when that went into the fire with the wood it created a stink that lingered on the mountain for three days. Obviously it was a spider spirit she killed, and what was strange about meeting reprisal for offending a deity?

No telling whether any of this got back to her. At any rate, she was taken with a sudden attack of dementia, and got force-fed a mouthful of excrement. That cured her, and she even gained weight - got wide as a millstone, in fact, so that the fat hung in rolls from her waist. Only occasionally she would still roll her eyes up into her head, like her son.

The two of them lived in a lonely wooden hut near the entrance to the stockade. Like the other houses, the pillars and planks of theirs were unnecessarily rough and heavy - the timber here was worthless. Brightly coloured children's underpants and blankets were often hung in front of the door to dry, the dark, leaf-shaped urine stains on their surfaces obviously Bing Zai's handiwork. Bing Zai, snot glistening on his upper lip, would prod earthworms and pinch chicken poop in the yard, and when he was bored of that would run out to people-watch. If he came across the young men coming home from cutting wood or heading up the mountain to "rustle some meat", the healthy pink of their cheeks would excite him, and he'd let out a friendly "Daddy-".

Raucous laughter. Whomever of the men Bing Zai addressed would often go red in the face and stomp over in a rage to curse at Bing Zai or raise a fist at him, or simply go ahead and poke him right in his gourd-shaped head.

Sometimes they would play games with him. One of the men would take Bing Zai's hand and with a smile point to another of his fellows and say cajolingly, "Say Daddy. Quick, say Daddy!" Should Bing Zai hesitate, the other might pass him a handful of dried sweet potato or stir-fried chestnuts. Once he did as he was told, there would be another burst of laughter, followed again by a slap or a poke. Should he come back with an angry "F-ck Mommy" the world would go dark and his head light up in pain.

The two phrases seemed to have different meanings - yet to him, their effects were the same.

He would cry; he started to cry.

Mommy would hurry over, her face black with rage, and drag him home. Sometimes she'd also add a maniacal stream of profanity, clapping her hands and thighs as she swore. After every curse, she would rub the inside of her thigh; this was supposed to heighten the intensity of the language. "Damn vermin, may God give you malaria, crack your heads open! Het's just a simple boy, you so vicious you'd bully a simple boy? God, open your eyes! Spect 'em! If it wasn't for me, who would get these boys out of their mother's belly? They eat their meals and never grow into people, just rot right through, bullying my baby!"

She had married into the village from outside, and her accent was strange and slightly comical. She used "spect" for "see", "tongue" for "say", "lean" for "stand up", "lie" for sleep" and "het" for he, she or it. The dialect had quite an antique flavour. As long as she didn't call anyone a "backward flier", which implied the listener would have no descendants, the young men never took her seriously and would only laugh for a while then disperse.

With the cursing and the crying, the crying and more cursing, life was, at least, exciting, and seemed to be as worth enduring as complaining about. Hair appeared on the cheeks of the young men, their backs slowly bent, and another batch of snotty toddlers grew into boys. Bing Zai was still only as tall as a shoulder basket, still wore his red patterned shorts with the open crotch. His mother kept saying he was "only thirteen years old" and said so for several years, yet his form clearly showed signs of ageing, as wrinkles crept silently across his forehead.

At evening, she would often shut the door, sit him by the fireside below her knee and talk softly to him. The words she used, her tone of voice, even her posture as she rocked lazily in her bamboo chair, were the perfect image of any mother talking to her child:

"You big baby, what are we going to do with you? You don't do as I tell you, you never learn, you eat so much and don't grow up right. I'd be better off raising a dog, wouldn't I, at least a dog could guard the house. I'd even be better raising a pig, at least a pig you can kill for meat. Ah-ah-ah, but what are you good for, you big baby? Not good for anything at all. Grew yourself a dick, but what kind of wife would want to come through this door?"

Bing Zai stared up at this mother who was so much like a mother, stared at the light that glittered in those dead-fish eyes, licked his lips. He didn't find these whining sounds interesting in the least, and pushed back with a forceful "F-ck Mommy".

His mother was, of course, used to this, and paid it no mind, only kept rocking herself back and forth, the bamboo chair creaking rhythmically at its joints. "When you're married, will you remember your mother?"

"F-ck Mommy."

"When you have babies, will you remember your mother?"

"F-ck Mommy."

"When you're a big, powerful official, will you treat your mother like crap?"

"F-ck Mommy."

"All you know how to do is swear. What a sharp tongue."

Bing Zai's mother smiled, her tiny eyes disappearing in a fat neck. To her, these charades behind closed doors were an enjoyment no one had the power to take away.

Translated by Canaan Morse from the novella Da-Da-Da, published by The Writers Publishing House



Issue 20 £6.99

Back Issues £5.20 to £14.50

Visit shop